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  • Overview

    'The people who weep before my pictures are having the same religious experience I had when I painted them.’
    —Mark Rothko
    In Untitled (Black Blue Painting), variegated colour fields float atop a translucent dark ground, the horizon that arises between the rectangular shapes giving the faint allusion of an ocean seen in the darkness of night. Executed in 1968, the painting captures Mark Rothko’s artistic developments in the late 1960s, just as he 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 the last three years of his life, that he pursued it with a focus that surpassed even his preoccupation with working on paper during his Surrealist period of the mid-1940s. A masterpiece of chromatic and compositional nuance, Untitled (Black Blue Painting) emanates the incredible sense of control, serenity, and delicacy that is characteristic of Rothko’s late works, namely recalling the Rothko Chapel paintings commissioned by John and Dominique de Menil, 1964-1971, which similarly enveloped the viewer into silent darkness, and evinced strong emotional, even spiritual force. With its large scale and profound chromatic gravitas, Untitled (Black Blue Painting) anticipates the radical break in the artist’s mature style just as he initiated his Black on Gray paintings — the last series he worked on before his premature death in 1970. A testament to its importance within Rothko’s oeuvre, Untitled (Black Blue Painting) was on loan at the Moco Museum, Amsterdam, throughout the year 2020.

     

    The Rothko Chapel. Photo: Hickey Robertson.
    The Rothko Chapel. Photo: Hickey Robertson.

     

    A Critical Moment

    'He was at this tumultuous stage in life, and yet he was doing the most incredibly disciplined work possible. They were meant to be eternal. They were meant to push boundaries of perception.' — Alison de Lima GreeneThe 1960s saw Rothko reach the height of his international renown and prolific output, just as his reputation as one of America’s leading painters began to consolidate. Speaking of the style he had honed over the past two decades, the painter remarked: ‘This kind of design may look simple, but it usually takes me many hours to get the proportions and colors just right. Everything has to lock together’.1 In Untitled (Black Blue Painting), chromes seem to emerge and dissipate upwards and downwards, bleeding onto one another like a fine weave or, as Dorothy Seiberling described in a 1959 Life magazine article, ‘fading in and out like memories’.2 Departing from the enormity of many of the multi-form canvases he produced during this time, Rothko began working increasingly on paper and in a more domestic size, attesting to his sophisticated understanding of colour and composition in new formats. About these late paintings, the American art critic Peter Schjeldahl remarked, ‘His pictures are emphatically objects. They are in scale with a viewer’s body, but their color and brushwork have a disembodying effect’.3

     

    An Evolution of Colour and Medium

     

    Notably, Untitled (Black Blue Painting) exemplifies Rothko’s preoccupation with a simplification of colour in the 1960s – not merely its range and hue, but also in application and spatial interaction. The internal rectangular colour fields provide only a glimpse of the underlying hues beneath, as they softly feather out towards the edges of the canvas. If in many of Rothko’s pictures from the mid-1950s bands of colour clashed energetically, in his last years they seem to radiate from one another — the turbulence giving way to sensuous serenity. With its paradoxical ability to simultaneously absorb and reflect light, the medium of paper furthermore proved essential for Rothko’s decade-long rhetoric of light and colour. For works such as the present one, he layered thin washes of paint, often allowing shades from the bottom layers to show through the top pigment. In doing so, Rothko achieved surfaces that seem to conceal a light source from hidden depths, devoid of any traces of the artist’s hand as the paper’s fibres soaked up the swathes of paint. Executed on a deeply engaging format, Untitled (Black Blue Painting) is distinguished by an ominous darkness which nonetheless seems to beam from within. It highlights one of Rothko’s most remarkable triumphs, which was, as French writer Michel Butor wrote, ‘to have made a kind of black light shine’.4

     

    Detail of the present work.
    Detail of the present work.

    Materialising the Psyche

    'These paintings are as spectacular as rare night-blooming flowers.' —Marc GlimcherSuffering from depression and personal angst from as early as 1949— an ailment that manifested most tragically in his last, fatal gesture of 1970 — Rothko would use paint as a cathartic act, an ‘exulting experience’.5 Though critics and historians have speculated that the emergence of a darker colour palette was due in part to Rothko’s prolonged internal conflict and strife — intensified after his aortic aneurism in April 1968 — one is immediately able to perceive ‘an inner light to the darkness’ in his 1960s works. ‘His health suffered as well from chain-smoking, heavy drinking, marital strife and years of working with the toxicity of turpentine’, writes Hilarie M. Sheets; and yet, Rothko’s melancholy seems more contemplative than nihilistic.6 Untitled (Black Blue Painting) emanates this sense of ‘illuminated darkness’ precisely; it conveys the complexities of Rothko's mental state at the time of creation, whilst simultaneously revealing the soothing, luminous effects that the very act of painting could and would produce for him.

     

    Mark Rothko in his New York apartment standing before two of his paintings, 28 January 1967, New York. © 2021 Kate Rothko Prizel & Christopher Rothko ARS, NY and DACS, London.
    Mark Rothko in his New York apartment standing before two of his paintings, 28 January 1967, New York. © 2021 Kate Rothko Prizel & Christopher Rothko ARS, NY and DACS, London.

    Indeed, works such as Untitled (Black Blue Painting) ultimately present a continuation of Rothko’s longstanding intent of expressing, through colour and form, ‘basic human emotions – tragedy, ecstasy, doom…’.7 As Christopher Rothko convincingly argued, the darker palette in many ways was a way for Rothko to clarify ‘that he was not a colourist, that even his most brilliant hues were simply a means to an end’.8 Untitled (Black Blue Painting), the slower, cumulative tempo 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’.9 Works such as the present one force us to stop and reflect, to suspend the here and now in favour of a deeper meditation.

     

    Painting the Sublime

    'I am 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 RothkoAs with all of Rothko’s painting, Untitled (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 are not so much reductive and singular as multiple and orchestral’, Brian O’Doherty observed.10 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’.11

     

    Left: Mark Rothko, No. 18 (Brown and Black on Plum), 1958, oil on canvas, Private Collection. Image: Bridgeman Images. © 1998 Kate Rothko Prizel & Christopher Rothko ARS, NY and DACS, London. Right: Mark Rothko, Untitled, 1967, acrylic on paper, mounted on masonite, Metropolitain Museum of Art, New York. Image: Scala, Florence. © 2021 Kate Rothko Prizel & Christopher Rothko ARS, NY and DACS, London.
    Left: Mark Rothko, No. 18 (Brown and Black on Plum), 1958, oil on canvas, Private Collection. Image: Bridgeman Images. © 1998 Kate Rothko Prizel & Christopher Rothko ARS, NY and DACS, London.
    Right: Mark Rothko, Untitled, 1967, acrylic on paper, mounted on masonite, Metropolitain Museum of Art, New York. Image: Scala, Florence. © 2021 Kate Rothko Prizel & Christopher Rothko ARS, NY and DACS, London.

    Rothko in Perspective

     

    It appears as though, today, Rothko's paintings have become a reference in themselves rather than a body of work recognised for its referentiality or awareness of preceding art historical contributions. It is thus difficult to place the artist in a single category, just as the sheer innovative power of his abstraction transcends all creations that were once labeled as such. Yet, some artists do come to mind upon considering the spiritual, quasi-transcendental quality of his work. Though not inclined to materialise angst, Yves Klein’s sanctimonious paintings, for instance, feel similarly commanding as they reach religious heights. Equally, the Abstract Expressionists’ emotional gestures align with Rothko's own intimate meanderings rendered in paint — Clyfford Still’s angular grasp of colour forming unique landscapes, for instance, similarly conjuring visions of the natural world.  ‘Some of the contrasts, as between black and a very deep purple, are barely discernible’ writes Schjeldahl of Rothko’s late works, ‘calling to mind the black-on-black aesthetic of Ad Reinhardt, though with the emotive charge of any Rothko’.12 Echoing Schjeldahl’s statement, works such as Untitled (Black Blue Painting) convey Reinhardt’s idea of the last possible venture into the formality of paint, which he introduced with his own Black and Ultimate paintings. Yet, Rothko infuses some form of light and luminescence in his own paintings — a soulfulness that is quintessentially recognisable as his.

     

    Ad Reinhardt, Painting, c. 1956-1960, oil on canvas, Private Collection. Image: Bridgeman Images.
    Ad Reinhardt, Painting, c. 1956-1960, oil on canvas, Private Collection. Image: Bridgeman Images.

    Rothko’s Mature Explorations of Colour

     

    In 2008-2009, Tate Modern presented an exhibition of the late works of Mark Rothko. The show's curator, Achim Borchardrt-Hume, speaks about his iconic Seagram Murals, Black-Form paintings, and the Black on Grey paintings — the last series in his life.

     

     

    1 Mark Rothko, quoted in ‘Mark Rothko: Untitled’, Museum of Modern Art, undated, online.
    2 Dorothy Seiberling in "Abstract Expressionism, Part II", Life, 16 November 1959, p. 82.
    3 Peter Schjeldahl, ‘The Dark Final Years of Mark Rothko’, The New Yorker, 8 December 2016, online.
    4 Dore Ashton, About Rothko, New York, 1983, p. 189.
    5 Marc Glimcher, quoted in Hilarie M. Sheets, ‘Mark Rothko’s Dark Palette Illuminated’, The New York Times, 2 November 2016, online.
    6 Alison de Lima Greene, quoted in Hilarie M. Sheets, ‘Mark Rothko’s Dark Palette Illuminated’, The New York Times, 2 November 2016, online.
    7 Mark Rothko, 1956, quoted in Writings on Art: Mark Rothko, New Haven, 2006, p. 119.
    8 Christopher Rothko, ‘Mark Rothko: The Mastery of the ‘60s’, in Mark Rothko, An Essential Reader, Houston, 2015, p. 146.
    9 Christopher Rothko, ‘Mark Rothko: The Mastery of the ‘60s’, Mark Rothko, An Essential Reader, Houston, 2015, p. 149.
    10 Brian O’Doherty, ‘Mark Rothko: The Tragic and the Transcendental’, in Mark Rothko, An Essential Reader, Houston, 2015, p. 134.
    11 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.
    12 Peter Schjeldahl, ‘The Dark Final Years of Mark Rothko’, The New Yorker, 8 December 2016, online.

    • Provenance

      Marlborough-Gerson Gallery Inc., New York
      Estate of Bernard J. Reis, New York
      Sotheby Parke Bernet Inc., New York, 19 November 1981, lot 49
      Dr and Mrs R.D. Burns, Elkhart, Indiana
      Sotheby's, New York, 9 May 1990, lot 164
      Private Collection, Tokyo (acquired at the above sale)
      Phillips, New York, 15 November 2018, lot 22
      Acquired at the above sale by the present owner

    • Exhibited

      Elkhart, Midwest Museum of American Art, April 1982 - May 1990 (on extended loan)
      Amsterdam, MOCO Museum, March 2020 - January 2021 (on loan)

Property of a West Coast Collector

15

Untitled (Black Blue Painting)

acrylic on paper laid on linen
121.3 x 101.9 cm (47 3/4 x 40 1/8 in.)
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 D.C.

Full Cataloguing

Estimate
£2,500,000 - 3,500,000 

Sold for £2,866,000

Contact Specialist

 

Rosanna Widén
Senior Specialist, Head of Evening Sale

+ 44 20 7318 4060
[email protected]

 

Olivia Thornton
Head of 20th Century & Contemporary Art, Europe

+ 44 20 7318 4099
[email protected]

 

20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

London Auction 15 April 2021