Duncan Phillips's empathetic response to Mark Rothko's paintings revealed the collector's keen sensitivity to the overwhelming emotional impact of their color. Phillips, who had always readily responded to color as the vital visual manifestation of artistic personality, viewed Rothko's work as the most moving, penetrating statement in the medium, the culmination of the endeavors of Chardin, Delacroix, Bonnard, and Avery.
It is not clear exactly when Phillips became interested in Rothko. According to the artist's friend and colleague Theodoros Stamos, Phillips had not thought of collecting Rothko by 1950, when, during a stay at the Phillips's home, Stamos mentioned Rothko in relation to Bonnard: "I told him that I think its important that he get at least one [Rothko], and I told him why. I told him that he is so strongly related to Bonnard that if he looked at some black and white Bonnards he would see it clearer, and then focus on the color. We discussed that for a long time." Phillips presumably often recognized that Rothko's color expanses were non-delineated and intuitively arranged within limited space in a manner similar to that of Bonnard, one of the collector’s favorite artists. By 1956 Phillips was searching for a Rothko to purchase for his collection, and in 1957 he held his first group exhibition that included the artist; from this exhibit Phillips purchased Green and Maroon (1953) and Mauve Intersection (1949). In 1960, he acquired Green and Tangerine on Red (1956) and Orange and Red on Red (1957) from a one-person show that he held at his museum.
Thoroughly convinced of Rothko's signal importance in the art world, Phillips began to examine the sources of the artist's intentions, even drafting some short texts, which were never published. During his 1960 visit to the artist’s studio, he asked Rothko whether color was indeed his foremost concern; Marjorie recalled that his response was simply, "No, not color but measures." Acknowledging Rothko's intellectual approach as well as his ambiguous treatment of space, Phillips commented: "mysterious layers of paint...suggest depth in spite of their flat mat quality; they seem to come forward and envelop you at times." Nevertheless, other writings by Phillips focus on Rothko's color and its embodiment of emotion and profound meaning:
In the soft-edged and rounded rectangles of Mark Rothko's matured style there is an enveloping magic which conveys to receptive observers a sense of being in the midst of greatness. [The colors]...cast a spell, lyric or tragic, which fills our existence while the moments linger. They not only pervade our consciousness but also inspire contemplation. Our minds are challenged by the relativities; the relative measures of the two horizontal presences,...each acting on the other....Color-atmosphere in painting is as old as Giovanni Bellini and his mountain backgrounds....But in Rothko there is no pictorial reference at all to remembered experience. What we recall are not memories but old emotions disturbed or resolved.
By 1960 Phillips was prepared to make Rothko's work a focus of installations planned for a new adjoining building to accommodate his collection, referred to as the "annex." When designing the new apace, the Phillips’s designated a specific room for Rothko’s painting. They were probably aware of Rothko's desire to have his paintings exhibited in small groups. The resulting room was small with gray walls, each designed to accommodate one painting; the lights were kept dim to enhance the resonance of the color expanses; and chairs were added for prolonged, comfortable viewing. From the outset, the room was intended as a meditative respite, and was even referred to by Phillips as a type of "chapel”.
Such an idea, with its implicit understanding and appreciation of the artist's desire to have his paintings relate one-on-one to the viewer without distractions, appealed greatly to Rothko and was the first commitment to such a presentation of his work by an American museum. Rothko took an active interest in the room, paying visits and often suggesting alterations. One such visit occurred on a snowy day in January 1961, when he was in Washington for Kennedy's inauguration; at the time the room displayed the museum's three mature oil paintings (the fourth, Ochre and Red on Red, 1954, was added to the group upon its purchase in 1964). Rothko expressed slight dissatisfaction with the arrangement and lighting, and the museum assistants, anxious to accommodate him, made changes on the spot. Duncan Phillips, who had been away, returned the following week, noted the changes, and immediately had the room returned to its original installation—an action revealing the collector's consistent aesthetic preferences. Nevertheless, one of Rothko's requests was granted; in order to reduce any distractions, a single bench replaced the chairs.
Rothko treasured the atmosphere of the Phillips's Rothko Room. Although the Rothko paintings in The Phillips Collection were not created to be displayed as a group, their combination in a space that has all the qualities of a sanctuary set a standard for future commissions for the artist, including the Holyoke Center at Harvard University, 1961-62, and the Institute of Religion and Human Development (the Rothko Chapel) in Houston, 1964-67. Of all of these installations, the Phillips room remains the only existing installation of Rothko's paintings that was designed in collaboration with the artist himself. The Rothko Room has remained to this day in The Phillips Collection’s galleries, and it continues to engage visitors as an ideal setting in which to view Rothko's hypnotic canvases to their utmost potential.