20th Century Art in 20 Unforgettable Works: Mark Rothko’s ‘Untitled’

20th Century Art in 20 Unforgettable Works: Mark Rothko’s ‘Untitled’

An untitled work from Rothko’s “Seagram Murals” series exemplifies the spiritual, even divine, quality that is a hallmark of his mature paintings.
An untitled work from Rothko’s “Seagram Murals” series exemplifies the spiritual, even divine, quality that is a hallmark of his mature paintings.

Emily Fisher Landau was, simply put, one of the greatest collectors and patrons of the twentieth century. Her legacy is set apart for her deep and longstanding involvement with leading institutions, in particular the Whitney Museum of American Art, as well as her profound engagement with the art and artists of her time and her unerring instinct as a collector at the highest level. Fisher Landau assembled one of the greatest collections of modern and contemporary art – over 100 works of which are coming to auction at Sotheby’s on 8–9 November.

Join us over the next 20 days leading up to the Emily Fisher Landau Evening Auction on 8 November as our specialists spotlight 20 key works from the Collection, celebrating their impact on twentieth-century art. Here, Wendy Lin reflects on the significance of Mark Rothko’s Untitled as part of our series The Emily Fisher Landau Collection: Twentieth Century Art in Twenty Unforgettable Works.

Mark Rothko’s ‘Untitled’

Mark Rothko, Untitled, 1958

In 1958, Mark Rothko was consumed by a project that has since become the stuff of legend: a commission from architect Philip Johnson and Phyllis Lambert, heiress to the Seagram fortune, to produce a series of works for the Four Seasons restaurant on the ground floor of the Seagram’s new headquarters on New York’s Park Avenue. Although Rothko initially seized upon the commission with vigor, producing a magnificent series of large-scale canvases in a portentous scheme of reds and blacks, he ultimately withdrew from the contract and returned the hefty fee he had been paid. Considering the murals to be among his greatest artistic achievements, Rothko instead presented nine of the monumental paintings to Tate Gallery in London, which offered an environment conducive to the lingering contemplation and introspection these soaring canvases invite.


Untitled, from the collection of Emily Fisher Landau, was completed as part of this infamous series. Indeed, partially titled “Seagram Mural Sketch,” Untitled is directly related to Section Four of the mural series, now held in the collection of the Tate, London, in its composition and inverted color scheme. The window-like gray form focuses our eye on the dark red center, which softly burns like the embers of a nascent flame. Profoundly influenced by a visit to Michelangelo’s vestibule in the Laurentian Library in Florence, Rothko’s initial concept for the Seagram project was to create a similar sense of an all-encompassing environment, and evokes the same uncanny floating windows in the present work.

For me, Untitled is a masterpiece of Rothko’s oeuvre in its own right. Each passage is carefully built up with color, tone upon tone, in a multitude of diaphanous layers, each a subtly different register than the last, the cumulative effect being a composition that resonates with a visceral magnetic pull that draws me irresistibly inward. This spiritual, even divine, quality is a hallmark of Rothko’s mature paintings, when he had finally achieved what he always strove to convey.

The Emily Fisher Landau Collection: An Era Defined

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