Mark Rothko (1903-1970)
Mark Rothko (1903-1970)
Mark Rothko (1903-1970)
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A Century of Art: The Gerald Fineberg Collection
Mark Rothko (1903-1970)

Untitled

Details
Mark Rothko (1903-1970)
Untitled
signed 'Mark Rothko' (on the reverse)
oil on paper laid down on canvas
39 3/4x 25 1/2 in. (101.3 x 64.8 cm.)
Painted in 1964.
Provenance
The artist
Private collection, New York
Anon. sale; Sotheby’s, New York, 2 May 1985, lot 5
Robert S. Lubin, Illinois, 1985
Pace Gallery, New York
The Haskell Collection, Jacksonville, 1990
Their sale; Phillips de Pury & Luxembourg, New York, 12 November 2001, lot 31
The MAT Charitable Foundation, New York, 2001
Acquired from the above by the present owner, 2004
Exhibited
Jacksonville, Cummer Gallery, Abstract Expressionism: The Haskell Collection, April-June 1992, pp. 38 and 55 (illustrated).
Further details
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

Black… does not signify….death. It is one of the richest colors in the artist’s palette. Diane Waldman (D. Waldman, “Mark Rothko: The Farther Shore of Art,” Mark Rothko, 1903-1970: A Retrospective, exh. cat., Solomon R. Guggenheim, New York, p. 68).”

With a dark-keyed palette and a feeling of deep emotional gravitas, Mark Rothko’s Untitled is a striking example of the hovering clouds of color for which he is best known. In these, some of his greatest and most spiritual paintings, Rothko evokes the “tragedy, ecstasy and doom” that he purportedly sought in so much of his work. The present Untitled dates to 1964, the same year that Rothko was commissioned by John and Dominique de Menil to create a suite of paintings for the Rothko Chapel. In that epic project, as in the present work, Rothko explores the spiritual and emotional power of dark colors. Using intense black, Rothko presents the weighty, hovering voids in dark passages that seem to absorb light around them, beckoning the viewer to take a closer look. Paradoxically, it is often Rothko’s darkest paintings that are often infused with the greatest degree of inner light.

Whereas Rothko turned to acrylic paints in most of his works on paper of the latter 1960s, in Untitled, he has used oil, which imparts luminosity and depth to the black areas of paint, creating a sense of deep recessional space and a soft, velvety finish. As part of his working method, Rothko has thinned down the oil paint with turpentine, which he has applied in a series of successive, gossamer-thin veils of paint. In these and so many of Rothko’s greatest black paintings, he creates an inner light to the darkness of its forms.
In Untitled, Rothko has used a dry brush to feather the edges of the black forms, creating a soft edge to the otherwise imposing black fields. At times, the edges of the black seem to crackle and buzz with an almost electric quality. The background is highly nuanced, filled with not just one single color but a multitude of warm hues. This perimeter acts as a foil to the deep, black abyss. Onyx, obsidian, ebony and charcoal—the smoldering cinders of burnt wood and ash—are the means with which Rothko creates the painting, whilst humanizing the rich black tones with a warm exterior, in hues that evoke mahogany and walnut.

By 1961, Rothko had reached the very peak of his artistic career. That year, the Museum of Modern Art in New York debuted a major retrospective of his work, which was warmly received, and later traveled to several major European cities, including London, Amsterdam, Basel, Rome and Paris. A few years earlier, the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C. opened a new wing in which three of Rothko’s large-scale paintings from the 1950s were to be permanently displayed. In 1962, he began work on the Harvard Murals, in which he explored a dark palette, using burgundies, reds, crimson and black. His son Christopher was born in 1963.

Despite the success of the previous few years, by 1963, Rothko had felt himself to be at a professional impasse. All of this began to change, however, in 1964, when he embarked upon the major commission for the Rothko Chapel. Rothko had met the de Menils back in 1962, but it wasn’t until the Spring of 1964 that they visited his studio in New York. They had been impressed with the Seagram Murals commissioned for the Four Seasons Restaurant in the Seagram Building in midtown Manhattan. This was just the project that was needed to galvanize his great artistic powers, and he accepted the project with gusto, throwing himself into painting shortly after he moved into his last studio, a converted carriage house on East 69th Street. There, he famously placed a parachute over the skylight to keep the studio dark, and embarked upon the moody palette that is now iconic to the Chapel and this part of his career.

As the curators of Rothko’s 1970 retrospective at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum have explained, “Black,” one of Rothko’s most mysterious and intriguing colors, “does not signify….death. It is one of the richest colors in the artist’s palette. [...] These reds and blacks do not any longer seem to exist as physical color, but rather, as tranquil, tragic, twilit dreams of color.” (D. Waldman, “Mark Rothko: The Farther Shore of Art,” Mark Rothko, 1903-1970: A Retrospective, exh. cat., Solomon R. Guggenheim, New York, p. 68).”

Indeed, Rothko embraced the rich possibilities of the color black, at a time when black paintings were seen as the ultimate, de facto expression of the next new style that emerged during this era—Minimalism. In the late 1950s and early ‘60s, artists like Frank Stella, Brice Marden, and Ad Reinhardt seemed to bring Abstract Expressionism to its endgame, by creating minimal and spare creations, in which the black paint they used referred only to the materials of their making, and not any larger emotional issues. Rothko, however, embraced the spiritual and emotional possibilities of dark colors. His black paintings bring us a deeper, richer and fuller experience. They are often closer in feeling to the great Spanish masters, such as Diego Velázquez and Francisco de Goya. Black, for Rothko as well as Velázquez and Goya, was not a repudiation of color itself, but rather a way to add richness and depth to their painting, and most importantly, allow the subtle passages of illumination to glow even brighter, as if lit from within. Especially in the present Untitled, Rothko seems to have condensed the somber palette and soft, incandescent lighting of Velázquez into its purest, most resonant form.

“I am not interested in relationships of color or form or anything else,” Rothko declared in 1957. “I am interested only in expressing the basic human emotions - tragedy, ecstasy, doom, and so on - and the fact that lots of people break down and cry when confronted by my pictures shows that I communicate with those basic human emotions. The people who weep before my pictures are having the same religious experience I had when I painted them. And if you, as you say, are moved only by their color relationships, then you miss the point!" (Mark Rothko quoted in S. Rodman, Conversations with Artists, New York, 1957, pp. 93-94).

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