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Mark Rothko (1903-1970)
Mark Rothko (1903-1970)
Mark Rothko (1903-1970)
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Property from an Important European Private Collection
Mark Rothko (1903-1970)

Untitled

Details
Mark Rothko (1903-1970)
Untitled
signed and dated 'Mark Rothko 1947' (on the reverse)
oil and charcoal on canvas
88 x 57 ½ in. (223.5 x 146 cm.)
Painted in 1947.
Provenance
Estate of the artist, 1970
Marlborough Gallery Inc., New York, 1970
Estate of the artist, 1977
Collection of Christopher Rothko
PaceWildenstein, New York
Acquired from the above by the present owner, 2000
Literature
D. Blau, ed., Mark Rothko: "Multiforms" Bilder von 1947-1949, Stuttgart, 1993, p. 16 (illustrated upside down in color).
D. Anfam, Mark Rothko: The Works on Canvas, Catalogue Raisonné, New Haven, 1998, p. 277, no. 353 (illustrated in color).

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Joanna Szymkowiak
Joanna Szymkowiak

Lot Essay

A lavish arrangement of luminous, jewel-like hues are nestled together in Untitled, an extraordinary painting from Mark Rothko’s Multiforms series. In this heroically scaled painting, the complexity and richness of Rothko’s palette is breathtaking to behold, where billowing clouds of white pigment coalesce alongside vivid arrangements of emerald green, crimson, lavender and rose. Here, the viewer is witness to the steady germination of Rothko’s mature style, as the colors abandon their attachment to the natural world in favor of hovering planes of pure color. These attributes would find their ultimate expression just two years later in the debut of Rothko’s mature work in 1949—the year his first paintings of saturated, color-soaked clouds appeared. Indeed, the Multiform paintings of 1946 1949 are of crucial importance in understanding the artist’s oeuvre, providing the fundamental building blocks of his technique, while also allowing for a uniquely rich viewing experience.

Having been created over an intensive three-year period, the Multiforms comprise an important body of work, where Rothko wrestled with the lingering effects of his earlier, Surrealist-derived style in favor of a freer, more loosely defined set of parameters. The expression of pure color would slowly reveal itself, as the artist attempted to exorcise the remaining vestiges of representational imagery that lingered from his previous work. “As he works toward...eliminating recognizable forms altogether, Rothko’s paintings grow beautiful, reaching out to a viewer with their sensuous color,” James Breslin, Mark Rothko’s biographer, has described (J.E. Breslin, Mark Rothko: A Biography, New York, 1993, p. 235). Indeed, the viewer freely delights in the ravishing effects of Rothko’s shimmering, jewel-like forms in Untitled, whose vividly-colored imagery ranges in hue from verdant green to soft white, gray-tinged lavender and a gamut of reds. Red is perhaps Rothko’s most significant color, and it demonstrates its full spectrum in Untitled, veering toward crimson in some areas, whilst displaying magenta, rose and cherry hues in others. Upon prolonged viewing, these delicate red passages slowly open up to blossom and breathe, having been infused with subtle peach under-layers. This lends an unparalleled degree of richness and depth heretofore not seen in Rothko’s work, sowing the seeds for the techniques that would become a hallmark of his signature style. Elsewhere, a delicate blend of lavender-tinged gray makes up the painting’s nebulous perimeter, where thinned down pigment creates a series of translucent scrims. Hovering clouds of delicate white pigment linger nearby. They emerge from the painting’s lower register like smoke bubbling up from a genie’s bottle, settling in among the more brightly colored forms to work their subtle pictorial magic.

In his quest to create a more universal pictorial language, one he felt capable of expressing the ‘tragedy, ecstasy and doom,’ of the human experience, Rothko gradually eschewed even the most abstract imagery. He eventually came to settle upon the hovering planes of pure color that define his mature style. These heroically scaled paintings, with their luminous, glowing rectangular clouds of sumptuous color, engulf the viewer within their mysterious realm. In Untitled, pure color begins its multi-year task of shaking off its association to the natural world. Certain imagery still carries over from earlier paintings as Rothko sought to eliminate the traces of imagery he had previously believed so strongly in, but any attempt to define them, or locate their origins in the physical world, is an exercise in vain. Instead, these hovering elements exist, as Dr. David Anfam has so eloquently described, in “a state of...flux that perpetually materializes, dissolves and re-forms,” while the artist attempts to exorcise the ghosts of representation (D. Anfam, “Rothko’s Multiforms: The Moment of Transition and Transformation,” in D. Blau, ed., Mark Rothko: Multiforms: Bilder von 1947 – 1949, exh. cat., Galerie Daniel Blau, Stuttgart, 1993, p. 28).

At this point in his career, Rothko began to experiment with saturating the canvas in ever thinner and more translucent applications, in some instances even applying thinned-down oils to the canvas “sizing” that acted as a protective first layer. So, too, did Rothko probe the varying degrees of opacity of the oil paint he employed, even adding egg in certain cases to white pigment in order to modify its translucency. This was a time of innovation, where the artist wrestled with a multiplicity of techniques. In Untitled, the degree to which he is able to vary the opacity of the oil paint that he used is staggering to behold, ranging from dense passages to the thinnest scrim. Here, he’s accomplishing the thinned down “veils” of translucent pigment that will come to define his mature work, creating an intricate and complex layering, while experimenting with the effect that one color might have upon the next when placed together, as if stacked pieces of stained glass. In Untitled, the series of floating white clouds display a rather unusual effect, seeming to contain the principles of “opaque translucence,” whereby the viewer is able to peer through the paint to the layers of deeper green and grays beneath, but the paint itself remains resolutely upon the surface like a thick, white cloud. Other paintings from the Multiforms series reveal Rothko accomplishing similar goals, at times even using the palette knife to score and scrape the painting’s surface. Curiously, just as natural forms begin to dissolve into oblivion, charcoal lines make a brief reprisal. In Untitled, Rothko uses charcoal to delineate a series of meandering, calligraphic lines running through the painting’s middle section, and this lingers with a sort of dernier cri as he finally pushes forward to the great, unseeable future.

“I think of my pictures as dramas,” Rothko has explained. “The shapes in the pictures are performers...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 of that which was intended” (M. Rothko, quoted in M. Rothko, Writings on Art, 2006, p. 58). Indeed, the Multiform paintings bear witness to this crucial era, where the artist joined in the drama of his own paintings, delving into the unknown in his quest to create an utterly new, heroic body of work. Untitled is a lingering relic from this crucial era, an operatic creation that prefigures the gravitas of Rothko’s mature paintings, whilst demonstrating the importance of this significant period in the artist’s life. “It would be a mistake...to treat the Multiforms only as transitional paintings, still somewhat scattered in power when compared to the classic Rothkos,” the art historian Mark Stevens has written. “While anticipating the later pictures, we should also enjoy the Multiforms for themselves—works marvelously in flux, all the elements in place, the string still not pulled taut” (M. Stevens, “Mark Rothko,” in op. cit., 1992, p. 12).

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