Mark Rothko - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale New York Thursday, November 15, 2018 | Phillips

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  • Provenance

    Marlborough-Gerson Gallery Inc., New York
    Estate of Bernard J. Reis, New York
    Sotheby Parke Bernet Inc., New York, November 19, 1981, lot 49
    Dr. R.D. and Jane Burns, Elkhart, Indiana
    Sotheby's, New York, May 9, 1990, lot 164
    Acquired at the above sale by the present owner

  • Exhibited

    Elkhart, Midwest Museum of American Art, April 1982 - May 1990 (on extended loan)

  • Catalogue Essay

    Executed in 1968, Mark Rothko’s Black Blue Painting is a captivating late work made by the artist at the height of his creative powers. Recalling the Rothko Chapel paintings commissioned by John and Dominique de Menil, 1964-1971, the serene color field envelops the viewer into silent darkness. Two color fields of variegated opacity float atop a translucent dark ground, the internal horizon that arises between the rectangular shapes giving the faint allusion of an ocean seen in the darkness of night. Black Blue Painting exemplifies Rothko’s renewed focus on painting on paper in the late 1960s, furthering his decade-long pursuit of conveying the essence of light. A masterpiece of chromatic and compositional nuance, it emanates the incredible sense of control, serenity, and delicacy so characteristic of Rothko’s late works. As such, the present work powerfully anticipates the radical break in Rothko’s mature style that went in hand with his Black and Gray paintings, the last series Rothko would undertake before his premature death in 1970.

    When Rothko painted this work in 1968, his status as one of America’s most revered Abstract Expressionists had been firmly secured. While he was enjoying considerable critical and commercial success ¬in a decade dominated by the new movements of Pop art and Minimalism, he nevertheless continued to investigate new possibilities in his art in pursuit of ever greater formal and conceptual formal clarity. Around the same time as fellow New York School artist Robert Motherwell was recalibrating his practice with his radical Open series, Rothko, as Thomas B. Hess noted, appeared to be “clearing the decks for something new, freeing himself for fresh experiment. Rothko’s paintings have this nascent excitement” (Thomas B. Hess, “Rothko: A Venetian Souvenir”, Art News, 69, no. 7, November 1970, p. 74).

    In this late period, Rothko shifted from working on canvas to paper. The medium bore profound significance for Rothko throughout his career, yet it was in the 1960s, and particularly starting in last three years of his life, that he pursued it with an unprecedented focus that surpassed even his preoccupation with working on paper during his Surrealist period in the mid-1940s. In the spring of 1968, Rothko suffered an aortic aneurysm and started working on a smaller scale upon his doctor’s advice. Rothko conceived of his works on paper as autonomous works of art: they presented a crucial part of his artistic probing which he pursued with a remarkable energy and productivity despite his poor health.

    With its paradoxical ability to simultaneously absorb and reflect light, the medium of paper proved essential for Rothko’s decade-long rhetoric of light and color. For works such as the present one, Rothko layered thin washes of paint, often allowing colors from bottom layers to show through the top pigment. In doing so, Rothko achieved surfaces that seem to conceal a light source emanating from hidden depths, devoid of any traces of the artist’s gestures as the paper’s fibers soaked up the swathes of fluid paint. Black Blue Painting, as with many of Rothko’s late works, is distinguished by an ominous darkness, yet nevertheless appear as if brilliantly illuminated from within. A great admirer of Fra Angelico, Rothko sought to reduce the range of colors to convey a suffused, mysterious kind of light. “One of the most remarkable of Rothko’s triumphs,” as Michael Butor postulated, “is to have made a kind of black light shine” (Dore Ashton, About Rothko, New York, 1983, p. 189).

    Black Blue Painting is exemplary of Rothko’s preoccupation with a simplification of color in the 1960s – not merely its range and hue, but also its application and interaction. The internal rectangular color fields provide only a glimpse of the underlying translucent color field as they softly feather out towards and each other and the edges of the canvas; the tonal background upon which they hover all but disappearing in his ensuing Black and Gray paintings. If in many of Rothko’s pictures from the mid-1950s bands of color clashed energetically, in his last years they seem to emanate from one another ¬– the turbulence giving way to sensuous serenity.

    Though this marked chromatic shift has been regarded by some as indicative of Rothko’s psychological state at the time, works such as the present one ultimately presented a continuation of Rothko’s longstanding intent of expressing, through color and form, “basic human emotions – tragedy, ecstasy, doom…” (Mark Rothko, 1956, quoted in Writings on Art: Mark Rothko, New Haven, 2006, p. 119). Indeed, as Christopher Rothko convincingly argued, the darker palette in many ways was a way for Rothko to clarify “that he was not a colorist, that even his most brilliant hues were simply a means to an end” (Christopher Rothko, “Mark Rothko: The Mastery of the ‘60s”, in Mark Rothko, An Essential Reader, Houston, 2015, p. 146).

    As with all of Rothko’s painting, Black Blue Painting evades any form of literal interpretation; its constituent elements coalesce into a total image capable of infinite inflection for each viewer. Here, the visual analogies to the classical music Rothko was so inspired by become apparent. “Rothko’s means”, as Brian O’Doherty indeed observed, “are not so much reductive and singular as multiple and orchestral” (Brian O’Doherty, “Mark Rothko: The Tragic and the Transcendental”, in Mark Rothko, An Essential Reader, Houston, 2015, p. 134). Paralleling the unalloyed expression and compositional transparency found in the late work of Johann Sebastian Bach, these are works in which balance, harmony and serenity reign: “Rather than providing us, as popular myth solicits, with a dramatic requiem, they are works of great control, peacefulness, delicacy and distance, like chamber music overheard from the next room” (Brian O’Doherty, “Mark Rothko: The Tragic and the Transcendental”, in Mark Rothko, The Last Paintings, exh. cat., The Pace Gallery, New York, 1994, p. 9).

    The slower, cumulative tempo of Black Blue Painting urges the viewer to lose oneself in the immense vastness of Rothko’s composition. In an era that values rapidity above all, as Christopher Rothko has argued, “A painting becomes almost a world of its own, where we find ourselves caught up and lingering beyond our conscious intention to stay. It is the type of space that erases the tick of the workaday clock, where time, as we usually experience it, is nearly suspended” (Christopher Rothko, “Mark Rothko: The Mastery of the ‘60s”, Mark Rothko, An Essential Reader, Houston, 2015, p. 149). Works such as the present one force us to stop and reflect, to suspend the here and now in favor of a deeper meditation. They beautifully make manifest Dore Ashton’s declaration that Rothko “conjured light and he conjured shadow, as painters have always done, but he did so in the service of an ideal that transcended both, and that can only be felt and not thought” (Dore Ashton, quoted in Bonnie Clearwater, ed., Mark Rothko, New York, 1984, p. 13).


Black Blue Painting

oil on paper, laid on linen
47 3/4 x 40 1/8 in. (121.3 x 101.9 cm.)
Executed in 1968.

This 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.

$2,500,000 - 3,500,000 

Sold for $4,215,000

Contact Specialist
Amanda Lo Iacono
Head of Evening Sale
New York
+1 212 940 1278

20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

New York Auction 15 November 2018