MARK ROTHKO (1903-1970)
MARK ROTHKO (1903-1970)
MARK ROTHKO (1903-1970)
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MARK ROTHKO (1903-1970)
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On occasion, Christie's has a direct financial int… Read more Property from An Important European Collection
MARK ROTHKO (1903-1970)


MARK ROTHKO (1903-1970)
acrylic on paper laid down on canvas
48 1/2 x 40 1/2 in. (123.2 x 102.9 cm.)
Painted in 1969.
Marlborough Gallery, New York
Private collection
Anon. sale; Sotheby's, New York, 2 May 1988, lot 32
Private collection, Georgia
Acquired from the above by the present owner, 2018
Atlanta, The High Museum of Art, Georgia Collects, January-March 1989, p. 108 (illustrated).
Special notice
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Further details
The following 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, D.C.

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Vanessa Fusco
Vanessa Fusco Head of Department, Impressionist & Modern Art, New York

Lot Essay

Painted in 1969, just a few months before the artist’s death, Mark Rothko’s Untitled is a lasting treatise on the artist’s unique form of abstraction. In this impressive work, the artist’s signature planes of vibrant color appear to hover above the paler picture plane, their magnificent fields of color plunging into pools of dense, deep, pulsating hues. These dueling planes are separated by a thin sliver of bright lead-white pigment, painted on top of band of red, resulting in dusky blush pink edges that taunt the polarities of red and white. These passages are the synthesis of Rothko’s desire to illustrate the most essential aspects of the human condition; areas of active brushwork were the essence of his painting where he acted out the Dionysian drama that he felt enveloped all mankind. Good versus evil, dark versus light—it is in these passages of color that Rothko claimed that the full drama of his paintings was played out in all their melodramatic and expressive glory.

Painted on a grand scale, Rothko’s two large areas of brilliant red-orange pigment dominate the composition. Their intensity and vibrancy makes it appear as though these areas luminesce, the result of some internal life force powered by an enduring and primeval source of energy. On first reflection, the larger of the two passages (the upper half of the painting) presents an even. Yet time and considered examination, reveals a highly active surface which is alive with painterly activity. This is repeated to a much greater degree in the execution of the lower passage, where Rothko’s practice of laying down multiples layers of thin washes of pigment results in a roiling surface in which pools of underpainting ‘bubble up’ from deep below. Strategically placed between these two poles of ‘hot’ color is a core of white. The differences in tone between the chromatic intensity of the high-keyed reds and the neutrality of the white is offset by the softening inclusions of minute amounts of red pigment around the edges. It is here, where the competing forces of his contrasting color values face off against each other, 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).

While artists such as Henri Matisse, and later Barnett Newman, where interested in investigating the optical power of red pigment, Rothko’s interests lay at a much deeper level. His dramatic surfaces were the result of his interest in the work of Friedrich Nietzsche. The Germen philosopher believed that Greek tragedy was the ultimate form of artistic expression, as it contained the two most fundamental forces in human existence—that of the terror of death, and also the will to live. Nietzsche likened these two opposing forces to the mythological figures of Apollo and Dionysus, and it was this sense of eternal tussle that Rothko sought to immortalize on the surface of his canvases. “In the tension between the forms and formless… Rothko found a way to express what Nietzsche had called the Apollonian and the Dionysian” (B. Collins, “Beyonf Pessimism: Rothko’s Nietzschean Quest, 1940-1949, in B. Collins (ed.), Mark Rothko: The Decisive Decade 1940-1950, exh. cat., Columbia Museum of Art, 2012, p. 33).

With his abstract forms, Rothko also sought to eradicate the conventional associations that normally accompany artistic representation in order to arrive at something completely new. In his 1947 essay “The Romantics Were Prompted,” the artist stated that conventional meaning and representation had to be destroyed in order to set free these limiting associations, and with paintings such as the present example he explored the greater freedom and expressive potential of color, light and form. He saw these compositional elements as having the ability to convey the sense of elemental human drama which fascinated him. Christopher Rothko, when speaking of his father’s paintings, claimed, “Rothko is looking for something, looking intently… Ultimately, he is trying to discover his artistic persona, not to tell us who he is, but in order to communicate with us directly about who we all are. He is mustering all of his resources to speak his philosophy more clearly, a very immediate and human philosophy” (C. Rothko, “The Decade,” in B. R. Collins (ed.), Mark Rothko: The Decisive Decade 1940-1950, exh. cat., Columbia Museum of Art, 2012, p. 33).

The sense of drama that is contained in Rothko’s paintings are the result not only of his deep philosophical thinking, but also of his skill as a painter, as it was his technical skill with a brush that enabled him to create his enigmatic surfaces. Rothko’s one-time assistant, Roy Edwards, described the experience of handling and cleaning the artist’s brushes: "Brushes were a big thing with him. They felt like velvet, those brushes, because they were very old and they'd been so well taken care of. I would wash those brushes every day after painting. First in turpentine and then in detergent. For about an hour. Washing and rewashing, rewashing, rewashing" (R. Edwards and R. Pomeroy, "Working with Rothko," New American Review no. 12, 1971, p. 125). Tactile contrasts and the material qualities mattered to Rothko (" was all done with brushes. That's the marvelous thing. He had such a touch with a brush," ibid., p. 125). Contrasting his paintings with Ad Reinhart's, Rothko emphasized the tactile quality of his work in contrast to the seemingly insubstantial effects of Reinhart's surfaces: "mine are here. Materially. The surfaces, the work of the brush and so on. [Reinhardt's] are untouchable" (M. Rothko, quoted in D. Ashton, About Rothko, New York, 1983, p. 179).

Painted in 1969, Untitled was executed at a time when Rothko was increasingly troubled by the world he saw around him. The previous year had seen social unrest in Europe with a series of month-long protests and social unrest. In the U.S., the Civil Rights Movement had begun to move away from their traditional strongholds in the South, and gain traction in the cities of the north by focusing on issues such as housing and the Black Consciousness Movement. This global shift seemed to spur the artist on to greater periods creativity as these periods of increased depression often saw Rothko at his most productive. Arne Glimcher, founder of the legendary Pace Gallery and a friend of the artist, said “Mark said many times he felt that tragedy was the only theme noble enough for art” (A. Glimcher, quoted by H. Sheets, “Mark Rothko’s Dark Palette Illuminated” New York Times, November 2, 2016, via [accessed 6/26/2018]).

The late 1960s also witnessed a seismic shift in his artistic output due to a confrontation with his own mortality. In April 1968, following his aortic aneurysm, Rothko began to increasingly work with acrylics, attracted by their fast-drying qualities and, in addition to working with new types of paint, he also returned to working almost exclusively with paper as his chosen support. He had worked with paper before, primarily in the 1940s, and again in 1958 when he made a series of small-scale paper versions of some of his larger oil on canvas works. But it wasn’t until the late 1960s that he worked almost exclusively on paper, resulting in paintings that scholar Diane Waldman called “among the most exquisite work he had done” (D. Waldman, “Mark Rothko: The Farther Shore of Art,” in D. Waldman (ed.), Mark Rothko, 1903-1970: A Retrospective, exh. cat., Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 1978, p. 68). Under doctors’ orders he was restricted to working a scale no larger than 40 or 50 inches by 40 inches and had an assistant roll out a length of paper on the floor. When Rothko decided on the size he wanted, the assistant would then cut a dozen or so sheets to size and tack them on the wall, which Rothko would then work on one by one.

With its cloud-like passage of dramatic intense color, this painting captures a moment of apparition or revelation. Balanced subtly by their position on the surface, these two passages of color are anchored within the space of the picture in a way that enhances its strange and almost mystical radiance. Establishing a formal and tonal dialogue at the heart of the work, Untitled not only displays the full sophistication and subtlety of Rothko's brushwork, but also the extraordinarily emotive and complex power of color.

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