Provenance Estate of the Artist Marlborough A.G, Lichtenstein/Marlborough Gallery, London Galerie Beyeler, Basel Private Collection, Germany Jason McCoy, New York Will Ameringer Fine Art, New York Acquired from the above 1998
Exhibited Zurich, Kunsthhaus, Mark Rothko,March 21 – May 9, 1971, then traveled to Berlin, Staatliche Museen Pruessischer Kulturbesitz, Neue Nationalgalerie (May 26 – July 19, 1971), Düsseldorf, Stádtische Kunsthalle (August 24 – October 3, 1971), Rotterdam, Museum Boymans van Beuningen (November 20, 1971 – January 2, 1972), London, Hayward Gallery (February 2 – March 12, 1972) Paris, Musée National d'Art Moderne (March 23 – May 8, 1972) Basel, Galerie Beyeler, Von Venus zu Venus, September - October , 1972 Basel, Galerie Beyeler, Paysages aprés l'Impressionnisme, September - November 1975 Berlin, Schloss Charlottenburg, Großbe Orangerie,Zeichen des Glaubens-Geist der Avantgarde: Religiöse Tendenzen in der Kunst des 20. Jahrhunderts, May - July 1980 Basel, Galerie Beyeler ,Homageto Francis Bacon, June - September, 1992 Basel, Galerie Beyeler, Dream of the Absolute, June - September, 1994 Madrid, Galería Elvira Gonzales, Mark Rothko, January - March, 1995 Philadelphia Museum of Art, February - July 2002 (on extended loan)
LiteratureMark Rothko, exh. cat., Kunsthhaus, Zurich, 1971, no. 71, p. 115 (illustrated) Mark Rothko, exh. cat., Musée National d'Art Moderne, Paris, 1972, no. 42, p. 41 (illustrated) K. Baker, "Mark Rothko: Marlborough Gallery,"Artforum, vol. 9, January 1971, p. 75 (illustrated) R. Goldwater, "Rothko's Black Paintings,"Art in America, vol. 59, March–April 1971, p. 61 (illustrated in color) M.M. Greiner, "Mark Rothko," Kunst-en Cultuuragenda, vol. 5, May 25, 1972, p. 8 (illustrated) Von Venus zu Venus, exh. cat., Galerie Beyeler, Basel, 1972, p. 83, no. 88 (illustrated) B. O'Doherty, American Masters: The Voice and the Myth, New York: Universe Press, 1973, p. 184 (illustrated) A. Everitt, Abstract Expressionism, New York: Barrons Educational Series, 1978, no. 16 (illustrated) Paysages aprés l'Impressionnisme, exh. cat., Galerie Beyeler, Basel, 1975, no. 62 (illustrated in color) Berlin, Schloss Charlottenburg, Großbe Orangerie, Zeichen des Glaubens-Geist der Avantgarde: Religiöse Tendenzen in der Kunst des 20. Jahrhunderts, May - July 1980, p.183, no. 184 (illustrated) D. Britt, ed., Modern Art: Impressionism to Post-Modernism, Boston, Toronto, London: Little, Brown and Company, 1989, p. 272 (illustrated) Homage to Francis Bacon, exh. cat., Galerie Beyeler, Basel, 1992, no. 52 (illustrated) Dream of the Absolute, exh. cat., Galerie Beyeler, Basel, 1994, p. 45, no. 62 (illustrated, cover) D. Anfam, Mark Rothko: The Works on Canvas: A Catalogue Raisonné, New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1998, p. 670, no. 831 (illustrated)
“Some artists want to tell all like a confessional. I as a craftsman prefer to tell little. My pictures are indeed façades (as they have been called)…I do this only through shrewdness. There is more power in telling little than in telling all. Two things that painting is involved with: the uniqueness and clarity of the image and how much does one have to tell.”
-Mark Rothko, 1958
quoted in (D. Anfan, Mark Rothko—The Works on Canvas—Catalogue Raisonné, New Haven, 1998, p. 75)
The 1960s saw Mark Rothko at the height of both his popularity and his prolific output. Rothko executed many of his most gorgeous and moving works during this decade, deepening both his spiritual connection to and aims for his work while varying the chromatic style and structure accordingly. Perhaps Rothko’s greatest show of dynamism was his pursuit of a more limited palette, be it his monochromatic canvases or his shift to a two-form composition. Regardless, these developments were representative of his ever-evolving philosophical link to his paintings, a mind growing broader and broader. In Black on Gray, 1969-70, we behold one of Mark Rothko’s final pieces: the climax of decades of artistic mastery and one celebrated the world over.
Starting in the middle of the decade, Rothko’s patronage and commission-based work begat a revolution in his stylistic composition. Various mural projects, including that of Harvard University’s Holyoke Center, were beginning to influence the way in which Rothko found himself responding to the lighting of his paintings. Museum lighting was frequently unachievable in these final projects and Rothko began to experiment with simpler chromatic patterns. With the advent of his work at the Rothko Chapel from 1964-1967, Rothko began to showcase the most revolutionary (and most controversial) work of his career. The canvases themselves were monochromatic, a far cry from the saturated colors that had characterized his work of the previous fifteen years. Many of the first visitors to the chapel in 1971 simply asked themselves, “Where are the paintings?” not comprehending the majestic resonance of Rothko’s late work.
An aortic aneurysm set Rothko back in 1968, inflicting a deep physical toll on the painter. Though he obeyed his doctors for the period of a year, agreeing only to work on the physically lax scale of small paintings on paper, Rothko roared back in 1969, producing his signature large canvases. Though Rothko’s defiance of his wavering health most certainly played a hand in his tragic demise a year later, it was during this year that he painted his final cycle of work, Black on Gray, of which the present lot is a dignified component. Indeed, having signed with the Marlborough Gallery in 1969 as his exclusive distributor for the next eight years, Rothko was preparing his series for a show that was, unfortunately, not to take place during his lifetime. At his carriage house on East 69th Street, Rothko executed his Black on Gray cycle, at once the most serene and most metaphysically complex work of his entire career.
Painted on the border of 1969 and 1970, the present lot, Black on Gray, is first and foremost a marvelous technical achievement. With a simple glance, we can observe the compositional leaps that Rothko chose to make during the decade. While his earlier paintings of the 1950s possessed both background and foreground, with several multiforms laying upon a contrasting sheet of color, here Rothko forgoes any such unnecessary dimension, choosing instead to have two forms stacked atop one another, with only thin bars of blank canvas at the sides, serving as evidence of his canvas stretching technique. Putting aside the technical presence of white edges, Rothko succeeds in completely eliminating his field, trusting the viewer instead to engage only with the two shades of darkness before him.
Rothko’s choice to let the field fall away in his work was decades in the making. From his earliest tutelage under Arshile Gorky, to his experiments with surrealism in the 1930s, to his commissions from the Works Progress Administration, the concept of the field was ingrained in Rothko as both a student and as a professional, a necessary technical component for the viewer’s understanding of a picture. His friendship with Clyfford Still throughout the 1940s furthered Rothko’s interest in color grounded on an abstract arena and Still’s use of environmental inspiration (particularly the horizons of the Midwest) served as a perfect model for the incorporation of the field within an abstraction. Yet throughout Rothko’s many decades in adherence to this most strict principle of art history, his own earliest years by the Portland seascapes set the stage for his eventual repudiation of it. As Rothko approached seventy, he was undoubtedly mentally revisiting vistas, where only a single line of horizon divided the sky above and the land below.
Though Rothko’s convenient title gives us a useful shorthand for categorizing the piece within his oeuvre, Black on Gray, 1969-70 is hardly only two shades of black. The canvas itself is squarer than in his previous excursions into multiform paintings, at once embodying a more authoritative presence replete with a more geometric basis. Combined with his more limited palette, with only two chromatic groupings, the piece draws more power from its compositional simplicity than any work before it. As an artist who encourages the intimate interaction of the viewer with his painting, Rothko has intensified the possibilities of observational intimacy, eliciting an investigation into the depths of Rothko’s coloring and seeking out all areas of its ebb and flow. But Rothko focuses concentration in looking, for the emotional catharsis that he aimed for in the creation and observation of the painting would be unachievable without the complete and uninterrupted attention of the viewer. Though we have fewer forms and hues to ponder, our relationship with Rothko’s coloring is strengthened exponentially.
Rothko’s magnificent composition alone does not hold the key to the holistic power of the piece. Rothko’s deep coloring—two initial shades of gray, nearly black above and a sandy mist below—begets a wealth of coloring across their expanses and at their point of chromatic interaction. Rothko’s technical approach to painting allows for a sublime intricacy of shading. Above, within the dark recesses of Rothko’s nearly black form, we find that one area of significantly darker coloring evolves into the next, almost as the dark storms on a misty horizon betray the marks of a lighter sky beyond. But where Rothko’s oils have coalesced in the most saturated spots, such as the top central portion of the picture, we find a terrifying absence of light, almost as if the sun itself had been inverted. Rothko’s lighter shade below, his sandy banks leading out to a sea of darkness, are almost more variegated than his shadowed form above. Employing technical brushwork at the apex of its forty professional years, Rothko creates areas of receding gray and even tan, a wealth of color within the confines of a single shade.
Still, it is Rothko’s horizon that is his most fascinating technical achievement. The central border between the two forms echoes with the power of rolling waves far out at sea as the clouds and shore battle for dominion. The pigments fade from a gentle shade of gray to a terrifyingly dark pitch, eliminating serenity and replacing with unforgiving blackness. Yet, just as easily, we witness the waves roll back as the shoreline claims areas of its own, such as at the far left, where it refuses to allow itself to mix with its sinister rival beyond.
By the time of its execution, Black on Gray, 1969-70, found Rothko operating within a set of technical standards nearly unmatched in the pantheon of abstract painting. Rothko’s brushwork alone—especially within the space of his solidified colorings—is a wonder. Both sparse in its application yet magnificent in its effect, Rothko’s hand lends the lighter form a fluidity nearly unseen in works of contemporary art, as one shade transforms into another with a virtuosic precision. It is easy to forget that Rothko, as a figure painter, was a master of representative pictures as well. But, as we observe the complexities of his brushwork, his mastery becomes gradually evident. In addition, Rothko retained technical secrets even from his assistants, as later studies have discovered the presence of many organic substances within his oil paints, such as egg whites, glue, and a variety of other domestic solvents and ingredients. The result was manipulated oil paints that conformed perfectly to Rothko’s application—exactitude compounded by alchemy. We owe the present lot’s sheen and grace to Rothko’s perfectionism.
It would be remiss to say that the harbingers of Black on Gray, 1969-70, were not heard throughout Rothko’s career. Robert Goldwater, in an article that appeared in Art in America just a year after Rothko’s death, is quick to point out the thematic threads that the present lot follows upon: “It had always been part of Rothko’s method to tempt the presence of a destructive opposite, to include and dominate it. Earlier it had been the pleasant dismissible harmony into which all abstract painting can fall that had been summoned, brought close, and then held off in order to create the awareness of an endless, unrelaxed tragic tension. In the last paintings, on the contrary, it is not decoration, but the naturalism of deep space, that threatens and is mastered.”(R. Goldwater, Art in America, no. 62 [March/April 1971], London, p. 62)
Goldwater touches upon Rothko’s artistic project quite beautifully. With his lifelong interest in all realms of philosophy and psychology, Rothko’s earlier aims with his multiform paintings were, in effect, to bring about an emotional catharsis by way of provoking our most instinctual energies. Rothko had faith that the aim of his art should be to replace the aims of tribal rituals and the mythological symbols of the past, which liberated subconscious human energies. After his more obvious attempts at this project, which included canvases filled with symbolism—what he termed “mythomorphic abstraction”—he finally settled on multiforms as his new method of breaking the “tragic tension” to which Goldwater refers. Rothko was able to tie the unconscious of both Freud and Jung into his work of the late 1940s and 1950s quite well, and, as the shades of his multiform paintings grew darker and darker, he became an artist delving deeper and deeper into the realms of the unknown. In 1956’s Green Over BlueEarth, we see Rothko hurdling toward his eventual repudiation of bright coloring, for the power of light’s demise is a preamble to his Black on Gray series.
The Rothko Chapel in Houston, Texas also holds value for the interpretation of Black on Gray, 1969-70. Commissioned by John and Dominique de Menil in 1964, the construction of the Chapel became a point of artistic and religious conflict for Rothko, who espoused the belief that his art alone should be the point of spiritual focus within its confines. During the three years in which he painted these canvases, Rothko’s advancement in his balance and serenity of forms came at the cost of bright color’s exclusion from his work. With a new purpose for his art—which was to be set within a holy place—Rothko’s paintings changed substantially, adopting a meditative presence in favor of an exuberant one. These replaced his concept of emotional catharsis with an emphasis on embracing darkness.
The massive central panel in the Chapel, a triptych formed by three dark canvases, displays the same compositional detail as in the present lot. In its supreme darkness, the work finds common ground with Black on Gray, 1969-70, in its wonderful variances of a brushstroke. Playing on light in the midst of darkness and darkness in the midst of light, it calls for the observer’s entire attention in order to achieve true meditation—a preview of Rothko’s final cycle five years later.
Though the battle over the Chapel’s theme lasted until the early seventies, after Rothko had died, the building was finally christened a place for multi-denominational reflection as opposed to only that of Catholics, a great triumph with respect to Rothko’s own pursuits: “Like Monet’s oval rooms at the Orangerie, the Houston Chapel hovers between a shrine of art and a shrine of the spirit, an avowal by a great painter to devote the whole of his being to the religion of art, a consuming goal whose hybrid success as sanctuary and museum is affirmed by the countless visitors in our secular world who make pilgrimages there to look and to turn inward.”(R. Rosenblum, “Notes on Rothko and Tradition”, Mark Rothko, London, 1997, p. 31) The Chapel itself demonstrates Rothko’s zeal in creating art that was both beautiful and purposeful, and it is, in itself, the thematic key for his final years of work.
With Rothko’s work on the Houston Chapel in mind, one can find within the borders of Black on Gray, 1969-70 a new approach for Rothko the artist-philosopher, a veritable renaissance of meaning that results from a transformation of technique: “Rothko’s preference for horizontal divisions within vertical canvases and configurations is replaced by an insistence upon horizontal divisions of horizontal supports. Where the vertical called to mind architecture, the horizontal alludes to landscape. The doorways to a higher reality created before the Houston Chapel were still redolent with sensuous color and form: there was in them an equilibrium between two states of existence, the spiritual and the physical. The new works, however, speak entirely of another, transcendent world, of a painter who has crossed a threshold into the far side of reality. (D. Waldman, Mark Rothko: a Retrospective, New York, 1978, p. 69)
The far side of reality in question is difficult to describe with a sense of perfect accuracy. Though brilliant in mind and craft, Rothko’s project presents one of the most mesmerizing paradoxes in contemporary art: here was a man who possessed a most intimidating faculty for expressing himself and his art with words, writing copiously about both subjects throughout his long career. However, his greatest aims ultimately dealt with that of the ineffable—that which words cannot express. Yet it seems we have an excellent means for describing the aims of Black on Gray, 1969-70, of which he wrote substantially less than his works of the 1940s and 50s, with a single resource: that of his evolving views on philosophy.
As a devotee of many philosophers throughout his life, Rothko eventually found a kindred spirit in the work of Friedrich Nietzsche, whom he found especially astute in his analysis of the artist’s interaction with the world. Nietzsche’s work is the place from which Rothko derived his mission as an artist, to assimilate the freeing experience of myth and ritual into his own means of expression.
Even before his reading of Nietzsche gave him an objective as an artist, Rothko spent decades in conversation with Plato. Plato’s emphasis on simplification in order to achieve complexity clearly resonated with Rothko as a mature artist, and we can observe a linear progression from complexity to simplicity in his work: his mythological paintings become colorful multiforms and his colorful multiforms evolve into monochromatic canvases: “His art and his persuasions instead transform certain elements that have a Platonic cast, and ring a myriad changes to the point that we might overlook their beginnings. These are pictures that deal with the condition of being held in thrall, where substance and shadow contend, works that alternate between a sudden, numbing dazzle and a prolonged meditative uncertainty. Blank as walls that await a message, they loom up and entice us to search within or past their outlines—to seek metaphors, similes and meanings by which to capture them. Barriers to the gaze, they still admit our questing.”(D. Anfam, Mark Rothko—The Works on Canvas—Catalogue Raisonné, New Haven, 1998, p. 99) In finding the many complexities of existence in the simple expression of a monochromatic canvas, we can look into the vastness of Black on Gray, 1969-70 and find any cathartic symbol we wish to discover. Here, Rothko reaches a higher tier of spiritual expression.
The present lot’s depth is not confined to the lens of Greek philosophy; it bears another, more vital fascination of Rothko’s, namely that of the Absurdist—the man who seeks to find meaning in the absence of any. Building upon his own treasured interest in Jean-Paul Sartre, Rothko takes an approach toward absurdity which lends the simple grays and blacks of the painter an air of marvelous and terrifying humor—we are helpless in our quest for truth, yet we create regardless. This conversation was one that Rothko had outlined previously in his writings, namely in his belief that art should hold “hope. 10% to make the tragic concept more endurable.” (Rothko, Achim Borchardt-Hume, ed., London, 2008, p. 91) As he approached his final years, and with the growing tragedy becomes more obvious in his personal life, Rothko’s willingness to converse with tragedy seems appropriate.
After Rothko’s death in 1970, critical consensus around his final work bought into the narrative of Rothko’s own surrender to depression and darkness, the visual elements simple echoes of his own failing mind and heart. But this inclination towards cynicism circumvents the true nature of the final cycle, and, hence, disrespects the actual beauty and depth present in a work such as Black and Gray, 1969-70. It is not, in fact, a surrender, but rather a remarkable engagement with inevitability and death—a material serenity searching for an intellectual calm: “They are a careful disquisition upon finality and closure, fictions of the end and about disengagement rather than unmediated symptoms of a desperate dead end. The latter is a naïve interpretative stance reducing the “Black On Grays” to a chapter in a vie romance. Thus nearly every visual and thematic strategy that that critics have affiliated with these pictures is a trope of disenchantment or distance.”(D. Anfam, Mark Rothko—The Works on Canvas—Catalogue Raisonné, New Haven, 1998, p. 98)
Yet Rothko’s final cycle of Blacks on Grays does not only deal with the darkness that is the ultimate finality. Its simple coloring adopts the Platonic form of complexity as Rothko’s accumulated wisdom travelled hand-in-hand with his work, finding a corporeal form in the present lot. In his first retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum in 1978, Rothko’s marvelous variety within a single color was in full force, rebutting arguments against Rothko’s final works as representative of his life’s events: “Black, however, does not signify only death. It is one of the richest colors in the artist’s palette. Rothko had reduced his painting in the fifties by restricting it to the simplest shades and to color; now he was purifying it even of colors, limiting himself to red, and, finally, black. 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: a Retrospective, New York, 1978, p. 68)
In the years since the artist’s retrospective at the Guggenheim, Rothko’s Blacks on Grays have come to represent some of his greatest achievements in painting: canvases that both engage with darkness yet supersede it, embracing it in order to render it absent of pain. Rothko’s renowned canvases from this period have traveled the world, prized pieces in their many international collections, which include the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, the Museum of Modern Art, New York, and, of course, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York.
As Robert Goldwater beautifully states just a year after Rothko’s death, “The sense of the tragic, then, had been in Rothko’s work, and as his art developed it dominated more and more of his paintings. He spoke of his desire for an art that would express the human condition—and so would perforce be a tragic art. This meant the search for a painting beyond painting, direct, uncompromising, using the means of painting in the purest form but utterly opposed to that peinture-peinture against which he and his fellows in the early New York School had fought (and which, latterly, he saw on the rise again in much of the work of the younger painters with its easy and pointless display of technical mastery). A timeless art had been his goal.”(R. Goldwater, Art in America, no. 62 [March/April 1971], London, p. 62)