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Sotheby’s Magazine

The Transcendent Beauty of Rothko’s Late Works

A unique painting that leads Sotheby's Contemporary Art Evening auction (16 May | New York) encapsulates a pivotal moment in the Abstract Expressionist’s life and career.

I n 1962, when the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art reached out to Mark Rothko, it wished to add a contemporary example from his oeuvre to its permanent collection. The artist obliged, and the museum selected Untitled, 1960, one of only 19 paintings on canvas that Rothko made that year. The radiant work captures an important moment in the artist’s career and heralds the spectacular union of colour and form that came to define his singular and enduring legacy.

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Mark Rothko’s Untitled, 1960, is a central highlight of Sotheby’s Contemporary Art Evening auction this May. Sold on behalf of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA), this exquisite work will benefit the institution’s Acquisitions Fund. Untitled, 1960, embodies Rothko’s creative crescendo and the full maturation of his extraordinary artistic output. ARTWORK: © 1998 KATE ROTHKO PRIZEL AND CHRISTOPHER ROTHKO / ARTISTS RIGHTS SOCIETY (ARS), NEW YORK

While Rothko had already achieved significant international acclaim by the end of the 1950s, it was over the course of the following decade that the artist would push himself to produce his most emotionally provocative and visually inspiring works. Created in the interim between the artist’s two career-defining projects of the Seagram Murals (1958–59) and the de Menil Chapel (1965–67), Untitled crystallises Rothko’s transformative shift towards an exploration of a deeper, more contemplative emotive experience. It is this exploration of emotions that gives the artist’s masterworks their profound poignancy and dark beauty.

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Mark Rothko’s Seagram Murals, 1958–59, at the Tate Modern, London. PHOTO: TATE LONDON/ART RESOURCE, NY. ARTWORK: © 1998 KATE ROTHKO PRIZEL & CHRISTOPHER ROTHKO / ARTISTS RIGHTS SOCIeTY (ARS), NY
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Rudolph Burckhardt, Mark Rothko, New York, 1960. Albright-Knox Art Gallery / Art Resource, NY

In a 1959 Life magazine article – just one year before the present work was executed – Dorothy Seiberling described Rothko’s almost mystical output: “Just as the hues of a sunset prompt feelings of elation mingled with sadness or unease as the dark shapes of our night close in, so Rothko’s colours stir mixed feelings of joy, gloom, anxiety or peace. Though the forms in the painting seem simple at first glance, they are in fact subtly complex. Edges fade in and out like memories; horizontal bands of ‘cheerful’ brightness have ‘ominous’ overtones of dark colours.” Untitled is among the finest manifestations of Rothko’s desire to create an aesthetic language that transcends the limitations of painting: to create an experience of pure colour, spirit and light.

Greg Morrison is assistant editor of Sotheby’s magazine.

Contemporary Art Evening will be on view in New York from 3–16 May. Auction: 16 May. Enquiries: +1 212 606 7254

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