This extraordinary group of recently discovered works by Mark Rothko superbly chronicles the artistic journey which the artist began in the 1920s before arriving at his internationally recognized style. Demonstrating his unassailable talent as a draftsman, watercolorist and painter, this group clearly charts the evolution of his painterly practice from the cherished scenes of Brighton Beach through to his enigmatic nude figures which eventually morph into his surrealist inspired images: the precursor of his Multiforms. Rothko's roots in the traditions of the New York School were combined with his growing interest in cubism and surrealism and resulted in paintings that transformed the tradition of American figurative painting. Instead, they opened up a whole new level of painterly understanding to the American audience.
Like Rothko's later Subway paintings, his delightful watercolor Brighton Beach captures a quintessential scene of New York City. Yet in stark contrast to the oppressively strict geometry of his paintings of the subterranean world of the subway, the palpable sense of joy that can be felt in the fluidity of Rothko's line captures perfectly the sense of freedom felt by the visitors at the seashore. It is with works such as Brighton Beach that we begin to detect the first signs of Rothko's formally figurative style dissolving into abstraction as the expressionistic quality of the ocean waves lapping against the shores blends with the delicate figures on the beach and bustling activity on the boardwalk. This flattening out of the composition was inspired, in part, by the work of Milton Avery, an artist who Rothko admired immensely. Avery's studios were open to many younger artists (including Rothko, Adolph Gottlieb and Barnett Newman) and the older artist's wisdom was sought out by those who were keen to make their mark on the art world. Avery's wife, Sally, recalled the many visits that Rothko made to see Avery, "[Rothko] dropped in almost every day to see what Milton was painting. We spent summers together on Cape Ann where every day we met at the beach for swimming and every evening we looked over the days work" (S. Avery, quoted by D. Waldman, 'Mark Rothko: The Farther Shore of Art,' Mark Rothko, 1903-1970: A Retrospective, exh. cat., The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 1978, p. 27). Indeed, Rothko himself was well aware of the influence that Avery had on the early part of his career, and paid tribute to the impact his friend had on him whilst delivering the artist's eulogy in 1965, "There have been several others in our generation who have celebrated the world around them, but none with inevitability where the poetry penetrated every pore of the canvas to the very last touch of the brush. For Avery was a great poet-inventor who had invited sonorities never seen nor heard before. From these we have learned much and will learn more for a long time to come" (M. Rothko, ibid).
Avery's ability to minimize the range of forms and color in his paintings whilst still maximizing their compositional significance had a lasting impact on Rothko. Soon the delicate features on some of Rothko's earlier figurative works began to dissolve into larger passages of more ethereal color. In Untitled (Standing Nudes) a pair of spectral figures stand in front of a decorative fireplace, their ghostly apparitions standing in stark contrast to the appearance of the textured surfaces of the walls and fireplace. Like Matisse and Picasso before him, Rothko's figures begin to embark on a journey away from figurative representation and, as Oliver Wick in his catalogue essay for the critically acclaimed exhibition of Rothko's works on paper at the Galerie Beyler in 2005, pointed out, this journey would form the basis of the rest of the artist's painterly career, "The theme would become the basis of Rothko's definition of the relationship between the viewer and the painting. The viewer, metaphorically blind, is thrown back upon the sheer act of perception, upon his own vision. Neither too much anecdotal content nor previous knowledge should influence his orientation in front of the image. Confronted with painterly and narrative denial, the viewer would be isolated with his own perception and gain insight into his workings" (O. Wick, 'Mark Rothko: Seeing Blind and Drawing as Remembrance Commemorated,' Mark Rothko: Works on Paper 1930-1969, exh. cat., Galerie Beyeler, Basel, 2005, p. 7).
In Untitled, a delicate yet powerful work on paper painted in the mid-1940s, Rothko takes a further step to solidify the themes which would come to dominate the rest of his career. Against a background of monochromatic bands of gray (a theme to which he would return in his last great series, the Untitled (Black and Gray) paintings from the late 1960s) Rothko presents a series of indeterminate forms which appear to float across the surface. Taking his lead from Surrealism and the language of abstraction we can begin to detect the emergence of the familiar blocks of color that were to become the signature elements of his later masterpieces. With forms such as those found in Untitled, Rothko began to investigate a new language of reality, or plastic reality as the artist termed it, which explained the artist's philosophy of abstract art. "Proceeding from the key concept of the 'reality of tactility' as opposed to the 'reality of appearance," curator Oliver Wick explained, "Rothko described a tangible plasticity which would set painted shapes in motion, advancing and receding. This would endow the flat image with a physical, material reality, as if it were a very low relief. 'Plasticity,' he [Rothko] explained, 'is the quality of presentation of a sense of movement in painting.' Plasticity thus defined, became the fundamental condition of Rothko's pictorial reality and hence the precondition for a 'real' perceptual experience on the part of the viewer" (O. Wick, 'Mark Rothko: Seeing Blind and Drawing as Remembrance Commemorated,' Mark Rothko: Works on Paper 1930-1969, exh. cat., Galerie Beyeler, Basel, 2005, p. 17). Over the next few years, Rothko would continue to meld these delicate and wisp-like forms into solid blocks of color that would result in some of the greatest masterpieces of abstract art.
These three works offer a rare opportunity to witness the emergence of a painterly style that would come to dominate the world of 20th c. abstraction and propel Rothko to become one of the most respected artists of his generation. These three works were given to the present owners' family by the artist himself, as the result of a long and deep friendship and having remained in a private collection for so many years, they have remained undocumented up to this point. Their emergence into the public arena affords an unrivalled opportunity to examine the evolution of an artist who came to lead the canon of 20th c. art and re-write the rules for all who were to follow.
The following work is being considered for possible inclusion in the forthcoming Mark Rothko catalogue raisonné of works on paper, compiled by the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.