Mark Rothko - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale New York Wednesday, June 23, 2021 | Phillips

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  • "[Rothko’s] vibrant late paintings on paper contain a force not experienced in the earlier small works…These late creations, with their dense unmodulated surfaces, do not flicker with light; rather, they generate a strong, constant glow."
    —Bonnie Clearwater

    Exuding a radiant glow emanating from silent darkness, Mark Rothko’s Untitled is a captivating example of the artist’s late work. Emerging from a ground recalling the large murals of the Rothko Chapel in Houston commissioned by the Menil family in 1964, two richly dark color fields meet at a striking teal horizon. Executed in 1969, the present work exemplifies Rothko’s renewed concentration towards painting on paper in the late 1960s that followed the darkening of his palette. Emanating the serene sublimity and bold iridescence of his monumental canvases, Untitled exemplifies Rothko’s chromatic and formal meditations, embodying an arresting sense of control, clarity, and introspection that characterize the artist’s late oeuvre.


    The Rothko Chapel, Houston. Image: © Hickey Robertson

    "While it is true that there is general darkening of the palette in the last thirteen years of my father’s career, the changes in form are at least equally responsible for the more meditative mood of the later works."
    —Christopher Rothko

    Embodying a honed sense of interior reflection through visual refinement, the artist’s shift towards his darker color fields eventually worked in tandem with the increasing definition of his forms. “For what began to change subtly, several years after my father’s palette began to darken, was the means he used to express the emotional content of the work,” Christopher Rothko explained. “As he stripped away still more layers in search of clarity, the paintings became formally tighter, the rectangles more regular in shape, the layers of color reduced....The emotional material has become highly focused, and the content more specific. Color still carried the message, looking to engage with our innermost selves, but rather than bright, broad brushstrokes of feeling, we are presented with more pinpointed emotions, expressed through subtle interplay of very carefully juxtaposed colors.”i In the case of the present work, Christopher Rothko’s words manifest in velvety black fields on top of a deep lavender ground cut by a contrasting teal band.


    Mark Rothko, Untitled, 1969. Museum of Modern Art, New York, Image: © The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA / Art Resource, NY, Artwork: © 2021 Kate Rothko Prizel & Christopher Rothko / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

    "I’m interested only in expressing basic human emotions—tragedy, ecstasy, doom, and so on—and the fact that lots of people break down and cry when confronted with my pictures shows that I communicate those basic human emotions."
    —Mark Rothko

    For Rothko, color was the vehicle to communicate the deepest vulnerabilities of the human condition. As the artist expressed to Selden Rodman in 1957, the year he began darkening his palette, “If you, as you say, are moved only by their color relationships, then you miss the point!”ii It was perhaps in an effort to avoid decorative connotations in his work that he shifted towards darker pigments, as he later revealed that “his belief that the tragic expression of these dark paintings was more comprehensive.”iii As with many of Rothko’s works from 1968 to 1969, Untitled is distinguished by a darkness that simultaneously shimmers with a brilliant illumination. Evoking his deep admiration for Fra Angelico, Rothko aimed to suffuse a mysterious aura of light by reducing his range of colors “using only gradations of black invoking his magical sheens.”iv “One of the most remarkable of Rothko’s triumphs, Michael Butor observed, “is to have made a kind of black light shine.”v


    Caspar David Friedrich, Monk by the Sea, 1808-1810. Nationalgalerie, Staatliche Museen, Berlin, Image: bpk Bildagentur / Nationalgalerie, Staatliche Museen / Andres Kilger / Art Resource, NY

    Although Rothko avidly explored working on paper during his Surrealist period in the 1940s, it was not until the end of his life that paper again played a major role. After suffering an aortic aneurysm in the spring of 1968, Rothko began working on a smaller scale upon his doctor’s orders and devoted himself almost exclusively to painting on paper with an unprecedented fervor. Since the artist had sufficiently recovered from his illness to return to larger-scaled canvases in 1969, his insistence with the medium reflected his artistic probing to explore the absolute limits of painting. In his notes of Franz Cizek’s teachings, who made a profound influence on Rothko in his early years, Rothko recorded, “Cizek advises those to whom a certain medium becomes too easy and who run the risk of becoming too skilled in that medium, to try another which presents more difficulties to them.”vi As if to take on this challenge, Rothko concentrated his efforts on the lighter and more versatile medium that bolstered the artist’s career-long quest of aesthetic transcendence through channeling the essence of color and light. As Dore Ashton observed, “It was almost certainly his experience with the paradoxical nature of paper—absorbing and reflecting at the same time—that set him on his course to the great clearing away that his life’s work represents.”vii


    i Christopher Rothko, quoted in Rothko: Dark Palette, exh. cat., Pace Gallery, New York, 2016, p. 37.
    ii Mark Rothko, quoted in Selden Rodman, Conversations with Artists, New York, 1957, p. 94.
    iii Bonnie Clearwater, Mark Rothko: Works on Paper, New York, p. 42.
    iv Dore Ashton, About Rothko, New York, 1983, p. 189.
    v Ibid.
    vi Mark Rothko, unpublished notebook, late 1930s, The George C. Carson Family Collection, on extended loan to the Mark Rothko Foundation, New York.
    vii Dore Ashton, “Introduction,” in Bonnie Clearwater, Mark Rothko: Works on Paper, New York, p. 9. 

    • Provenance

      Marlborough Gallery, York
      Private Collection, Connecticut
      M. Knoedler & Co., New York (acquired in 1981)
      Stephen Mazoh & Company, New York
      Phillip Schrager, Omaha (acquired from the above in November 1983)
      Christie’s, New York, May 12, 2014, lot 70
      Acquired at the above sale by the present owner

    • Exhibited

      New York, Stephen Mazoh & Company, Twentieth Century Works of Art: An Exhibition, November 1 - December 31, 1983, no. 16, p. 34 (illustrated, p. 35)

    • Literature

      The Pacesetter Corporation’s Collection of Contemporary Art, Omaha, 1983-1986, vol. 2, n.p. (illustrated)
      C. Ross, “Schrager’s Masterpiece," One Magazine, October 2003, p. 20 (illustrated)

Property of a Prominent Private Collector



acrylic on paper mounted on panel
48 5/8 x 40 1/2 in. (123.5 x 102.9 cm)
Executed in 1969.

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.

Full Cataloguing

$3,500,000 - 4,500,000 

Sold for $3,700,000

Contact Specialist

Amanda Lo Iacono
Head of Auctions
New York
+1 212 940 1278

20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

New York Auction 23 June 2021