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Number 18

On view

Number 18

Artist: Mark Rothko (American, born Latvia, 1903 - 1970)

Date: 1951
Medium: Oil on canvas
Overall: 81 3/4 x 67in. (207.6 x 170.2cm)
Framed: 84 x 70in. (213.4 x 177.8cm)
Credit Line: Museum Purchase
Object number: 53.216
Label Text
Challenge yourself to look at this painting for one minute, for three minutes, for five minutes. Look closely at the surface, step back to take in the entirety. What do you see? Can you enter this painting in any way?

Mark Rothko sought to convey great themes of the human condition – tragedy and suffering and transcendence. He did not want to illustrate with symbols or allegories what emotions or spiritual awakening look like. He struggled instead to paint true states of being. This painting is an invitation to contemplation.

Mary E. Murray
Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art

Text Entries

Mark Rothko’s  Number 18 of 1951 marks the emergence of his mature imagery and form. In the painting, orange, purple-red, and white rectangles at the top and a large white rectangle below float on a pink field, their indefinite edges making them seem to emerge from and fade into the field.

The forms of Number 18 were abstracted from the more recognizable imagery of Rothko’s earlier works. Here, as in other mature works, Rothko eliminated specific representational references in an effort to arrive at more evocative signs and metaphoric suggestions of his underlying subjects. For example, the very configuration of large and extended narrow shapes can be traced back to the seated and reclining figures of earlier semi-abstract, biomorphic paintings such as that in The Entombment c. 1946 (Edith Ferber, New York City). In 1952 Rothko remarked to William Seitz that in his mature work he had “substituted” color shapes for figurative ones.(1)

Rothko loved what he considered the root cultures of Western civilization, the Greco-Roman and Christian Renaissance. In the early works, many figure-like forms and architectonic fragments were adapted from Greco-Roman art in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In his youth, he had studied ancient culture and custom by absorbing the then-popular studies of ancient traditions, The Golden Bough and Babel and Bible. His favorite book, Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy, gave him an understanding of Greek tragedy. These interests led to his frequent choice of classical subjects as is evident in works such as Sacrifice of Iphigeriia of 1942 (private collection) and Tiresias of 1944 (Estate of Mary Alice Rothko). In similar fashion, Rothko admired and drew from Christian ritual and tragedy in such works as Gethsemane of 1945 (private collection) and the numerous “Entombments.” As these latter sources and subjects suggest, he was fascinated with antiquity and the Renaissance tradition not simply because of the aesthetic qualities of their visual forms, which, in any case, he progressively modified and abstracted. Rather, it was because the subjects as well as forms served to evoke, he thought, the inwardly archaic—the psychic, cultural, and emotional roots of the West.

To these allusions to the cultural past Rothko added references to humanity’s natural history. Many early works consist of compositions of emergent biological forms in horizontal sequences that reflect scientific diagrams of paleontological and geological time scales. In mature works such as Number 18, Rothko alludes to such evolutionary and natural process by softly brushing the top edge of the orange and the bottom edge of the white rectangular forms so that they begin to fluctuate and expand as in natural agitation and movement.

Number 18 is a configuration of fluctuant, summary, rectangular shapes packed with allusions. It is a compound of vestiges of his earlier figural, cultural, and natural forms, a heightened emblem charged with Rothko’s concepts of human origins. Number 18 fuses his lifelong themes of the ancient, traditional, and natural roots of humankind’s evolving inner life.



1. Rothko, interview with William Seitz, January 22, 1952, on file at the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.. Bonnie Clearwater, “Selected Statements by Rothko,” in Alan Bowness, Mark Rothko 1903-1970, exhibition catalog (London: The Tate Gallery, 1987), p. 73, noted that the artist said: “It was not that the figure had been removed, not that the figures had been swept away, but the symbols for the figures, and in turn the shapes in the later canvases were new substitutions for the figures.”

Kate Rothko Prizel & Christopher Rothko / Licensing by ARS, New York, NY.