Orange and Red on Red was executed during the artist's mature years in the mid-1950s, when he painted scores of large canvases. These works have a similar format, but vary widely in mood, depending upon their color and internal proportions. Rothko insisted that his art concerned the distillation of human experience, both tragic and ecstatic, to its purest form. His goal was to abandon any visual obstacles detracting from the central idea. Rothko’s paintings, heavy with implied content and emotional impact, ventured beyond abstract representation to embody the drama of humanity. Through the purity of his paintings, their effect on the viewer became more direct and incisive.
In Rothko's compositions, the rectangles and their surrounding space are given equal importance as presences. He intuitively adjusted his forms, always working with a frontal arrangement of horizontal or vertical rectangles. Rothko paid close attention to their height, width and edges, their distance from the sides of the canvas, and their interrelationships. All of his shapes have soft edges that fuse into their surrounding space. Their dominance depends on their color, which Rothko blended and layered to create luminosity and surface texture. He frequently applied paint with rags, rubbing wet colors together, so that few gestures were visible; at other times he painted with slightly built-up brushstrokes for textural variation. In many cases translucent underlayers of color are visible, evoking a quality of inner light.
Orange and Red on Red is an example of Rothko’s highly emotional works with its high-keyed pigments and vibrant colors. Through countless color manipulations executed on a large scale—an approach comparable to that of a composer arranging musical notes—he created powerful, timeless absolutes of human sensation ranging from exultation to torment. Rothko's mature paintings, such as Orange and Red on Red, were executed on a large scale, enhancing their dramatic effect. Painting large works allowed viewers to place themselves inside the composition, heightening their personal experience. The large paintings dominate the surrounding wall space—immersing the spectator in their power and enhancing their mystical essence.