Untitled (Rust, Blacks on Plum) by Mark Rothko
The remarkable connections between the artist, one family of distinguished collectors, and a pivotal painting from 1962, which will be offered, along with four works by Joseph Cornell, from The Collection of François and Susan de Menil
In 1978, the Guggenheim Museum mounted the first major Mark Rothko retrospective since the artist’s death, eight years before. In his review of the show, the art critic for the New York Times, Hilton Kramer, took the unusual step of describing the museum-goers attending the show before discussing the works on display: the crowds were ‘hushed’, ‘awestruck’, ‘transfixed’, he wrote, and they tended to linger, ‘often turning away from the paintings in front of them to look across the great open space of the Guggenheim spiral at paintings in the distance.’
The same week, a mile or so to the south, the Pace gallery — recently entrusted with the painter’s estate by his children — timed its first Rothko show to coincide with the Uptown retrospective. They chose to present several of the murals originally commissioned for the Seagram Building on Park Avenue, the painter’s first major series after his notable turn to a darker palette in the late 1950s.
Rothko had many motivations for the shift: he took inspiration from the deep burgundy murals in the Villa of the Mysteries at Pompeii and echoed their dark framing devices in his works; he wanted to concentrate on the formal and emotional aspects of his paintings and he now found the bright, gregarious colours of his earlier years to be a distraction from a painting’s more profound elements; he thought the subtle effects of his favoured technique — building fugitive shifts of tone under thin transparent layers of paint — were more palpable in the darker hues.
Whatever it was that drove Rothko to explore these rich nighttime colours, the murals never made it to the Four Seasons restaurant, where they had been slated to hang. Instead, he returned the commission and kept the works himself until finally donating nine paintings from the series to the Tate Museum near the end of his life.
Some months before the Pace exhibition, François de Menil, the son of John and Dominque de Menil, the Houston collectors who in 1964 had commissioned Rothko’s other great series of paintings and paid for the construction of the Rothko Chapel, had approached Arne Glimcher, the founder of the Pace gallery. François asked the gallerist if he could find him a Rothko with the mythical and mysterious qualities of his darker works.
It was the kind of request that might have softened Rothko, who liked to put prospective buyers through tests they didn’t know they were taking. Glimcher recalls one studio visit where he caught a glimpse of a beautiful, imposing painting of dark blue and black rectangles floating over a burgundy field. After he confessed to Rothko how much he loved the work, the painter told him that he’d picked it out for a collector who took one look and asked for a happy painting instead — ‘a pink and red and yellow and orange painting, a joyous painting.’
‘Pink, red, orange, and yellow,’ Rothko said. ‘Aren’t those the colours of an inferno?’ He never offered her another painting again.
Glimcher found two paintings in a darker palette that he offered to de Menil. François chose Untitled (Rust, Blacks on Plum), which is offered on 15 November in the Post-War and Contemporary Art Evening Sale at Christie’s in New York.
The piece recalls the three-part compositional structure of other bright Multiforms from earlier in Rothko’s career, works that have broken the artist’s auction records in recent years, but it draws its radiance from an almost imperceptible shimmering within and between the darker rectangles. It was painted in 1962, after de Menil’s parents’ first visit to Rothko’s studio in 1960, and in the immediate aftermath of the artist’s first retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
Untitled (Rust, Blacks on Plum) draws its radiance from an almost imperceptible shimmering within and between the darker rectangles
In 1964, John and Dominque de Menil returned to Rothko’s studio to offer him the commission that became the Rothko Chapel, constructed in Houston to the artist’s demanding specifications. It was during the frequent visits that ensued as the couple consulted with the artist and followed his progress that Untitled (Rust, Blacks on Plum), which hung on the walls of Rothko’s sitting room in his 69th Street studio, caught Dominique’s eye.
Had Rothko set out the work to be noticed by Dominique? Or did he keep the work close at hand for reference or inspiration, as he built up the layers on the chapel panels that shared many of its twilight colours and meditative effects? Both explanations seem possible, although neither can be verified.
As the construction of the chapel neared completion, Dominique de Menil, then Chairman of the Art History Department of the University of St. Thomas in Houston, proposed arranging an exhibition at the university. For Six Painters, she requested five works by Rothko, including Untitled (Rust, Blacks on Plum), which were exhibited alongside works by Piet Mondrian, Philip Guston, Franz Kline, Willem de Kooning, and Jackson Pollock. When the show concluded at the end of the year, Untitled (Rust, Blacks on Plum) returned to Rothko, who kept the canvas in his personal collection until his death in 1970.
Also offered from the collection of François and Susan de Menil are three boxes and one assemblage of 16 collages by Joseph Cornell. At different stages of his life, Cornell was associated with the Surrealists — Salvador Dalí once accused him of raiding his subconscious — with the Abstract Expressionists, and, later, with the Pop artists. Cornell seemed to elude such labels, however, all the while persevering in his chosen form, the box, which in his hands could become almost anything: a stage, a cage, a shop, a museum, a movie screen, a penny arcade, a jewellery display, a cabinet of curiosities.
Cornell and Rothko were born just three months apart in 1903 — Rothko in Dvinsk, in the Russian Empire (now part of Latvia), and Cornell in Nyack, New York. They first met by chance in 1949, at the Horn & Hardart automat on 57th Street in New York, where they struck up a friendship that seems to have lasted throughout their lives.
In 1957, Cornell sent Rothko’s daughter, Kate, a book on Fra Angelico, and Rothko’s wife sent back a thank-you note with a hand-coloured angel that Kate had made for the Christmas tree in the family home. Despite his reputation, Rothko was capable of being gregarious, and envied Cornell’s ease and generosity with other artists.
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‘I wish I could approach your genius for expressing to people how you think about them and what they do,’ Rothko wrote to Cornell in 1959, before offering an example of his own brand of artistic appraisal: ‘I do want to tell you that I think of you and the uncanny magic of the things you make.’
Leading the selection by Cornell is Untitled (Medici Slot Machine), executed in 1942. It is one of three works from the ‘Medici Slot Machine’ series, regarded by many as his finest. In all three pieces in the series, Cornell adapted different Renaissance portraits as his source — in this case a painting by Sofonisba Anguissola, Portrait of Marquess Massimiliano Stampa, which hangs in the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore.
Like Rothko’s surfaces, all the carefully selected treasures — maps, trinkets, portraits, woodcuts from Victorian novels — in the interior of Cornell’s hermetic boxes seem to hover between meanings with an urgency at odds with their wit and beauty.
‘These works from the distinguished collection of François and Susan de Menil present an opportunity to juxtapose the brilliance of two markedly different artists,’ says Ana Maria Celis, Senior Specialist and Head of the Post-War and Contemporary Art Evening Sale in New York. ‘Although their styles varied dramatically, through the eyes of these far-sighted collectors it is possible to see the connections between these visionary artists who not only worked at the same time, but were inspired by each other.’