Mark Rothko, born in Russia but raised in Portland, Oregon, attended Yale University before moving to New York City in 1925. Like many American artists, he worked at first in the Social Realist style dominant in the 1930s, but in the 1940s, influenced by the Surrealism of Joan Miró, he painted biomorphic figures that hovered over grounds suggestive of landscapes. By 1947, however, Rothko had arrived at the compositional format he explored for the rest of his life: two or three soft-edged colored rectangles or squares floating against a field of another color. Intensely introspective and even spiritual, Rothko's colored, landscapelike fields carry associations of nature while creating a hierarchical order. In Yellow, Blue on Orange, the yellow shape at the top, which could represent the sun in a misty sky, darkens almost imperceptibly as it meets the blue shape below it, which suggests the ocean and thus, in effect, creates a horizon.
Rothko's paintings, with their glowing, unbroken color and lack of noticeable brushwork or other visual incident, represent a kind of luminous void. Rothko himself refused to describe his paintings in formalist terms and insisted upon their spiritual meaning: "I am interested only in expressing the basic human emotions—tragedy, ecstasy, doom, and so on—and the fact that lots of people break down and cry before my pictures shows that I communicate with those basic human emotions. The people who weep before my pictures are having the same religious experience I had when I painted them."
Rothko's centralized compositions are iconic, and the softly brushed, indefinite edges of his shapes make them hover in spatial indeterminacy. The meditative simplicity of the works invites quiet contemplation. As with certain works by such nineteenth-century landscape painters as J.M.W. Turner and Caspar David Friedrich, viewers may imagine themselves rising from the ground and floating weightlessly into the painting as a disembodied spirit. Like these earlier painters, Rothko means to evoke the sublime, but he replaces their representations of figures in nature with a rich and timeless abstraction.