Mark Rothko, along with the other members of the New York School, was greatly affected by the Surrealist movement, an influence that intensified with the influx in New York of European artists following the outbreak of World Wall II, including Andre Breton, Max Ernst, Andre Masson, Matta. The Surrealist principle of automatism lead to improvisation in the act of painting and the use of dream imagery as a way to delve into the collective unconscious. Like the Surrealists, the Americans were looking to communicate universal truths and meanings.

Although Rothko never joined the Surrealist circle, many of his works of the mid-1940s contains biomorphic forms, symbols, and emblems favored by the Surrealists. The paintings Rothko showed in his 1945 solo exhibition at Peggy Guggenheim's Art of The Century gallery in New York suggest that by this time he was less interested in the friezelike compositions of his mythic works. In Slow Swirl by the Edge of Sea, the figures have broken out of grid and move freely in a less defined space. New to the painting is a sense of transparency that would become central to his mature works.

Painted during his courtship with his second wife, it is likely that Slow Swirl by the Edge of Sea represents Rothko and Mell. The work was initially acquired by the San Francisco Museum of Fine Art but was traded back to Rothko and hung in the family's East 95th Street townhouse from 1961 until Mell's death in 1970. The gyrating, swirling figures are reminiscent of the graceful calligraphic drawings of Masson and Matta.