MARK ROTHKO (1903-1970)
MARK ROTHKO (1903-1970)
MARK ROTHKO (1903-1970)
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An Extraordinary Eye: The Distinguished Collection of June Roth
MARK ROTHKO (1903-1970)

Untitled

Details
MARK ROTHKO (1903-1970)
Untitled
signed and dated 'MARK ROTHKO 1961' (on the reverse)
oil on paper laid down on canvas
23 7⁄8 x 18 in. (60.6 x 45.7 cm.)
Painted in 1961.
Provenance
Acquired directly from the artist by the late owner, circa 1963
Post lot text
This work is being considered for inclusion in the forthcoming Mark Rothko Online Resource and Catalogue Raisonné of works on paper, compiled by the National Gallery of Art, Washington.

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Lot Essay

“Rothko succumbed to the lure of light...light that envelops us and is all things that we are not. In moving toward this ineffable beacon it was natural enough that Rothko should find his way in the light of paper, that most subtle of light-reflecting bearers, and that his works on paper should be as integral a part of his total vision as his easel paintings and murals” (D. Ashton, 'Forward', in B. Clearwater, Mark Rothko Works on Paper, exh. cat., New York, 1984, p. 9).

Mark Rothko’s Untitled, painted in 1961 during the height of his career, epitomizes the artist’s iconic pictorial language that asserted him as one of the 20th century’s most important artists. The vibrant, striking colors reverberate throughout the picture plane, engulfing the viewer in its brilliance. Being in the presence of Untitled, one cannot help but be swept into the painting’s aura. This is the first time that Untitled has ever been offered on the market since its original purchase from the artist in 1963. The uniquely captivating work comes from a momentous year in the artist’s career, 1961, wherein the artist was simultaneously planning his major touring exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art and starting on a series of murals for Harvard University. Mark Rothko, known for his prolific output, would continue producing works on paper during this period.
Rothko’s works on paper reflect a vivacious swiftness that is often missing from his larger works on canvas. The bold yellow-orange rendered in Untitled is unabashedly direct while the strokes of pink and yellow virulently sweep and stab at one another’s borders. Two rectangular blocks of bright yellow-orange ochre reside above and below a smaller slice of pale pink. This slightly translucent pink band, which seems to simultaneously float off of the canvas and sink deeper into it, affords the viewer a glimpse of the paper ground that the color field populates. These radiant clouds of color seem to reach for the rectangular frame that support it, but never quite make it across the edge of the paper. The use of paper was integral to Rothko’s artistic practice, serving as both a ground for experimentation as well as an entirely new arena of expression. Mark Rothko referred to his larger canvases as ‘dramas’ and these smaller works as ‘tales’.
Speaking to the significance of paper within Marko Rothko’s oeuvre, Dore Ashton wrote that 'Rothko succumbed to the lure of light...light that envelops us and is all things that we are not. In moving toward this ineffable beacon it was natural enough that Rothko should find his way in the light of paper, that most subtle of light-reflecting bearers, and that his works on paper should be as integral a part of his total vision as his easel paintings and murals (D. Ashton, 'Forward', in B. Clearwater, Mark Rothko Works on Paper, exh. cat., New York, 1984, p. 9). The directness that this paper medium afforded Rothko in his practice amplified the complex simplicity that defines his art, and recalls the dichotomous qualities of light itself. Light, a form of electromagnetic radiation, is composed of photons and therefore has no mass. Through paint, Rothko transubstantiates light into matter, giving body to the immaterial.
Vincent Van Gogh and Mark Rothko both used color as a conduit for emotional expression, and when seen side-by-side the visual similarities between the two artist’s work is readily apparent. Rothko’s paintings had a significant and lasting effect on the art world and no doubt influenced generations of artists to come. One of these artists was Dan Flavin, whose iconic arrangement of fluorescent tube lights played a large role in defining the Minimalist style that followed the Abstract Expressionists. Both artists’ work revolved around the effect of light; Flavin viewed light as “a matter of fact”, elaborating upon Rothko’s painterly representation into a direct display of electrical luminosity.
Throughout his career Rothko shirked taxonomy and rejected concrete meanings within his work, stating that his paintings constituted a “world of the imagination” that was “violently opposed to common sense” (M. Rothko, quoted in D. Anfam, Mark Rothko, The Works on Canvas, London, 1998, p.16). Although Rothko intended for a broad understanding of his work, he did want them to address metaphysical boundaries as well as humanity’s broad existential condition. The spartan nature of Untitled allows for countless visual comparisons. The two yellows seems to magnetize towards one another, squeezing the central pink section and drawing it out from the background. The pink suggests flesh whereas the yellow’s luminosity recalls a brilliant light. Reading the work in this way, Untitled becomes an existential mediation on the nature of mortality, asserting a manifested human presence suspended between two uncertain realms of irreducible opacity not unlike pre-conception and death.
The dualistic color composition mirrors the two different ways one might choose to understand Rothko’s paintings: literally, as a formal interaction between colors, or imaginatively, attaching imagery to the nebulous fields of colors. Although both means of appreciation are valid, Rothko himself intended his works to evoke “basic human emotions - tragedy, ecstasy, doom, and so on. If you . . . are moved only by . . . color relationships, then you miss the point!" (Mark Rothko quoted in S. Rodman, Notes from a Conversation with Selden Rodman, 1956 in Writings on Art: Mark Rothko, New York, 2006). Perhaps the discordance between these two ways of comprehending the work is what gives rise to the mystical, transcendent experience that the artist desired to impart on the viewer.

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