Please note that in the print catalogue for this sale, this lot appears as number 33T.
Greenberg Gallery, St. Louis
Morris Moscowitz, St. Louis, Missouri (acquired in 1970, Estate no. 5056.52)
Richard Lang, Medina, Washington (acquired in 1976)
Richard Bellamy Gallery, New York
Acquired from the above by A. Alfred Taubman in November 1978
Friedrich Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy, translation by Francis Golffing, New York, 1956, pp. 33-34
With an almost uncanny rhythm, Mark Rothko’s art tended to change around the onset of each successive decade of his career, reaching a particular apex in the 1950s. Shortly after 1930 his relatively realistic approach segued to an expressionism marked by heavy figures and brushwork. Then, by the close of the 1930s, Rothko nearly stopped painting altogether. When he resumed his work in earnest in 1940, it had altered irrevocably, as semi-abstract personages and mythological themes prevailed. During the rest of the decade Rothko progressively ‘pulverized’, as he put it, even these figurative vestiges until in 1950 his indelibly memorable signature style crystallized. Dating from the third year of this many-sided and most productive decade, Untitled (Lavender and Green) represents – in its equipoise, radiant intensity and extraordinary colorism – a superb statement of Rothko’s inimitable idiom at its most assured.
As such, Untitled (Lavender and Green) also benefits from a wider context. Although Rothko never altogether abandoned the tiered, luminous rectangles exemplified by this painting, in 1958 he nevertheless embarked on the first of what were to be three sets of mural commissions that would dominate his output through the 1960s. Simultaneously, those years saw a turn towards far more grave tonalities. Finally, on the brink of a new decade in 1969, Rothko formulated a series of stark black on gray compositions before his death the following February. Out of this half century of work, the early 1950s proved to be a special zenith. Rothko had found himself artistically but had not reached a point where repetitiveness might prompt him to change course, as perhaps happened with the denser paintings that appeared in 1955. Rather, the year in which Rothko created Untitled (Lavender and Green) was, by any reckoning, an annus mirabilis. Indeed, in 1952 the artist could avow: "The past is simple; the present is complex; the future is even simpler." It was as if he knew that he had reached a plateau.
The nature of Rothko’s “complex” present requires explanation. Not only did Rothko execute sixteen canvases in 1952 – that is, more than one per month – but also two of them respectively belong in part to the previous and following years. By contrast, not a single painting dates from, say, 1949-50. This suggests, quite simply, that Rothko’s practice was in full flow as the 1950s began. Untitled (Black, Pink and Yellow over Orange) – which heralded 1952 – broke new ground. Its monumental dimensions were more dramatically divided, in terms of an epic confrontation of sunshine yellow and pitch blackness, than ever before on this scale. On the other hand, 1952 also witnessed one diminutive untitled canvas measuring barely two-foot in height by five-foot wide, replacing the light-dark register of the earlier composition with vibrant red/green complementaries. Between these extremes, which again indicate that Rothko was in such control of his means that he could switch effortlessly from large to small, Untitled (Lavender and Green) strikes a careful balance. Its fields – approximately as tall as an average human being – are big enough to confront and envelop the spectator, while not so grand as to be beyond our reach. Put another way, the scale of Untitled (Lavender and Green) epitomizes Rothko’s goal stated in 1951: “I would like to say something about large pictures…. The reason I paint them, however – I think it applies to other painters I know – is precisely because I want to be very intimate and human.” Rothko always claimed that his fundamental subject was the human drama. We might say that the authority of Untitled (Lavender and Green) partly lies in how its maker found an apt size for his theme.
Further adding to the fecundity of 1952 as an exceptional year was Rothko’s rich range of effects. For instance, No. 8 is essentially monochromatic, exploring yellow as it ranges from the palest cream tones to a coppery orange. Its antithesis is, for instance, the nocturnal Untitled (Blue, Green and Brown), formerly in the collection of Mrs. Paul Mellon. Larger and more even in feel, the latter canvas gives the impression that its ultramarine is, despite the slender bars of three different umbers, an indomitable totality. Again, in this context Untitled (Lavender and Green) strikes a golden mean. While its brooding lower rectangle sounds a dramatic note, the indefinable purple above offers a contending warmth, supported by the neutral, light gray-blue of the ambient field, upon or within which the two rest. “Measure” was a concept that Rothko prized. Everything about Untitled (Lavender and Green) voices this semi-musical sense of just proportion. Note even the way in which the lower verdant expanse, being somewhat darker in value than the upper purple, is accordingly slightly smaller in extent. Change even the merest detail of hue or draftsmanship in paint, the image seems to say, and the whole will go awry.
Lastly, it is Rothko’s ability to draw effortlessly in pigment – as though, in his words, it were “breathed” onto canvas – that distinguishes Untitled (Lavender on Green). “Drawing”, conventionally defined, may seem a misnomer for Rothko’s miraculously suffusive way with paint. Yet make no mistake: drawing is present in his multifarious touch and textures in addition to his pictorial layerings. Within 1952 these expressive possibilities ranged from paintings that look wholly alla prima and uninflected, such as the Dallas Museum of Art’s Untitled wherein the red and yellow lie flat and forthright on its surface, to others that are a polar opposite. Here, No. 10 (1952), in the collection of the Seattle Art Museum, established a beautiful limit with its kaleidoscopic array of colors brushed so lightly as to evoke – to recall a famous phrase used about the nineteenth-century English artist J. M. W. Turner’s painterly mists – “tinted steam”.
Brushy in texture while still firm overall, Untitled (Lavender on Green) nimbly takes yet another tack compared to the two foregoing pictorial strategies. Accordingly, the colors cited in its (posthumous descriptive) title are actually at root the aforementioned primaries of red and green. Except that now they are fine tuned and changed to tertiaries that almost defy words in their vivid elusiveness. Likewise, a pale refulgent scrim – one of Rothko’s subtlest devices – floats within the purple and settles into a thin horizontal band above the painting’s middle like a line of repose. Completing this perceptual magnetism is the peach tint that hovers faintly between the two rectangles and seems to enhance the entire composition from below without ever adamantly coming to the surface, akin to an unmoved mover. Complex in its apparent simplicity, Untitled (Lavender and Green) quietly but compellingly holds its own and more in Rothko’s annus mirabilis.
© Art Ex Ltd 2015
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