Mark Rothko

Four Darks in Red

Not on view



Oil on canvas

Overall: 101 13/16 × 116 3/8in. (258.6 × 295.6 cm)

Accession number

Credit line
Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; purchase, with funds from the Friends of the Whitney Museum of American Art, Mr. and Mrs. Eugene M. Schwartz, Mrs. Samuel A. Seaver and Charles Simon

Rights and reproductions
©Kate Rothko Prizel & Christopher Rothko/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Four Darks in Red exemplifies Mark Rothko’s darker palette of the late 1950s, when he increasingly used red, maroon, and saturated black paints. Four dark rectangular areas of different proportions dominate the composition, simultaneously emerging from and receding into a luminous red ground. Rothko’s method of layering many coats of paint, along with the special reflective qualities of his color mixtures, gives his paintings an inimitable depth and incandescence. When this nearly ten-foot wide canvas is seen close up (as the artist intended), the viewer is engulfed in an atmosphere of color and intense visual sensations. The weightiest dark color is at the top of the canvas while a softer roseate glow emanates from below, creating a reversal of visual gravity. Rothko believed that such abstract perceptual forces had the ability to summon what he called “the basic emotions—tragedy, ecstasy, and doom.”  


  • Where We Are, Kids

    Mark Rothko, Four Darks in Red, 1958

    Mark Rothko, Four Darks in Red, 1958


    Narrator: Red, red, and more red.

    Mark Rothko used very thin washes of color on top of very thin washes of another color to give paintings like Four Darks in Red a luminous depth.

    What happens to the colors the longer you look?

    In some cases you might be able to spot one color glowing through the thin layer of paint on top of it. Crimson here, rust there, and a rich maroon other there. And look at the second shape from the top—you might almost imagine getting lost in that deep, textured black. For Rothko, the drama was in the play of the colors and shapes.

    Rothko wanted viewers to get close to his art and experience the big emotions he felt while painting. How does it look from the middle of the room? How is it different if you get closer—three or four feet away from the canvas?

  • America Is Hard to See

    Mark Rothko, Four Darks in Red, 1958

    Mark Rothko, Four Darks in Red, 1958


    A.M. Homes: And I think for me, looking at Mark Rothko paintings was, for lack of a better description, the first time I saw myself in art. 

    Narrator: Novelist A.M. Homes.

    A.M. Homes: I also think it’s an incredibly compressed field which always amazes me that he is able to take everything from horror and ecstasy and pure, sheer rage and the most sublime, delicate, wonderful experience and boil it all down and render it as indivisible. Each element is there and you can't even begin to break apart which one is which.

    I think that he achieves in his paintings what I'm trying to achieve in fiction. Which is that expression of the things that go unseen and unsaid and unarticulated. And I'd never seen anything—color, gesture, texture—represent an emotional experience so fully. So that meant an incredible amount to me.

    The story of me and Mark Rothko is that when I was a kid, my father, who's a painter, used to go every weekend and look at art in Washington. And every weekend, I would eventually go with him. Because in addition to being a lover of art, my father was also incredibly picky about what foods we ate and what we could have in the house. And he was a real health food fanatic early on. So we had no cookies, we had no cake, we had no twinkies or hohos. We also couldn’t have grapes that weren’t picked by union workers and no iceberg lettuce and no soda. But if you went with my father to look at art, at a certain point he could break down and he would take you to the cafeteria. And in addition to not allowing sweets he also kind of got overwhelmed in the cafeteria because I think it was his big moment as well and so you could pick out whatever you wanted. And you could usually pick out more than one thing. So you could have pie AND Jello which I think was almost anti-religious in our family. And I would go with him, and I would sit in museums all over Washington, looking at art for hours and hours and hours, and having this accidental art education where I would just stare at the painting sitting on benches waiting for him. And in the end it turned out it was really incredibly marvelous. And I discovered Mark Rothko among many other artists. And had very nice pie at the end of the day. And I think it's in a large part how I became who I became.

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