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Mark Rothko (1903-1970)
Mark Rothko (1903-1970)

White Cloud

Mark Rothko (1903-1970)
White Cloud
signed and dated 'MARK ROTHKO 56' (on the reverse)
oil on canvas
66 3/8 x 62 7/8 in. (168.9 x 159.7 cm.)
Painted in 1956.
Sidney Janis Gallery, New York
Gimpel Fils, London
E.J. Power, London
Pace Gallery, New York
Acquired from the above by the present owner, 1976
P. Heron, "London," Arts 32, May 1958, pp. 22-23.
D. Anfam, Mark Rothko: The Works on Canvas, A Catalogue Raisonné, New Haven and London, 1998, p. 418, no. 546 (illustrated in color).
M. Auping, A. Karnes and M. Thistlethwaite, Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth: 110 Masterworks, London, 2002, p. 285.
London, Institute of Contemporary Art, Seven Paintings from the E.J. Power Collection, March-April 1958, no. 8 (illustrated).
New York, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum; Houston, Museum of Fine Arts; Minneapolis, Walker Art Center and Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Mark Rothko 1903-1970: A Retrospective, October 1978-September 1979, no. 136 (illustrated in color).
Sale Room Notice
Please note that the catalogue raisonné literature reference for Mark Rothko's White Cloud, 1956, was erroneously omitted from the catalogue:

D. Anfam, Mark Rothko: The Works on Canvas, A Catalogue Raisonné, New Haven and London, 1998, p. 418, no. 546 (illustrated in color).

Lot Essay

"I realize that historically the function of painting large pictures is painting something very grandiose and pompous. The reason I paint them, howeveris precisely because I want to be very intimate and human" - Mark Rothko (M. Rothko, quoted by M. Auping, A. Karnes and M. Thistlethwaite (eds.), Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth 110, London, 2002, p. 284).

Painted during the early years of his mature career White Cloud is a work that combines Rothko's highly saturated use of color with an ethereal sense of spirituality to produce an intensely powerful work that speaks to the human condition. Rothko once stated that he wanted his paintings to establish such a "presence" that "when you turned your back to the painting, you would feel that presence the way you feel the sun on your back" (M. Rothko quoted in J. E. B. Breslin, Mark Rothko: A Biography, Chicago 1993, p. 275). This sense of "presence" is clearly contained in works like White Cloud where Rothko's radiant rectangular fields of warm hues together with a delicate area of almost translucent white resonate against one another with such monolithic power that, like the colorful geometric clouds casting shadows over a landscape, they seem to determine and manipulate the mood and emotions of the viewer enveloped by them.

This pivotal period of Rothko's career was characterized by his use of warm, sunny colors which he used for a short, but enormously creative period before evolving toward the more somber preponderance with red, blue, and maroon that marked his later work. This can be seen in the subtle variations of soft reds, orange, pinks and lavender that emerge from the numerous layers of paint that Rothko applied to White Cloud 's picture plane before layering a lustrous white area that crowns the upper portion of the canvas. The resulting effect is that the entire surface of the canvas appears to come radiate as the subtle chromatic variations draw the viewer into this stunning work.

For Rothko, who wanted the viewers of his paintings to stand close to his work and immerse themselves within them, this direct experience of a work of art by immersion was a fundamental part of his intention. Part of a generation that, in the aftermath of the horrors of the Second World War, sought an art rooted in fundamental human values, Rothko strove to commune with a universal humanness that he believed, particularly in the aftermath of the war, was under threat from the modern world. The abandonment of all figurative realism, all objective reality, and the reliance on color, form, scale, and a sense of space alone to express his own deep feelings, was part of this deep-rooted desire to reach out to and communicate directly and on a very fundamental level with what he believed to be a universal humanity. Towards this end, Rothko turned to the example set by the ancients: "The known myths of antiquity are the eternal symbols upon which we must fall back to express basic psychological ideas.... Modern psychology finds them persisting still in our dreams, our vernacular, and our art, for all the changes in the outward condition of life.... The myth holds us, therefore not thru (sic) the possibilities of fantasy, but because it expresses to us something real and existing in ourselves" (M. Rothko, 'The Portrait of the Modern Artist,' in Art in New York, a program on WYNC, New York, quoted in M. Tuchman, New York School: The First Generation, Greenwich, 1971, p. 139).

White Cloud is unusual in Rothko's oeuvre for having what appears to be a metaphoric title. In purging his work of all recognizable figural elements, the artist generally titled his works with just a color, a number, or more often than not, simply Untitled. However in the mid-1950s he gave a small number of paintings, including the present work, more descriptive titles including Light Cloud, Dark Cloud, 1957, and White Cloud Over Purple, 1957. However, this did not mean a weakening of his determination to remove all recognizable objects from his work, and despite its title, this work should not be read as illusionary: "there is no landscape in my work," he once said. (M. Rothko, quoted M. Auping, A. Karnes, and M. Thistlethwaite (eds.), in Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth:110 masterworks, London, 2002, p. 285). In an early statement written in conjunction with Adolph Gottlieb and Barnett Newman, Rothko had asserted: "We are for the large shape because it has the impact of the unequivocal. We wish to reassert the picture plane. We are for flat forms because they destroy illusion and reveal truth" (Letter from A. Gottlieb and M. Rothko published in The New York Times, 13 June, 1943, partially drafted by Barnett Newman.) Their aim was to establish a pure and direct art elimination of "all obstacles between the painter and the idea and between the idea and the observer"--a kind of painting that embodied what Rothko called simply "tragic idea." Towards this end, and in the same way that he had witnessed children doing during his twenty two years teaching them in Brooklyn's Center Academy, Rothko "heroified" the two fundamental elements of picture making-space and color-establishing them, and only them, as the sole protagonists of his work.

White Cloud was included in Rothko's 1978 retrospective at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York and later travelled to the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, and the Los Angeles Museum of Art. At the time this exhibition was regarded as the most complete survey of his work to date, and hung with other works from his wide ranging oeuvre, White Cloud stood out as powerful example of the artist's expressive use of color, on which the critic Hilton Kramer commented at the time: "Color itself was now the to be the vessel of magic. And it is color--soft, luminous and cloud like--that lends an air of enchantment to the exhibition, and captivates the eye" (H. Kramer, "Rothko-Art As Religious Faith," The New York Times, 12, November, 1978, p. A1).

The combinations and depth of color that Rothko manages to disperse across the surface of the White Cloud are part of the dramatic process that unfolds in Rothko's work. These effects of these dramas are personal to the viewers who witness them, yet the warm, rich hues that vie for dominance across the surface of this work show the first signs of the narrative intensity that characterize the artists career: "I think of my pictures as dramas, the shapes in the pictures are the performers. They have been created from the need for a group of actors who are able to move dramatically without embarrassment and execute gestures without shame. Neither the action nor the actors can be anticipated, or described in advance. They begin as an unknown adventure in an unknown space. It is at the moment of completion that in a flash of recognition, they are seen to have the quantity and function which was intended. Ideas and plans that existed in the mind at the start were simply the doorway through which one left the world in which they occur" (M. Rothko, "The Romantics were Prompted," Possibilities, No. 1, Winter 1947/8, n. p.).

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