Mark Rothko (1903-1970)
Property of The Phillip Schrager Collection
Mark Rothko (1903-1970)


Mark Rothko (1903-1970)
oil on paper mounted on panel
48½ x 40½ in. (123.1 x 102.8 cm.)
Painted in 1969.
Marlborough Gallery, New York
Private collection, Connecticut
M. Knoedler & Co., New York, 1981
Stephen Mazoh & Company, New York
Acquired from the above by the present owner, 1983
The Pacesetter Corporation's Collection of Contemporary Art, Omaha, 1983-1986, vol. 2, n.p. (illustrated in color).
C. Ross, "Schrager's Masterpiece," One Magazine, October 2003, p. 20 (illustrated in color).
New York, Stephen Mazoh & Company, Twentieth Century Works of Art: An Exhibition, November-December 1983, pp. 34-35, no. 16 (illustrated in color).

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Sandra Sublett
Sandra Sublett

Lot Essay

The following work is being considered for inclusion in the forthcoming Mark Rothko catalogue raisonné of works on paper, compiled by the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

"This conviction of greatness, the feeling that one was in the presence of great events, was immediate on encountering his work....This conviction has never faltered" (M. Rothko, Writings on Art, New Haven and London, 2006, p. 149). These are Mark Rothko's words, which he read as part of the eulogy for his friend and mentor, Milton Avery, yet in every sense they apply equally to Rothko's own legacy. An artist of both conviction and greatness, Rothko's special genius can be understood from the evidence of one of his last works, Untitled, 1969. The year before, due his declining health, doctors forbade from working on a scale larger than forty inches in height. So Rothko turned to more intimately scaled works with renewed energy, exploring and refining his vision in a stunning group of works that comprise the majority of his output up to his death in 1970. In so doing, Rothko produced among the richest and most inspired creations of his oeuvre, whose surfaces in particular are as vivid, subtle and complex as any he had painted before. Untitled is startling for its seeming opaqueness, unmodulated colors and static forms when compared to earlier works. Yet where light seems trapped rather than released, where forms appear static rather than floating, if one stands close to the work--as Rothko wished--what emerges are myriad sensory cues, cascades of multidirectional striations, variable interstices of chromatic layers, and a luminescence that hovers over the surface, flickering in counterpoint under raking light. "[My work] must first be encountered at close quarters, so that the first experience is to be within the picture. This may well give the key to the observer of the ideal relationship between himself and the [picture]" (M. Rothko, quoted in D. Anfam, Mark Rothko: The Works on Canvas, (New Haven and London, 1998, p. 75). Such proximity to Untitled reveals a compelling surface, a 'skin' that shimmers, pulsates and radiates its commanding facture.

Rothko animates a dark field through variations of finish, as if the housepainter's brush he preferred to use was tipped on edge as a kind of ending gesture to the arc of a broad arm movement. One can observe, too, how paint is built up along the margins and how the broad field is painted by the brush's bristles. In opposing curved corners, rhyming swirls and drips made with a finer brush are placed in dialogue with their opposite, soft, rectilinear corners that seem to stop just short of their encircling lavender edge. Almost a self-standing creation, Rothko's margins are a microcosm of painterly detail that open up luminescence through hue, as if to backlight the entire field. These impressions achieve a sense that the work could almost break free of its planar constraints. Further, beyond the "edge" is yet more edge; indeed, Rothko painted the wood support the same seductive lavender, energizing the hue beyond its frontal reach to place the entire work in relief. These complex artistic interventions apply as well to Rothko's layering of his surface. Untitled's charged painterly field is rife with event, not least within the stunning aquamarine horizontal band running in counterpoint to the intensities of lavender and dark blue, which make up the surrounding area. This band of overlapping layers of translucent and opaque paints is entirely seductive, suggesting pulsating rather than rigid horizontal geometries, where line and angle accede to tactility. In addition, this band seems both to rise from the surface as the darker area recedes behind it and to splinter into varied chromatic facets within its own rectilinear shape. Comprised of cobalt blue mixed with high-keyed greens, it illuminates the paper's darker field like an inspirited form, advancing in slow motion toward the viewer.

Rothko worked within the tradition of Abstract Expressionism insofar as his works are expressionist statements of materiality. But rather than foregrounding gesture or what has been called "action," Rothko's surfaces become expressionistic through the subtle play of surface event--the trace of the brush bristles, the luminosity revealed in chromatic layering--in effect, the quality of his finish. Rothko contrasted his surfaces with those of the younger artist, Ad Reinhardt. "The difference between me and Ad Reinhardt," he said, "is that he's a mystic. By that I mean that his paintings are immaterial. Mine are here. Materially. The surfaces, the work of the brush and so on. His are untouchable" (M. Rothko, quoted by T. Crow, "The Marginal Difference in Rothko's Abstraction," in G. Phillips and T. Crow (eds.), Seeing Rothko, Los Angeles, p. 110). While initially seeming nearly monochrome, Reinhardt's surfaces proclaim their lack of texture and are voided, almost without color, while Rothko's surface in Untitled uses the dark pigment for its own reflective properties. Reinhardt wipes clean his brush marks, while Rothko foregrounds them. "Rothko sought expression not by color alone, but by the painted quality of color" (T. Crow, ibid., p. 110).

Rothko's attention was riveted by the elements that produce what we understand to be the "quality" of color--its "density, opacity, viscosity, texture, and the degree of reflectance produced by the varying substance of the paint and the mediums and extenders that could be mixed into it" (Ibid., p. 110). Dan Rice, Rothko's studio assistant during his final years, talked about Rothko's method for creating the sort of interactivity of painted layers that is achieved in works such as Untitled. Using a reactive combination of color and gloss, Rothko laid down a pigmented ground that he would cover with a series of thin paint layers, varied in tone and color. Throughout application of these top layers, "he would sort of feather it [the paint] so that the dark or lighter color would show through; he would isolate this so that the two didn't intermix on the surface as he feathered it in" (D. Rice, quoted in L. Carlyle, J. Boon, et al., "The Substance of Things," Rothko: The Late Series, exh. cat., Tate Modern, London, 2008, p. 77). The specific effect of glossy incandescence in Untitled was achieved by mixing egg (both yolk and white) with powdered pigment. "The overall effect of layering in this way would be so miniscule on the surface that you would have the effect of luminosity without seeing the layers" (Ibid.). This quality of fluorescence is all the more vivid in Untitled because one can see that the artist also used his brush in a way that allowed the underpainting--the shifting effects of matte and gloss, hue and value--to come through, depending on the viewer's orientation.

Each play of active and static qualities in Untitled, whether in texture, coloration, stroke or form, are revelations of artistic intention. Whether energizing his border with painterly gestures, incising his surfaces through the trace of bristle, creating recessive depth behind the surface, or revealing the interplay between gloss, matte and hue, Rothko's ambitions were both universal and entirely human. Untitled affords the viewer both an intimate experience of the artist's foundational craft as well as the greater scope of his totalizing vision. "Pictures must be miraculous. The picture must be for [the artist] as for the viewer, experiencing it later, a revelation, an unexpected and unprecedented resolution of an eternally familiar need" (M. Rothko, '"The Romantics Were Prompted, 1947," in M. Rothko, Writings On Art, op. cit., p. 58). Untitled offers that "unexpected and unprecedented" experience in a manner both immediate and enduring.

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