THE SCHLUMBERGER COLLECTION
To encounter the majestic No. 21 is to be embraced by the full force of Mark Rothko’s evocation of the sublime. As privileged viewers of this indisputable, inimitable masterwork we are afforded a visual and somatic experience that is beyond compare and bespeaks the absolute mastery of the artist’s abstract vernacular. Executed in 1951 at the very incipit of what David Anfam, the editor of the artist’s catalogue raisonné, refers to as the anni mirabilis of Rothko’s oeuvre, the present work is a paragon of this halcyon era in which his mature mode of artistic expression pioneered truly unprecedented territory. Last seen in public during the major European travelling retrospective of Rothko’s art organized by the Kunsthaus Zürich in 1971-72, this superb painting has remained in the same highly distinguished private collection for over 40 years and its appearance here at auction marks an historic moment. A veritable treatise on the absolute limits of abstraction, No. 21 transmits an aura of the ethereal that is entirely enthralling and immersive. In accordance with the most authentic experience of Rothko’s vision, we cease to perceive this work as a dialogue between medium and support, and instead become wholly submerged within its utterly captivating compositional dynamism, chromatic intensity, and sheer scale.
Soaring to 95 inches in height, No. 21 projects itself into our space on a greater than human scale, engulfing us entirely within its epic expanse. Dominated by simultaneously distinct and inextricably intertwined radiant zones of sumptuous color, the canvas pulsates with a tangible energetic intensity, pulling us ever inward. A concentrated field of gloriously vibrant orange surges forth from the sheer profundity of fierce black that surrounds it, the subtly perceptible strokes of Rothko’s brush in this area encouraging a sense of inexorable ascent towards the upper limits of the canvas. The captivating depth of the black band at the center, seemingly inhaling the areas of impossible illumination that surround it, pulls us in and takes absolute hold of our vision, encouraging us to travel through the subtle variants of tone and contour that comprise the intricate landscape of its surface. In a stunning feat of compositional and coloristic genius, this fiery ground is counterbalanced by the diaphanous layers of blush pink that seem to float amongst a sea of sunset orange in the lower register, bestowing upon No. 21 an otherworldly glow. Acting as a portal to the sublime, the limitless realm of sumptuous color in the present work envelops the viewer and brings life to Rothko’s assertion that his monumental canvases be experienced up close rather than from a distance. In its utter brilliance of palette, compositional dynamism, monumental scale, and indelible gravitas, this painting exists as an empyreal manifestation of the very apex of Mark Rothko’s painterly prowess.
No. 21 was first shown in the year immediately following its creation in the iconic 1952 exhibition 15 Americans held at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Organized by legendary curator Dorothy C. Miller, this seminal show included masterpieces such as Jackson Pollock’s Autumn Rhythm (Number 30), now in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and Clyfford Still’s PH-371 (1947-S), in the collection of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. In characteristic fashion, Rothko was deeply involved in the curatorial planning and installation of the gallery devoted entirely to his paintings. Of the nine works originally chosen for the exhibition, five were eventually included in the show, among them No. 10, now housed permanently in the Museum of Modern Art in New York. This final group of canvases was carefully and deliberately selected with an eye to variety. A diverse interplay of hues and forms, at once remaining distinct to their individual supports whilst communing directly with one another across the gallery, relayed an odyssey of progress towards an ultimate artistic truth. For its installation, Rothko demanded “blazing light” be shed on his paintings, thus intensifying the magnitude of his looming symphonies of color and contour, and conferring upon them a supremacy and majesty commensurate with their undeniable status as his first mature masterpieces.
The paintings in this seminal exhibition, all executed between the years 1949-1951, are monuments to a crucial turning point in Rothko’s aesthetic evolution, when he resolved an abstract archetype out of the preceding multiform paintings. Begun in 1947, and emerging from an exploration of biomorphic forms drawn from Miró, Picasso, Dalì, and his other Surrealist predecessors, Rothko’s multiform paintings reduced all figurative remnants to brightly tinted patchworks of irregular floating shapes that seem to variously coalesce and disintegrate as if fluidly and organically moving of their own accord. As Rothko wrote at the time, “I think of my pictures as dramas; the shapes in the pictures are the performers… They are organisms with volition and a passion for self-assertion.” (Mark Rothko, “The Romantics Were Prompted,” first published in Possibilities, no. 1, 1947) By 1950, however, Rothko had abandoned these multiform compositions to contemplate what he called “an unknown space.” David Anfam, in his definitive text on the artist, deems this crucial moment the onset of the “classical period,” a time he delimits as beginning in 1950 and spanning the remainder of Rothko’s lifetime. He draws particular attention to 1951, the year of No. 21’s execution, as being decisive: “From 1951 onward, Rothko’s artistic self-confidence was everywhere visible – from the meticulousness, authority and range of the paintings to his very attitude toward them.” (David Anfam, Mark Rothko: The Works on Canvas: Catalogue Raisonné, New Haven and London, 1998, p. 71) No. 21 is a paean to the newfound aplomb with which Rothko approached his towering theses on abstraction, reflecting across its luscious, vigorous surface the artist’s desire, as elucidated by Stanley Kunitz, “to become his paintings.” (Stanley Kunitz, interview with Avis Berman, December 8, 1983, Archives of American Art) Indeed, in the same year as this painting’s execution, Rothko declared the apparent paradox that distinguishes his oeuvre: “I paint very large pictures…precisely because I want to be very intimate and human. To paint a small picture is to place yourself outside your experience…However you paint the larger picture, you are in it. It isn’t something you command.” (the artist cited in Exh. Cat., London, The Tate Gallery, Mark Rothko: 1903-1970, 1987, p. 85)
When Rothko asked Katherine Kuh, The Art Institute of Chicago’s visionary first curator of modern painting and sculpture, to describe her reactions to his paintings, she wrote of the ones she had seen: "for me they have a kind of ecstasy of color which induces different but always intense moods. I am not a spectator - I am a participant." (letter July 18, 1954) Like the artist himself becoming one with his canvas, physically entering into the incandescent environments as he created them, we too, as viewers, come to relate to his towering fields of luminosity as if engaging in a personal exchange. Our experience of No. 21, as participants in its stunning drama, brings it to life and may in turn give new dimensions to our life. We do not look at this painting; we are absorbed into it. Indeed, being in its presence parallels a line of Nietzsche that had inspired Rothko since he had been a young man: “There is a need for a whole world of torment in order for the individual to sit quietly in his rocking row-boat in mid-sea, absorbed in contemplation.” (Friedrich Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy, translation by Francis Golffing, New York, 1956, pp. 33-34)
Rothko’s arrival at his mature style, which in retrospect reads as the sole, inevitable, and predetermined conclusion of his quest for a reimagined abstraction, was in fact the supreme result of a calculated and concentrated purge, the product of an overwhelmingly radical and profoundly effective stripping away of compositional superfluity in order to arrive at the pure elemental state of the image. The distinct zones of color in the earlier multiform canvases coalesced into an impenetrable totality in works such as No. 21, wherein all elements engage in a choreography of endlessly pulsating flux and fusion so that the composition seems to shed the confines of its support, existing instead as a shimmering, energy-laden entity that fully surpasses the inadequacies of mere written description. Thus, the present work stands as the crowning evocation of Rothko’s declaration of 1948, delineating his ultimate goal a full three years before it was achieved: “The progression of a painter’s work, as it travels in time from point to point, will be toward clarity: toward the elimination of all obstacles between the painter and the idea, and between the idea and the observer … To achieve this clarity is, ultimately, to be understood.” (the artist cited in Exh. Cat., New York, Museum of Modern Art, 15 Americans, 1952, p. 18)
The theoretical foundations of Rothko’s aesthetic revolution conform to the predominating rhetoric of Abstract Expressionism in the mid-Twentieth Century. Absolutism, themes of purging and beginning art anew, and other extremes of theory and practice were similarly espoused by Rothko’s now-heroic compatriots of the New York School such as Clyfford Still and Barnett Newman. In response to a pervasive general malaise and loss of faith in the external realities of modern life in the wake of the Second World War, an impassioned, quasi-sacred belief in the transcendental power of art rose to prominence. Donning the philosophical mantle of his great Romanticist forebears – pioneering giants such as J.M.W. Turner, Caspar David Friedrich and Théodore Gericault – Rothko devoted himself to the pursuit of art as a portal to an enhanced realm of physical and spiritual experience.
In an impassioned reaction against the prevailing social norms that arose as a result of the Industrial Revolution and the Age of Enlightenment, the Romantics emphasized and validated the emotional intensity that results from confronting the transcendence of an uninhibited aesthetic experience. J.M.W. Turner, in his 1817 masterwork Mt. Vesuvius in Eruption, realized the unquantifiable power of the sublime when he culled an utterly affecting narrative out of pure color and light. As we bear witness to the immeasurable devastation of the depicted scene, conveyed through the impossibly precise yet ethereally light stroke of Turner’s brush, we nonetheless cease to understand it in terms of our corporeal reality. Instead, we are willingly transported at once to the very core of Turner’s masterful surface and inwards, towards the depths of our own subconscious. Developing on the same fundamental principles espoused by the Romantics a century earlier, the late-nineteenth century Symbolists – Odilon Redon, Gustav Klimt, and Edvard Munch among the most influential – eschewed naturalism and realism in art, proclaiming instead the sovereignty of spirituality, the imagination, and the unconscious. Munch in particular, in stirring canvases such as The Vampire painted in 1893, gained prestige for his intensely redolent translations of the human psyche into art. This image, a collection of darkened hues punctuated by an electrifying mass of red that swirls and churns into a staggeringly affective depiction of two intertwined human forms, immediately and aggressively wrests us from reality, ferrying us into a world of dreamlike fantasy.
Like the Romantics who preceded them, the Symbolists considered Art as a contemplative escape from a world of strife, achieving this liberation through themes of mysticism and otherworldliness grounded always by an incisive sense of mortality. With the advent of Abstract Expressionism, this remarkable philosophical lineage was given an ever grander and more evocative visual form. As early as 1943, Rothko published a joint statement with fellow pioneers of the new Abstraction, Barnett Newman and Adolph Gottlieb: “To us art is an adventure into an unknown world, which can be explored only by those willing to take the risks. … It is our function as artists to make the spectator see the world our way – not his way.” (Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman and Adolph Gottlieb, “Statement” in Edward Alden Jewell’s column, The New York Times, June 13, 1943) Thus, while delivering the tenets of Romanticism and Symbolism to the modern era, via a revolutionary compositional clarity and monumentality of viewing experience, Rothko conclusively asserted the paramount equation between his artwork and its beholder, whereby the true potential of his painting could not exist without the presence of the viewer. Four years later, he developed this integral relationship even further: “A picture lives by companionship, expanding and quickening in the eyes of the sensitive observer. It dies by the same token.” (Mark Rothko, “Statement,” Tiger’s Eye, New York, vol. 1, no. 2, December 1947, p. 44)
Through form, surface, texture, and color Rothko struck a perennial balance that lures the viewer's constant attention. Yet, as we are beckoned into the glowing lustrous embrace of the devastatingly beautiful and complex No. 21 there is a profound tension struck between the uplifting emotions evoked by our perception of Rothko’s vibrant hues and something implicitly more tragic. Such elemental colors as the vibrant red-orange and dazzling rose of the present work harbor primal connotations of light, warmth, and the Sun, but inasmuch as they invoke the Sun they also implicate the inevitable cycle of dawn and dusk, of rise and set, and their own continual demise and rebirth. Indeed, the near violent encroachment of the depthless black upon the shining orange expanse, though entirely and adamantly abstract, nonetheless communicates a narrative of perpetual contest between the primal forces of light and darkness. The environment that is created in No. 21 ubiquitously encompasses us yet, in its immateriality also eludes our grasp, projecting a sense of space that is at once material and metaphysical, encapsulating Rothko’s proclaimed goal to “paint both the finite and the infinite.” (Dore Ashton, About Rothko, New York, 1983, p. 179) Rothko once stated to David Sylvester, “Often, towards nightfall, there’s a feeling in the air of mystery, threat, frustration – all of these at once. I would like my painting to have the quality of such moments.” (the artist cited in David Anfam, Mark Rothko: The Works on Canvas, Catalogue Raisonné, New Haven and London, 1998, p. 88), and with its suggestion of an infinite depth in the darkest areas of the black shape, this enigmatic work harbors something that is indescribably portentous.
Excepting a letter to Art News in 1957, from 1949 onwards Rothko ceased publishing statements about his work, anxious that his writings might be interpreted as instructive or didactic and could thereby interfere with the pure import of the paintings themselves. However, in 1958 he gave a talk at the Pratt Institute to repudiate his critics and to deny any perceived association between his art and self-expression. He insisted instead that his corpus was not concerned with notions of self but rather with the entire human drama. While he drew a distinction between figurative and abstract art, he nevertheless outlined an underlying adherence to the portrayal of human experience. Discussing the “artist’s eternal interest in the human figure,” Rothko examined the common bond of figurative painters throughout Art History: “they have painted one character in all their work. What is indicated here is that the artist’s real model is an ideal which embraces all of human drama rather than the appearance of a particular individual. Today the artist is no longer constrained by the limitation that all of man’s experience is expressed by his outward appearance. Freed from the need of describing a particular person, the possibilities are endless. The whole of man’s experience becomes his model, and in that sense it can be said that all of art is a portrait of an idea.” (lecture given at the Pratt Institute 1958, cited in Exh. Cat., London, The Tate Gallery, Op. Cit., p. 87) Paintings such as No. 21, in truth, involve both spirit and nature, and Rothko sought to instill in the viewer a profound sense of the spiritual whilst evincing his abject faith in the role of the artist in attaining the highest realm to which a man could aspire. For Rothko, art was capable of provoking in the viewer an existential sense of awe and wonderment for the sublime miracle of existence, and in this truly spectacular painting that capacity is wholly and perfectly achieved.
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