MARK ROTHKO (1903-1970)
MARK ROTHKO (1903-1970)
MARK ROTHKO (1903-1970)
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Property from a Private American Collection
MARK ROTHKO (1903-1970)

Untitled (Yellow, Orange, Yellow, Light Orange)

MARK ROTHKO (1903-1970)
Untitled (Yellow, Orange, Yellow, Light Orange)
signed and dated 'MARK ROTHKO 1955' (on the reverse)
oil on canvas
81 ½ x 60 in. (207 x 152.5 cm.)
Painted in 1955.
Estate of the artist
Marlborough A.G., Liechtenstein/Marlborough Gallery, Inc., New York, 1970
Paul and Bunny Mellon, Virginia, 1970
Their sale; Sotheby's, New York, 10 November 2014, lot 14
Helly Nahmad Gallery, New York
Acquired from the above by the present owner
D. Anfam, Mark Rothko: The Works on Canvas: Catalogue Raisonné, New Haven and London, 1998, pp. 84 and 404, no. 525 (illustrated).
L. J. Holden, B. Huffman and T. Lloyd, Bunny Mellon Style, Layton, 2021, pp. 23 and 239 (illustrated).
New Haven, Yale University Art Gallery, Salute to Mark Rothko, May-June 1971, n.p., no. 9.
New York, Di Donna Galleries, Paths to the Absolute, October-December 2016, pp. 4, 67, 72-73 and 92, pl. 12 (illustrated).
New York, Nahmad Contemporary, Five Years at Nahmad Contemporary, May-June 2018, pp. 58-59 and 130 (illustrated).

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Emily Kaplan
Emily Kaplan Senior Vice President, Senior Specialist, Co-Head of 20th Century Evening Sale

Lot Essay

[W]hen you turned your back to the painting, you would feel that presence the way you feel the sun on your back. Mark Rothko

Currently the subject of a major international retrospective at the Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris, Mark Rothko stands as one of the giants of twentieth-century art. Measuring nearly seven feet tall, the magisterial Untitled (Yellow, Orange, Yellow, Light Orange) encapsulates the aesthetic, emotional, and psychological complexity that is the hallmark of the artist’s most successful canvases. Its monumental size and intensity of color combine to envelop the viewer, pulling them into the visual and spectral drama that Rothko plays out across the surface of his paintings. Painted in 1955, this work represents a highpoint in the depiction of his dynamic fields of color, before the tumultuous years of the Seagram Murals project would cast a pall over the artist’s oeuvre. Untitled (Yellow, Orange, Yellow, Light Orange) remained in the artist’s collection until his death in 1970, before being acquired by the legendary collectors Paul and Bunny Mellon, and was in their possession for nearly 50 years. Mellon was one of the twentieth-century’s greatest art patrons, building an unrivalled collection of European and American masterworks, and endowing a number of institutions—including the East Wing of the National Gallery of Art in Washington (an institution to which the couple donated over 1,00 works of art), and the Yale Center of British Art. Untitled (Yellow, Orange, Yellow, Light Orange) was a pillar of their collection, and in both scale and scope is a highpoint of the twentieth-century canon.

Standing in the presence of Untitled (Yellow, Orange, Yellow, Light Orange), the viewer is embraced by the almost palpable sense of heat that is emitted by the myriad of shades in golden yellows and warm oranges that Rothko expertly melds together. Asymmetrical blocks of color anchor the composition, two substantial passages of orange pigment that dominate the central portion of the canvas, divided by slender bands of paler pigment, separating these passage from each other and the edges of the picture plane. Within each of these areas, Rothko’s highly active surface is the result of applying consecutive thin washes of color that pool and dissolve into each other. The result is a surface that is alive with detail, constantly shifting chromatic effects that become visible with prolonged looking. Concentrated passages of color roil up to the surface before receding; flat surfaces sit next to areas of sublime depth; and broad strokes of substantial brushwork coalesce with delicate areas of where Rothko applies pigment with a delicate brush. The result is a painting which resonates with movement, a surface that constantly shifts as the viewer casts their eye across the surfaces or moves physically around the space it occupies.

[C]olors push outward in all directions… contract and rush inward. Between these two poles you can find everything I want to say Mark Rothko

Standing close to the surface of Rothko’s painting unleashes the full force of these dramatic canvases (Rothko himself specified that 18 inches was the optimum distance from which to fully appreciate his work). In Untitled (Yellow, Orange, Yellow, Light Orange), such examination reveals a cast of artistic elements that play starring roles in the overall drama of the overall composition. The narrow band that traverses the center is embellished by a multitude of delicate drips, spectral brushwork, and a gradual shifting of light to dark pigment that is easily overlooked. Yet it precisely in these areas that the drama reveals itself in full force. “Rothko’s shapes – his actors – are almost never singular; they are multiple. This not only lends the paintings their depth in the suspended fields but also energizes the edges, and it is at the edges that the visual cues coalesce and propel one’s awareness back into the interiors with a heightened apprehension of their status as congeries of many delicately coincident blocks of translucent color” (T. Crow, “The Marginal Difference in Rothko’s Abstraction,’ Seeing Rothko, Los Angeles, 2005, pp. 34-35). Thus, the competing forces of his contrasting color fields come into direct contact with each other, and it was here that Rothko felt that his paintings truly reached the apex of their power, “colors push outward in all directions,” he said, or “contract and rush inward. Between these two poles you can find everything I want to say” (M. Rothko, in conversation with A. Jensen, 17 June 1953, in J. E. B. Breslin, Mark Rothko:A Biography, Chicago, 1993, p. 301).

The alchemy that lies at the heart of the artist’s practice is the result of his thoughtful and precise process. Discussed in detail by David Anfam in his introductory essay in Rothko’s catalogue raisonné, the effect is transformative.  According to Dan Rice, the artist’s assistant during the period in which the present work was painted, Rothko would begin with raw canvas sized with glue mixed with a powdered pigment. Next came a ground of approximately the same color, which he continued around the turning edges (this, together with the fact that he left his canvases unframed, helped to assert the painting’s physical existence and its presence as an object). The artist would then apply washes of transparent color, thinning his paints to such an extent that the individual pigment particles were almost disassociated from the paint film, barely clinging to the surface. As a result, “light penetrated the attenuated paint film, striking individual particle pigments and bouncing back to suffuse the surface and engulf the viewer in an aura of light” (D. Cranmer, quoted by J. E. B. Breslin, Mark Rothko: A Biography, Chicago & London, 1993, p. 316). His paint application, according to Rice, was sometimes energetic “The physical movement was very active and very graphic, also at times, almost ‘minimalist’, using just the tip of his house painters brush and lightly ‘feathering’ the paint on the surface. He would also takes weeks to complete a painted. He would spend hours, sometimes days, sitting, looking, contemplating, and deciding what color should be laid down next, which forms should expand” (Ibid.).

This deliberate and decisive method was all in the service of Rothko’s ultimate aim to breakdown the traditional and long established barriers that existed in art; he wanted the viewers of his paintings to undergo an almost religious experience when stood before them. In evolving this idea, he was profoundly influenced by Friedrich Nietzsche's groundbreaking treatise, The Birth of Tragedy. Rothko's abstract paintings play on the dualism inherent in human nature that Nietzsche had identified as composed of Apollonian and Dionysian forces. The Apollonian represents the force of becoming, of precise definition, of the sculptural arts and of universal order and the Dionysian represents an unstable and wild force, the musical arts, disintegration and chaos. The duality of areas in the present work echoes these hostilities. In painting the work's two main passages of color vie with one another for dominance, seeming to both emerge from and recede into the painting's more neutral background, evoking this perpetual struggle. As the eye responds to this shifting play of undefined form and color, the viewer's mind enacts an emotive drama, yet Rothko holds the whole together in a fragile balance using the golden background's calm serenity. In this way, he counterpoints Apollonian order and refinement with the darker, more unstable Dionysian energy of the shimmering oblongs, creating an overwhelming sense of the sublime.

Untitled (Yellow, Orange, Yellow, Light Orange) was painted in 1955, the year of the artist’s first solo exhibition at the legendary Sidney Janis gallery in New York. After their initial hesitation, critics were now lauding Rothko’s colorful forms with a reviewer in Arts Digest writing “The first impact of the 12 gigantic canvases on view is startling in its breadth and, simplicity and the beauty of color dealt with on such a vast and subtly modulated scale,” while Thomas Hess in Art News claimed that the exhibition established “the international importance of Rothko as a leader of postwar modern art” (J. E. B. Breslin, Mark Rothko: A Biography, Chicago & London, 1993, p. 355). Such was the significance of the twenty-two canvases painted in 1955, more than half are now in major museum collections, including: The Green Stripe (The Menil Collection, Houston), Red and Orange (The Museum of Modern Art, New York), Red Band (National Gallery of Art, Washington), No. 44 (Two Darks in Red) (Walker Art Center, Minneapolis), and No. 36 (Light Red Over Dark Red) (Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, Buenos Aires). Thus, the present work represents the pinnacle of what the reviewer called “this beauty of color”, as over the next few years Rothko’s paintings would descend into the dark morass of the brooding canvases that would make up his commission for the Seagram building in New York.

The vibrancy of Rothko’s paintings from this period owe their existence, in part, to a chance encounter that the artist had with the work of one of the other greater masters of twentieth-century painting, Henri Matisse. Rothko has long been a disciple of the emotional power manifested by many of the European Old Masters, but he felt that a new direction was needed and in 1949 he experienced Matisse’s The Red Studio (1911, Museum of Modern Art) when it arrived at MoMA. One of the most radical uses of color in art history, the 1911 painting had an immediate impact on Rothko. “When you looked at that painting,” he said, “you become that color, you become totally saturated with it” (M. Rothko, quoted by C. Rothko, Mark Rothko, New York, 2022, p. 283). 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 cited in J. E. B. Breslin Mark Rothko: A Biography, Chicago 1993, p. 275). A work such as Untitled (Yellow, Orange, Yellow, Light Orange) illustrates this sensation of being immersed within the colors of the painting to the point where one can physically feel its radiating presence on one’s back. It is one that can only be attained through a subtle combination of color magnification and by painting on such a grand scale that the radiant rectangular fields of color appear to physically resonate and hum with a shimmering energy as if they were clouds at sunset casting warm shadows over a landscape. Here, lightly manifesting themselves as opaque entities that gradually seem to materialize out of the surface of the thinly washed canvas ground, the present work’s vast fields of vibrant energy do slowly reveal themselves to be capable of determining and altering the mood and emotions of the viewer they envelop.

Rothko always wanted to paint the human condition. “In essence,” his son Christopher has said, “Rothko wanted his paintings to speak of and to the human, and his works are full of touches that remind us of their human creator and the work of his hand” (C. Rothko, in Mark Rothko, New York, 2022, p. 22). The power and potency of works such as Untitled (Yellow, Orange, Yellow, Light Orange) reveal the force and depth of these elements which are echoed through the array of painterly brushstrokes that the artist used to make the painting's radiant and shimmering surface. Seeming to express the inexplicable but also overwhelming human experience, a painting like this nonetheless illustrates the emotive power of pure color to articulate a deep and innate human language. It is a work that responds to the demand that Rothko first asserted in 1948 when he wrote that “Pictures must be miraculous...a revelation, an unexpected and unprecedented resolution of an eternally familiar need” (M. Rothko, “The Romantics Were Prompted,” Possibilities No. 1 Winter 1947/8).

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