Mark Rothko - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale New York Wednesday, May 18, 2022 | Phillips
  • "Red, yellow, orange—aren’t those the colors of an inferno?"
    —Mark Rothko

    Maintaining the signature palette of Mark Rothko’s first mature paintings, the present work from 1959 sustains the lineage of the artist’s most celebrated works. Here, a scorching red field radiates between a glowing orange band and lustrous yellow passage, the quiet intensity conjuring his statement that he “wanted a presence, so when you turned your back to the painting, you would feel that presence the way you feel the sun on your back.”i Showcasing the chromatic and structural ethereality Rothko achieved in the 1950s, Untitled manifests the tighter shape of his feather-edged rectangles by the end of the decade. The present work arrives at auction at a critical moment in the artist’s scholarship, with a major retrospective of Rothko’s paintings on paper slated for November 2023 to September 2024 at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. and National Museum of Art, Architecture, and Design, Oslo.


    Mark Rothko, No. 13 (White, Red on Yellow), 1958. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Artwork: © 1998 Kate Rothko Prizel & Christopher Rothko / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

    "The year 1959 presents a particularly interesting case...[The works on paper] are, to the best of our knowledge, the only paintings he produced of any kind during this time, save for the murals and related studies. Without doubt, they are among his very greatest works."
    —Christopher Rothko

    Untitled is among a discrete group of compositions that defied the artist’s shift to a dramatically darkened palette marked by the Seagram mural commission. The more subdued palette would dominate his painterly oeuvre from the late 1950s through the rest of career. Displaying the brighter chromaticism of his classic multiforms from the early to mid-1950s, the present work manifests how Rothko still pursued the iconic high-keyed pigments of his signature color fields in his paintings on paper. Christopher Rothko revealed the respite Rothko found at this time with works such as Untitled. “In 1959, paper offers my father a different sense of scale, and a renewed sense of intimacy in his approach to the viewer…[These] papers represent a huge exhalation in the context of the mass and single-mindedness of the Seagram murals. Through the modest size of these works on paper, Rothko was redressing the measure of man—his viewer but first and foremost himself. Seeking to give the observer the same experience he had when creating the painting, he returned to a scale that was personal rather than institutional. The quiet beauty and calm that emanates from these works was no doubt hard-won in the white-hot atmosphere of passion and frustration that was the Seagram project.”ii


    Mark Rothko, Black on Maroon (Seagram Building Series), 1959. Tate, London. Image: © Tate, London / Art Resource, NY, Artwork: © 1998 Kate Rothko Prizel & Christopher Rothko / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York


    Indeed for Rothko, the bright could be as menacing as the dark. When a collector once asked the artist for “a happy painting, a red and yellow and orange painting, not a sad painting,” Rothko countered, “Red, yellow, orange—aren’t those the colors of an inferno?”iii This Dionysian spirit is epitomized in Untitled through the fiery intensity engendered by the red field set against the lighter passages. Red was the paramount color of Rothko’s art, as Diane Waldman observed: “No other color appears so insistently in his oeuvre from the time of the multiforms. It dominates Rothko's work of the fifties and sixties and, in fact, was the color of his last painting. Red is so potent optically that it overwhelms or obliterates other hues unless it is diluted or controlled by juxtaposing it, as Mondrian did, with equally strong colors, such as black and white, or the other primaries yellow and blue…altering its tonality according to the emotion he wishes to express. Perhaps Rothko was so drawn to red because of its powerful and basic associations: it is identified with the elements and ritual—with fire and with blood—and thus with life, death and the spirit.”iv

    "I'm interested only in expressing basic human emotions—tragedy, ecstasy, doom and so on…And if you, as you say, are moved only by their color relationships, then you miss the point."
    —Mark Rothko

    Henri Matisse, The Red Studio, 1911. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Image: © The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA / Art Resource, NY, Artwork: © 2022 Succession H. Matisse / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

    Deeply influenced by Greek theater, with its themes of universal truths and emotion, Rothko championed color as the vehicle to communicate the deepest vulnerabilities of the human condition. His conviction in the sublime power of art “belongs very much in the tradition of metaphysicians of painting as Mondrian, Paul Klee and Wassily Kandinsky, for whom color was key to the realm of the spirit,” as Waldman noted. “However Rothko's commitment to the expression of the spiritual rather than the physical was inspired not by their aesthetic theories, but by the evidence of their painting.”v It is in this vein that Rothko saw profound inspiration in Matisse’s The Red Studio, 1911 and the work of J.M.W. Turner, influences that reverberate in Untitled. As the former stirred Rothko to explore the capabilities of pure color, so Rothko stirs the viewer to feel the present work’s chromatic evocations. The composition exudes an inner glow that evokes what Rothko sought to capture from Turner’s paintings, qualities that “on the one hand seem so solid and yet on the other are ungraspable,” Christopher Rothko From the material to ethereal, inner to transcendent expression, in Untitled “Rothko makes the concrete sublime.”vii 


    Joseph Mallord William Turner, Sunset, ca. 1830-35. Tate, London. Image: © Tate, London / Art Resource, NY

    "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."
    —Dore Ashton

    That Rothko’s paintings on paper from this period reveal a greater chromatic range than his contemporaneous canvases testify to their significance in the broader picture of his practice. Foreshadowing the artist’s decisive return to painting on paper in the 1960s, the present work reflects his devotion to the medium after his fervent explorations during his Surrealist period in the 1940s. The unique material properties of paper absorbed pigments with greater sensitivity than the canvas surface, which bolstered his investigations on capturing the essence of color and light for aesthetic transcendence. This is particularly evinced in the lower field of Untitled, in which Rothko scumbled the yellow ground with a thin, tinted layer of paint to evoke a translucent effect, capturing Bonnie Clearwater’s observation that such works appear “as if Rothko had peeled away the layers of his paintings in an attempt to unravel his own mystery and expose the core of his art.”viii



    i Mark Rothko, quoted by Murray Israel in James E. B. Breslin, Mark Rothko: A Biography, Chicago, 1993, p. 275.
    ii Christopher Rothko, Mark Rothko: From the Inside Out, New Haven, 2015, p. 222.
    iii Mark Rothko, quoted in Hilarie M. Sheets, “Mark Rothko’s Dark Palette Illuminated,” The New York Times, November 2, 2016, online.
    iv Diane Waldman, Mark Rothko, 1903-1970: A Retrospective, exh. cat., Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 1978, pp. 57-58.
    v Ibid., p. 58.
    vi Christopher Rothko, “This man Turner, he learnt a lot from me,” Tate Etc., no. 51, Spring 2021, online.
    vii Diane Waldman, Mark Rothko, 1903-1970: A Retrospective, exh. cat., Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 1978, p. 59.
    viii Bonnie Clearwater, Mark Rothko: Works on Paper, exh. cat., American Federation of Arts, New York, p. 39.

    • Provenance

      Galerie D. Benador (Jacques Benador), Geneva
      Private Collection, Europe
      Christie’s, New York, November 20, 1996, lot 17
      Acquired at the above sale by the present owner

    • Exhibited

      Museo d'Arte Moderna della Città di Lugano, Passioni d'Arte da Picasso a Warhol. Capolavori del collezionismo in Ticino, September 22–December 8, 2002, pp. 224, 330 (illustrated, p. 225)

Property from an Important European Private Collection



signed and dated "MARK ROTHKO 1959" on the reverse
oil on paper mounted on Masonite
38 x 24 7/8 in. (96.5 x 63.2 cm)
Executed in 1959.

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

$6,000,000 - 8,000,000 

Sold for $8,435,000

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20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

New York Auction 18 May 2022