Mark Rothko - Contemporary Art Part I New York Thursday, May 12, 2011 | Phillips
  • Provenance

    Marlborough Gallery, Inc., New York; The Lionel Corporation, New York; PaceWildenstein Gallery, New York; Private Collection; Sale: Sotheby’s, London, Contemporary Art Evening Auction, June 21, 2007, lot 51; Acquired from the above by the present owner

  • Catalogue Essay

    There is…a profound reason for the persistence of the word ‘portrait’ because the real essence of the great portraiture of all time is the artist’s eternal interest in the human figure, character, and emotions — in short, in the human drama.


    (Mark Rothko on WNYC, October 13, 1943)

    Mark Rothko’s previous quote, which predates his foray and devotion to the groundbreaking multi-form paintings by roughly three years, anticipates his future style with a concise and enlightening foreshadow. With the inception of its form in 1946, 1969’s Untitled (Red and Orange on Salmon) is a testament to Rothko’s destined embrace of his chosen technique. It is a piece that displays a vibrant ingenuity even though, upon its completion, Rothko had employed the form for nearly a quarter-century.

    Departing from the enormity of many of his multi-form canvases, here we see Rothko working on paper subsequently mounted on canvas in a more intimate size. Though the small scale is largely due to doctor’s orders to minimize stressful activity following the diagnosis of a heart ailment in 1968, Rothko had already utilized the smaller form in previous decades as a less common outlet for his radiant and terrifically evocative blocks of color. A great deal of the current lot’s distinctiveness comes from the period in which Rothko painted it: decisive chronological impasse. Between his enormous canvases and his final larger pieces, he cemented his affection for producing his artwork on paper, a medium which he worked with for the rest of his career.

    A dazzling warmth emanates forth from Untitled (Red and Orange on Salmon). The piece initially confronts the viewer as a discussion of closely-related colors. The soft salmon background gives way to the dominance of a powerful red above the reticent and physically smaller orange beneath. Yet the borders of these blocks of color, tethered and fluttering toward each other in a friendly, almost compassionate gesture, give all three hues the notion of not only coexistence, but of co-dependence. Textually, this co-dependence echoes in the relationship between the salmon as a base and the colors layered above it: though the salmon is thinly applied, humble in its three-dimensionality, it is the shoulders on which stand the slight and delicate oil textures of the red and orange. Furthermore, this discussion among colors is quite literal — as the salmon, red, and orange share their space, they lend each other luminescence, each brightened and beautified by virtue of its proximity to the others. Here,
    the unique reflective properties of Rothko’s medium intensify this color collaboration, allowing the hues to give off an electric charge.

    Rothko’s belief in the power of color over symbol, subject, or text, comes from his notion of color as that which is most primitive, yet most evocative. “The fact that one usually begins with drawing is already academic. We start with color.” Through his multi-form creations, then, he uncovers the truth of a seeming paradox: sometimes, we must divorce our cerebral selves from our passionate selves, and rely on the latter to deliver the reality of what he calls the “breath of life”. Exposing the human drama, Rothko asserted, hinges on the devotion of the artist to what he calls “portraits that [are] works of art” (The artist on WNYC, October 13, 1943). Rothko’s artistic portraits lack a figurative subject, but evoke unconscious energies previously liberated by mythical symbols and rituals. The viewer succumbs to an “exhilarated tragic experience.”

    In terms of the specific drama that a Rothko piece invokes in the viewer, Critic Jeffrey Weiss writes that, “standing before a Rothko canvas, the viewer is a surrogate for the miniscule figures that appear in Romantic painting.”(Mark Rothko,
    New Have, p. 305,
    2000). Indeed, many confronted with the visceral emotional experience of a Rothko piece have, in the artist’s opinion, shared with him the experience of artistic creation in their reception of the piece: they have laughed with giddiness and wept
    with grief. It is this exorcism of true feeling and natural response that gives Rothko’s work its perennial strength and most profound gift.

    The viewer’s experience owes its profound exposure of the human condition to Rothko’s deep sense of the intimate, with which he saturates his paintings. While his enormous works present an environment in which viewers may immerse themselves and surrender to the romance of evocative response, his smaller works seem to possess something more intimate, delicate, restrained, and, perhaps, more ephemeral. In the case of the current piece, we see a direct contrast between its relatively tiny stature and the overwhelming life of its artistic content. Though we would allow ourselves to be enveloped by the magnificence of huge Rothko canvases, we peer quietly and pointedly into the heart of Untitled (Red and Orange on Salmon). In it, we see not only the warmth and vibrancy of a universe populated exclusively by three colors, but
    also, in the co-dependence of all three colors on the same plane, a genuine chromatic friendship. As the salmon acts as a supporting base, the red a protective dominant, and the orange as a slight yet grateful follower, we see the interaction of the colors resemble less a kaleidoscopic phenomenon and more our interdependence as human beings upon one another. It is not coincidental then, that Rothko’s small painting has both the size and the shape of a mirror, for it is in its Untitled (Red and Orange on Salmon) that we see ourselves reflected.


Untitled (Red and Orange on Salmon)

Acrylic on paper laid down on canvas.
25 3/4 x 17 3/4 in. (65.4 x 45.1 cm.)
Signed “MARK ROTHKO” on the reverse.

$3,000,000 - 4,000,000 

Contemporary Art Part I

12 May 2011
New York