Mark Rothko - Contemporary Art Evening Sale New York Thursday, November 13, 2014 | Phillips

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  • Video

    MARK ROTHKO 'Untitled', 1959

    "One of the things that makes him perhaps the most important painter of the post war era is his true reliance on the notion of materiality being the subject..." Contemporary Art specialist Benjamin Godsill on Mark Rothko's 'Untitled', 1959 from our 13 November Evening Sale.

  • Provenance

    Private Collection, New York, 1960s - 1976
    Sotheby Parke Bernet, Inc., New York, Important Post War and Contemporary Art, May 28, 1976, lot 310A

  • Exhibited

    New York, The American Federation for the Arts, Mark Rothko: Works on Paper, May 1984 - September 1986
    Washington D.C., National Gallery of Art, Mark Rothko, May 3 - August 16, 1998, then traveled to New York, Whitney Museum of American Art (September 17 - November 29, 1998), Paris, Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris (January 8 - April 18, 1999)

  • Literature

    B. Clearwater, Mark Rothko: Works on Paper, exh. cat., The American Federation for the Arts, New York: Hudson Hills Press, 1984, no. 26, n.p. (illustrated)
    B. Rose, "Talking About Art: Color as Light, Color as Form: Whistler's Mists....Rothko's Clouds," Vogue, August 1984, p. 24 (illustrated)
    "Calendar: Rothko, Romanesque, Running Shoes," Art and Antiques, May 1984, p. 105 (illustrated)
    B. Malamud, "Mark Rothko: Works on Paper," FMR, no. 11, May 1985, p. 33 (illustrated)
    K. Larson, "Durable Darkness," New York, June 17, 1984, p. 62 (illustrated)
    "Museum Notebook: Rothko on Paper," Southwest Art, March 1986, p. 11 (illustrated)
    Mark Rothko, exh. cat., National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C., 1998, no. 81, p. 175 (illustrated)

  • Catalogue Essay

    “Some artists want to tell all like a confessional. I as a craftsman prefer to tell little… there is more power in telling little than in telling all.” Mark Rothko, 1958

    Indeed, Mark Rothko’s work speaks for itself. Rather than pursue the path of figure, of gestural symbol, of representation in general, Rothko made a career out of communicating without the benefit of the pictorial intermediary. And while his canvas-based multiform paintings receive a great deal of attention for their unsurpassable influence in the realm of contemporary painting, Rothko’s equally impressive works on paper garner their own renown, achieving a visual effect far different—and, as in the present lot, more splendid—from his larger works on canvas. As a series in the making, Rothko’s paper multiforms stretched nearly two decades, with each successive visitation exploring a new facet of possibility. But at his career’s height, Rothko painted Untitled, 1959: one of the most perfect examples of the medium in which he was working, and a gorgeous fusion of optic possibility and immersive intimacy in painting.

    For the first decades of their existence, most of Rothko’s works on paper were erroneously deemed secondary to his larger canvas paintings—mostly as a result of the bias against their scale. Yet, as a medium of dependability throughout Rothko’s career, paper clearly held artistic properties lacking in canvas that appealed to Rothko. Finally, as a part of the landmark 1984 exhibition “Mark Rothko: Works on Paper” at the National Gallery in Washington DC, the present lot was instrumental in legitimizing the long-sought equality of Rothko’s paper works, appearing alongside a host of other marvelous examples of Rothko’s paper works from 1925-1970.

    As a medium, paper lent itself magnificently to the developing style of the young Rothko. During the 1930s and before, Rothko was a frequent draughtsman, employing both pencil and paint in his drawings and works on paper. A familiarity with the medium transformed in these years into an intimate knowledge of the structural nature of paper when applied with watercolor and oil paint in particular. During Rothko’s Surrealist phase, his attention turned towards the nuances of subconscious symbol on canvas, but he explored the same concepts on paper as well. And, as Rothko finally departed from his representational work in painting during the late 1940s and into the realm of the multiform, he continued to explore both mediums, testing the limits of the capability in each.

    But while the canvas veered toward the realm of massive immersion, Rothko’s paper works chose a different route: intimacy. While the spectator falls into the scope of Rothko’s canvases, he peers into the world of a more contained surface, familiarizing himself intimately with the unique properties of its diluted oils, fibrous surface, and delicate brushwork. But Rothko loved to use paper not only for its limited scope, but also for its greater capacity for stylistic nuance:

    “The special properties inherent in the materials Rothko used also contribute to the appearance of the works on paper. Thinned pigments blend and bleed with greater subtlety on absorbent paper than on canvas. The paper’s fibers soak up the fluid paint, resulting in a surface almost devoid of the artist’s gesture. For most of his small works on paper Rothko preferred to stain the surface with only two layers of paint, unlike the canvases which support several glazes of pigment….thus, with their symmetry, tidy execution, and minimal gesture the small works on paper often seem to be more quintessential Rothko than many of his canvasses.”(B. Clearwater, Mark Rothko: Works on Paper, New York, 1984, p. 39)

    And, after mounting his works—usually upon Masonite—Rothko enjoyed the permanence of the colors, as stained paper retains its original chromatic properties to a greater extent than its canvas counterpart. This artistic intransience, assisted by the impasto build up of fibers, is a microuniverse in itself—a thoroughly explorable surface.

    Untitled, 1959 is, first and foremost, a devastating portrait of Rothko’s multiform paintings, his chosen expression of the essence of human drama. Touting the ability of the form to be simultaneous in its intellectual complexity and visual simplicity, Rothko’s use of the multiform is itself portraiture. Contained within the floating shapes of Rothko’s surface is the compendium of human joy and sorrow, visualized in the layers of his brilliant coloring. As he confided to an interviewer in 1943: “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”(WNYC, October 13, 1943). With the multiform, Rothko tackled the subject of essential portraiture—painting the likeness of the soul itself.

    And if we are to categorize the nature of each soul inherent in Rothko’s paintings, the present lot is certainly one of transcendent ecstasy. Contained within the boundaries of its edges is an overwhelmingly bright interaction of free-floating shapes, hovering celestially upon a sheet of pale orange. The background of Rothko’s medium bears a wondrous uniformity of saturation, employing its unique intrinsic properties to conceal the gentle brushstrokes of the artist. While the least intense in its chromatic scope, Rothko’s background is also the brightest, departing from the tendency of many of his multiform paintings to possess dazzling rectangular shapes upon a comparatively dark background. As the delicate fibers of the paper could only support a finite number of layers, we can assume that Rothko’s pale orange background is a single sheet of color, and one that supports the layers above it.

    Rothko’s deep and light orange as well as pink shapes are the star inhabitants of the surface, almost betraying a living relationship in their complex proximity. At top, Rothko’s authoritative, deep-set coloring makes for a dominating focus, its borders uncertain in their wispy placement atop the background—like so many flames of an eternal fire. This locus of vision for the observer engenders forceful strength as the initial stop on Rothko’s visual journey, a powerful first association for the viewer. But, working our way down, Rothko shines in his ability to incorporate femininity into his painting, painting a thick ribbon of pink across the center of the picture. Radiating at its own borders, and interacting in mesmerizing fashion with its neighboring shapes, Rothko incorporates and juxtaposes the blissful colors of a sunset—though they are placed contrary to what an earthly horizon might suggest. As we complete our journey downwards with wonderful subtlety, Rothko delights in delicacy, painting a shape so intricate in its elusive coloring that it threatens to become a casualty of the background. In a barely more saturated hue, Rothko places his largest form as his anchor: a structure of support, but also an equal in the incessant chromatic vibration of the shapes. This shape, the most magical of the three upon Rothko’s surface, is a less of a bid for attention and more of a palette cleanser, so to speak: though visually underwhelming, it manages to balance the severity of the shapes above it, providing a layer of neutrality against the hot forces at the top of the picture.

    This unparalleled ingenuity hits the perfect balance of strength and vulnerability in Untitled, 1959. At once a study in absolutes, represented by the strength of the more potent forms above, the present lot also finds unlikely comfort in the gentle touch of a third. Within the realm of Rothko’s emotional spectrum, these unlikely allies are the perfect embodiment of the human condition, bound at once to experience the heights of aggression and the consolation of surrender. This poignant dichotomy is one of the most quintessential concepts inherent to Rothko’s work, and a sobering reminder of their place in the history of human existence:

    “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)

    Even before Rothko, the thrill of chromatic fantasy and uncertainty has drawn other painters to explore juxtapositions of similar colors, which resulted in conjuring the same type of rapturous joy in their viewers. In Rothko’s exploration of light and lightness, particularly in the boundaries between his forms, we find the hand of Claude Monet, who, in such seminal works as View of San Giorgio Maggiore by Twilight, 1908, portrayed the pale orange fire of a sunset as a series of increasingly saturated brushstrokes, each intensifying the next. In addition, J.M.W. Turner’s wildly revolutionary uses of color in his transition to his mature period ring of Rothko’s own painterly geometry. In Sunset, 1830-35, we not only find a chromatic soulmate for Untitled, 1959, but also a parallel use of rectangular formations as well—but while Rothko’s shapes are bordered by their background hue, suspended and floating above the surface, Turner chooses to give his gradually deepening colors no boundaries at all, allowing them to spill into the sides and corners of his painting in orange, brown, and burgundy tones.

    The greatness of Rothko’s past influences are secondary only to his own power of influence: we find the colors and shapes of the present lot alive today in Gerhard Richter’s work. As far back as Abstraktes Bild, 1980, Richter has experimented in seeking out the chromatic power of the unconscious sublime while invoking Rothko’s chromatic relationships. But while Richter’s abstract paintings might seem to eschew geometry in their fragmented disunity, their principal shape is the rectangle, splintered into a multiverse of forms.

    In their intimate experience and flamboyant vitality, Rothko’s works on paper supplant the theory that a great artist can only possess a single mode of expression. In place of this, he posits a more accurate notion: that the genius of a single creator can conjure a multitude of masterworks, each representative of the brilliant mind from whence they came. Untitled, 1959 is one such painting—a singularly perfect multiform.




oil on paper, mounted on Masonite
23 7/8 x 18 7/8 in. (60.6 x 47.9 cm)
Signed and dated "MARK ROTHKO 1959" on the reverse.

$3,000,000 - 5,000,000 

Sold for $4,085,000

Contact Specialist
Amanda Stoffel
Head of Evening Sale
New York
+ 1 212 940 1261

Contemporary Art Evening Sale

New York Auction 13 November 2014 7pm