Mark Rothko (1903-1970)
stamped with the Mark Rothko Estate stamp (on the reverse)
acrylic on paper laid down on board
39 1/8 x 25 1/2 in. (99.3 x 64.7 cm.)
Painted in 1969.
Marlborough Galleria d'Arte, Rome
Marisa del Re Gallery, New York
The Greenberg Gallery, St. Louis
Rosenberg Fine Arts Ltd., Toronto
Private collection, Geneva
Anon. sale; Sotheby's, London, 23 June 1999, lot 50
Acquired at the above sale by the present owner
New York, Marisa del Re Gallery, Selected Works on Paper, March-April 1982.
Annandale-on-Hudson, New York, Bard College, Edith C. Blum Art Gallery, On Paper, April-May 1982.

Brought to you by

Sara Friedlander
Sara Friedlander

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.

Painted in a fiery palette of colors that are evocative of a sunrise, Untitled by Mark Rothko is infused with heat and drama. Shimmering flat forms hover above one another, simple echoes of the rectangular shape of the paper, but resonant with spiritual intensity. The founding layer of intense crimson and cerise pink is just visible at the edges of the work, forming a slender, vivid frame. Rising out of it, rendered with wide, urgent brushstrokes, is a field of saffron yellow mediated with chalky white, dominating and pushing almost to the edges of the composition. Finally, a dusky pink oblong sweeps horizontally across the center of the work, disrupting the vertical thrust of the picture plane, bringing a sense of depth and focus to a characteristically enigmatic, all-enveloping painting.

Painted in 1969, a year before his death by his own hand, Untitled is one of Mark Rothko’s final paintings. By this stage in his life he was in poor health, too weak to paint on the large-scale canvases that had become customary to his practice. Although instructed by his doctors to confine himself to making paintings under 40 inches in height, he continued nevertheless to paint with energy and verve. Not unlike Matisse who devoted his final years to paper cut-outs so that he could work in spite of weakness, he began to work almost exclusively on paper. He would regularly instruct his assistant, Oliver Steindecker, to cut at least twenty sheets from a large roll of paper that would then be taped onto large plywood boards that acted as easels. Rothko would then paint very rapidly, making up to fifteen works in a day. Steindecker later noted that when he showed up to the studio each morning, Rothko was often already there, working. The texture of the brushstrokes of Untitled attests to the fact that it was still physically energetic: they reflect how he would often use his whole body, and not just his wrist. The effect of removing the tape that fixed the paper to the board especially appealed, for he frequently left an unpainted white border. Leaving a slender gap at the edge of his compositions became increasingly integrated into the formal aspects of Rothko’s late works, as in the present painting.

Although executed on a smaller scale, the works on paper completed in the latter period of Rothko’s career are still able to convey transcendence, achieved by a measured correspondence between color, touch, symmetry and tone. They represent an experienced culmination of the artist’s signature strategies. From the late 1940s, Rothko had employed a dramatically reduced, intellectual aesthetic to carry his painting towards exquisite visual refinement. He abandoned early attempts at figuration to focus on the less obvious: softly painted rectangles with blurred edges floating above vertical fields of atmospheric color, always symmetrical, and always amorphous. In an early statement, he spoke of the career-long quest to communicate as directly as possible to the emotions. “The progression of a painter’s work, as it travels in time from point to point,” he wrote in 1943 letter to The New York Times, “will be toward clarity: toward the elimination of all obstacles between the painter and the idea, and between the idea and the observer” (M. Rothko, quoted in D. Anfam, Mark Rothko, The Works on Canvas, Catalogue Raissonné, New Haven and London 1998, p. 10.). This did not necessarily entail a somber palette of dark colors or monochrome. Far from it, some of Rothko’s latest paintings, of which Untitled is an excellent example, are among his most vividly colored, echoing the vibrancy of some of the paintings of his earlier career. His curiosity was undoubtedly encouraged by the new availability of acrylic paint, which dried more quickly than oil paint and introduced a fresh liveliness to his palette.

Rothko’s use of color, he was anxious to point out, was linked to neither landscape nor self-expression. He also railed against the idea that his paintings had a resonance because of the harmonies of color alone. That would have relegated them to decorative objects, which was far from his intention. Rothko aspired to the sublime rather than the beautiful, and was influenced by reading Edmund Burke’s 1757 philosophical enquiry into the idea, which argued that they were in opposition. He painted human drama and universal emotion: his work was not about the experience of the self, and he emphatically did not regard himself as an Expressionist painter. Color and abstract form were ‘performers’ that could express collective primordial feelings of anguish or excitement, exultation or depression, and it was through these means that he sought to raise painting “to the level of poignancy of music and poetry” (M. Rothko quoted in J.E.B. Breslin, Mark Rothko: A Biography, Chicago, 1993, p.37).

In the aftermath of the Second World War, responding to an atmosphere that cultivated existential thinking, Rothko felt a burden of moral responsibility weighing heavily on his shoulders. Speaking on the radio during the war, Rothko and the artist Adolph Gottlieb expressed their shared belief of the irrelevance of subjective taste during periods of conflict: “In times of violence, personal predilections for niceties of color and form seem irrelevant. All primitive expression reveals the constant awareness of powerful forces, the natural world as well as the eternal insecurity of life” (A. Gottlieb, quoted in A. Gottlieb and M. Rothko, ‘The Portrait and the Modern Artist,” typescript of a broadcast on ‘Art in New York’, Radio WNYC, 13 October 1943, in Mark Rothko 1903-1970, exh. cat., Tate London 1987, p. 81.). Rothko was an intellectual with a real belief in the power of the aesthetic, and he had a strong affinity to philosophers such as Søren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche. Of the latter’s book, The Birth of Tragedy, which viewed the classical Greek tragedy as an art form that was able to transcend a meaningless world, Rothko once said that he saw “the way in which I could achieve the greatest intensity of the tragic irreconcilability of the basic violence which lies at the bottom of human existence and the daily life which must deal with it” (M. Rothko: a draft of a proposed lecture on the relationship between his work an Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy, 1955 quoted in J. E.B. Breslin, op.cit, p. 357-358).

The blocks of color in Rothko’s paintings are therefore not illusions or representations that pertain to the natural world, they are real things and entities themselves. His intention was to elevate the viewer from the prosaic, and to this end, he believed that “the familiar identity of things has to be pulverized in order to destroy the finite associations with which our society increasingly enshrouds every aspect of our environment” (M. Rothko quoted in ‘The Romantics were Prompted’ in Mark Rothko 1903-1970, exh. cat., Tate London 1987, p. 84). He believed that his paintings were akin to the epic dramas of antiquity, involved with the entire “scale of human feeling,” and sober monuments expressive of “tragedy, ecstasy and doom,” (M. Rothko, quoted in ‘Notes from a conversation with Selden Rodman, 1956’ in Writings on Art: Mark Rothko, 2006 edited by Miguel Lopez-Remir).

Rothko’s profound faith that painting could express the sublime is, in many ways, a sensibility associated with the great Romantic painters of the preceding centuries. However, to reduce his paintings to a particular time or style would be to misunderstand his intentions. His paintings were motivated by an ardent belief in a shared humanity and of the timelessness possible in art. His paintings achieve, in his own words, an “unprecedented resolution of an eternally familiar need.” Continuing, he said, “I do not believe that there was ever a question of being abstract or representational. It is really a matter of ending this silence and solitude, of breathing and stretching one’s arms again” (M. Rothko, quoted in ‘The Romantics were Prompted’ in Mark Rothko 1903-1970, exh. cat., Tate London 1987, p. 84). 

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