Orange and Red on Red by Mark Rothko

Mark Rothko

Orange and Red on Red, 1957, Oil on canvas, 175 x 168.6 cm, The Phillips Collection; Acquired 1960, © 1998 Kate Rothko Prizel & Christopher Rothko / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; Any reproduction of this digitized image shall not be made without the written consent of The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.

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Lost in Red

Mark Rothko (1903–70) is known for his prolific production of large canvases combining a palette of meticulously-chosen colours with a different dominating colour (or colours) in each. It is these creations which earned him a pronounced reputation on art’s world stage. Orange and Red on Red is one of these creations.

While Rothko’s work is not a direct response to this passage from Mark, it is nevertheless possible to make connections between this painting and the Gospel narrative, especially if one is of the Christian faith. In the first place, Rothko himself said, ‘There is no such thing as good painting about nothing’ (Rothko and Gottlieb 1943), and declared that he was ‘interested only in expressing basic human emotions—tragedy, ecstasy, doom and so on’ (Bishop 2017: 12). Few feelings could be more basic or more powerful than those incited by the idea of the afterlife. Hence, the dominant red colour would make it easy to associate it with the constantly repeated reference of Mark 9 to the fire which ‘is not quenched’. Since the worm that never dies is equally repeated along with the fire, that too may be awakened in a viewer’s imagination. In addition, the white brushstrokes that appear on the canvas do bring to mind the shape and colour associated with worms.

Rothko’s works have been hailed as ‘an experiential connection between the viewer and the art’ (Bishop 2017: 11), as they invite people to engage with the painted surface, to ‘dive’ into it and make it their own. So there seems every reason to welcome the religious associations that can awaken when the texts and images of Christian faith come into dialogue with this work—when, following its creator’s advice, the faithful attempt to ‘experience’ it from their particular perspective.

The worm that never dies may consume all, until everything blends into a captivating, colourful emptiness.



Bishop, Janet. 2017. Rothko: The Color Field Paintings (San Francisco: Chronicle Books)

Rothko, Mark and Adolph Gottlieb. 1943. ‘Letter to Edward Alden Jewell, Art Editor, The New York Times, 7 June 1943’, printed in E. A. Jewell, ‘The Realm of Art: A Platform and Other Matters; “Globalism” Pops into View, 13 June 1943’, The New York Times, p. 9

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