Mark Rothko (1903-1970)
Property from the Collection of Edward R. Broida
Mark Rothko (1903-1970)

Homage to Matisse

Mark Rothko (1903-1970)
Homage to Matisse
signed, titled and dated 'MARK ROTHKO 1953' (on the reverse)
oil on canvas
105 5/8 x 51 in. (268.3 x 129.5 cm.)
Painted in 1954.
Estate of the artist
Marlborough A.G., Lichtenstein/Marlborough Gallery, Inc., New York
McCrory Corporation, New York
McKee Gallery, New York
Acquired from the above by the present owner, 1984
M. Kozloff, "Mark Rothko's New Retrospective," Art Journal, 1961, pp.148-149.
L. Alloway, "Notes on Rothko," Art International, 1962, p. 92 (illustrated).
D. Ashton, A Reading of Modern Art, New York, 1971, p. 26 (illustrated).
B. Robertson, "The Museum and the Democratic Fallacy," Art in America, July-August 1971, p. 64 (illustrated in color).
B. O'Doherty, American Masters: The Voice and the Myth, New York, 1973, p. 181 (illustrated in color).
M. Feldman, "The Anxiety of Art," Art in America, September-October 1973, p. 91 (illustrated in color).
I. Panicelli, "Mark Rothko: Mostra Didattica," Galleria Civica d'Arte Moderna, December 1977, p. 14 (illustrated).
Mark Rothko at the Walker, exh. cat., The Walker Arts Center, Minneapolis, 1979, p. 40 (illustrated in color).
Mizue Magazine, Tokyo, 1979, p. 53 (illustrated).
J.M. Vastokas, "The Roots of Abstraction: An Introduction," Artscanada, May-June 1979, p. 25 (illustrated in color).
E. Charrihre, "La triade et le monochrome," Art Press, 1988, pp. 14-17.
J.L. Ferrier, ed., L'aventure de l'art au XXhme siècle, Paris, 1990, p. 581 (illustrated in color).
L. Saunders, ed. "Clement Greenberg with Peter Fuller," Modern Painters, 1991, p. 21 (illustrated in color).
Mark Rothko, exh. cat., Kawamura Memorial Museum of Art, Japan, 1995, p. 14 (illustrated in color).
M. Stokstad, Art History, New York, 1995, p. 119 (illustrated in color).
D. Kuspit and L. Gamwell, Health and Happiness in 20th-Cenutry Avant-Garde Art, Ithaca, 1996, n.p., (illustrated in color).
J. Weiss, Mark Rothko, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1998, p. 253 (illustrated in color).
D. Anfam, Mark Rothko: The Works on Canvas--Catalogue Raisonné, New Haven, 1998, p. 401, no. 521 (illustrated in color).
R. Rosenblum, On Modern American Art, New York, 1999, p. 110.
J. Baal-Teshuva, Mark Rothko 1903-1970: Pictures as Drama, Cologne, 2003, p. 38 (illustrated in color).
New York, Museum of Modern Art; London, Whitechapel Art Gallery; Amsterdam, Stedelijk Museum; Palais des Beaux-Arts de Bruxelles; Kunsthalle Basel; Rome, Galeria Nazionale d'Arte Moderna and Paris, Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, Mark Rothko: A Retrospective Exhibition Paintings: 1945-1960, January 1961-January 1963, n.p., no. 26 (illustrated).
New York, The Museum of Modern Art, New American Painting and Sculpture: The First Generation, 1969.
Venice, Museo d'Arte Moderna Ca'Pesaro and New York, Marlborough Gallery, Mark Rothko, June-October 1970, n.p., no. 9 (illustrated in color).
Kunsthaus Zürich, Mark Rothko, March-May 1971, pp. 54-55, no. 32 (illustrated in color).
Kunsthaus Zürich, Aspekte Konstruktiver Kunst: Sammlung McCrory Corporation New York, January-February 1977, n.p., no. 146.
New York, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Mark Rothko, 1903-1970: A Retrospective, October 1978-January 1979, n.p., no. 107, (illustrated in color).
Orlando Museum of Art, The Edward R. Broida Collection: A Selection of Works, March-June 1998, p. 129 (illustrated in color).

Lot Essay

Once he had arrived at his mature style of painting in 1949 Rothko rarely titled his works. His simple formula of 'breathing' paint into a sequence of feathery-edged rectangular fields of pure color bespoke a world of emotion and feeling beyond the everyday realm of objects, names or things. Striving for the transcendent by invoking a sense of the sublime, Rothko's paintings were not, as he famously said, 'pictures of an experience,' they 'were an experience'. His paintings therefore had little need for names, titles or descriptive explanations.

As the title Rothko gave to this work suggests, Homage to Matisse is a rare exception. It was painted in 1954, the year of the great French painter's death and it is equally rare in that it is a public declaration by Rothko of the debt he owed to another, and in particular, European artist. Like many artists of the New York School Rothko was often wary of allowing his work to be seen as in any way indebted to the then all-powerful French tradition in painting. Wishing to be seen as an independent artist and originator in his own right, Rothko was also ideologically opposed to the so-called "School of Paris" for what he saw as its lack of moral and political conscience in an age of profound crisis. Indeed the students he taught in California in the late 1940s remember him and Clyfford Still "yak, yak, yakking against the French tradition" and William Rubin has recalled that throughout his life Rothko "was always anxious lest he should be taken for a painter in the vein of Matisse, whom he nonetheless dearly loved" (cited in Anna Chave, Mark Rothko, Subjects in Abstraction New Haven 1989, p. 57, and W.Rubin, "Mark Rothko 1903- 1970", New York Times, 8 March 1970).

For Rothko to publicly declare a "Homage to Matisse" was consequently no small matter for the artist even though by 1954 Rothko was well established as one of the leading artists of his generation. It was also fitting. More than any other single artist, it was Matisse's example that had informed much of the direction as well as the ultimate liberation of Rothko's art between 1930 and 1949. In the 1920s Rothko had enrolled himself in the class of Max Weber a former pupil of Matisse's short-lived art school in Paris and in the 1930s Rothko shared a close friendship and working relationship with Milton Avery who, responding to Matisse's example, had inspired Rothko with his landscapes and female figures flattened into lyrical expanses of opaque colour. Essentially though it was Matisse's example and in particular, paintings like his Red Studio of 1911 that had given Rothko the courage to pursue his great breakthrough of 1949 when the representational forms, objects and symbols of his art finally disappeared and dissolved into his now familiar rectangles of pure non-objective color. The Red Studio was acquired by New York's Museum of Modern Art in the late 1940s and was first permanently installed in the museum in 1949. As Rothko told Dore Ashton, soon after the painting went on show he would repeatedly "spend hours and hours" sitting in front it. "When you looked at that painting," he said, "you became color, you became totally saturated with it" as if it were music (Rothko cited in J. E. B. Breslin Mark Rothko : A Biography, Chicago 1993, p. 283).

Rothko's own 'heroifying" of color, transforming it into the sole subject and drama of his art and his attempt to make it a direct experience for the viewer in the same way as music is clearly owed much to his understanding of Matisse's work and the elder artist's similar pursuance of an "inner vision" and his search through color for what he described as an underlying "essence". In a statement that parallel's much of Rothko's thinking, Matisse had declared in 1908 that "underneath this succession of moments which constitutes the superficial existence of beings and things and which is continually modifying and transforming them, one can search for a truer, more essential character" (Henri Matisse cited in D. Ashton, op cit).
Both Rothko and Matisse were responding to the essentially Symbolist idea that there is a direct and ultimately transcendent correspondence between color, sound, sensation, feeling and memory. It is an idea that, as Dore Ashton has pointed out, was perhaps best expressed by Stephan Mallarmé whose poetry Matisse declared he, almost religiously used to read each morning ' as one breathes a deep breath of fresh air.' Mallarmé Ashton writes, "had told himself as a youth that he must purify language and use it so that it could 'describe not the object itself but the effect it produces.' He spoke of a "spiritual theatre " and an "inner stage" where absences (equivalent to the [blank unpainted] whites Matisse employed [in the Red Studio] evoked his inner drama" (ibid).

These notions effecting a "pure" language beyond the imagery and objecthood of phenomenal reality--of a "drama" that spoke directly to the "inner" being of the viewer--were of course shared by Rothko, though Rothko articulated these same ideals in ways that were often phrased within the context of his own great influences such as Nietzsche, Greek tragedy, Shakespeare and Mozart. "Free of the familiar," Rothko declared in his appropriately titled text The Romantics were Prompted, "transcendental experiences become possible pictures must be miraculous a revelation, an unexpected and unprecedented resolution of an eternally familiar need." The "artist's real model", he asserted, is an ideal which embraces all of human drama" (Mark Rothko "The Portrait and the Modern Artist" broadcast with Adolph Gottlieb, Art in New York, WNYC, October 13, 1943, published in Adolph Gottlieb: A Retrospective New York, 1981, p. 170.).

That Matisse's work approached this "essence" or "ideal" by moving beyond phenomenal reality--painting as he often declared, not "things" but "the difference between things"--made him in Rothko's eyes what he described to Irving Sandler as "the greatest revolutionary in modern art". According to Sandler and somewhat typically Rothko immediately followed this statement of admiration with a clear disassociation between his own work and that of Matisse's, stating that he himself was "no colorist" and that morally he wished his art to be completely disassociated from that of all such "hedonistic painters" (Rothko cited in A. Chave, op.cit p. 57).

Executed at the height of what was arguably the most hedonistic and happy period of Rothko's career, in which the artist seems to have repeatedly revelled in a joyous and vibrant use of resonating color, Homage to Matisse is a clear, unashamed and unequivocal pictorial statement about the inherent similarities between the two artists' work. Consisting of a very simple scaffolding--three contrasting rectangles of strikingly different colour (red, yellow and blue)--the painting evokes a warm and joyous feeling. Tall and thin, the warmth simplicity and verticality of the work recalls the format of many of Matisse's balcony views onto the Mediterranean in which interior and exterior light and color radiate and interact in such a way that it appears that sunlight itself has become the subject of the painting.

Seeming to radiate a warm energy, the delicately brushed and feathery edges of the rectangles generate a hazy sense of shimmering light and heat. The deep rich calm of the lower blue rectangle contrasts strongly with the seemingly shifting and mobile transparent energy of the blended red and yellow rectangles at the top of the painting. In the magical transparent orange light generated by these two overlapping blocks of color, Rothko's masterful brushwork achieves an effect close to that of light pouring through a stained glass window. In establishing this effect, Rothko may have again been reminded of Matisse and in particular the stained glass windows he made for the chapel in Vence. This chapel was certainly in Rothko's mind a few years later when he contemplated his first series of mural paintings and it was also the primary motivation behind the Menils' later commissioning of Rothko to create a non-denominational chapel in Houston.

Using simple monolithic blocks of color to convey a pictorial drama that borders on the mystic, the powerful simplicity of this work demonstrates the radical new language of color that Rothko, at the same time as Matisse had done with his late cut-out paintings, had formulated in the early 1950s. In new and very different ways both artists were responding to the Symbolist belief that the simplest elements of painting, abstract color and form, could be used to speak powerfully and directly to the inner being and that in this way, they were creating approximations of the language of the human soul. As persuasive today as it must have been when it was first painted, Homage to Matisse is a fitting testament to this belief from one great artist to another.


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