Lot 33
  • 33

Mark Rothko

12,000,000 - 18,000,000 USD
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  • Mark Rothko
  • Untitled
  • signed and dated 1969 on the reverse and signed on the stretcher
  • acrylic on canvas
  • 68 x 60 in. 172.7 x 152.4 x cm.


Mr. and Mrs. Ad Reinhardt, New York (acquired directly from the artist circa 1969)
The Pace Gallery, New York (acquired from the above in 1985)
Gene and Jacqueline Summers, Sonoma County, California (acquired from the above in 1985)
Christie's New York, November 20, 1996, lot 21
Acquired by the present owner from the above


Washington, D. C., National Gallery of Art; New York, Whitney Museum of American Art; Paris, Musee d'Art Moderne; Mark Rothko, May 1998 - April 1999, cat. no. 113, p. 237, illustrated in color


Andrew Fabricant, ``Insider Guide'', The Art Newspaper 66, January 1997, p. 35, illustrated
David Anfam, Mark Rothko: the Works on Canvas, Catalogue Raisonné, New Haven and London, 1998, cat. no. 819, p.659, illustrated


This work is in excellent condition. For further information, a condition report has been prepared by Terrence Mahon, Painting Conservator, New York City. Please contact the Contemporary Art department at 212-606-7254 to receive this report. The canvas is framed in a brushed aluminum strip frame.
In response to your inquiry, we are pleased to provide you with a general report of the condition of the property described above. Since we are not professional conservators or restorers, we urge you to consult with a restorer or conservator of your choice who will be better able to provide a detailed, professional report. Prospective buyers should inspect each lot to satisfy themselves as to condition and must understand that any statement made by Sotheby's is merely a subjective qualified opinion.

Catalogue Note

"...the less there is to look at, the more you have to look, the more you have to be in the picture."

--Kirk Varnedoe, Pictures of Nothing, the A. W. Mellon Lectures in the Fine Arts, 2003

Mark Rothko's dark paintings of 1969-1970 unveil mystical qualities. Rothko himself regarded these works—ultimately his culminating series—as his "most profound," an opinion shared by critics such as Brian O'Doherty who referred to these paintings as some of Rothko's "most remarkable" in his essay for the 1993 exhibition of Rothko's Last Paintings in New York. Among the group, Untitled is a particularly superb example, a maximum expression of reductive means. Elegant, theatrical, and intense, Untitled evokes the artistic premise Rothko expressed in the manifesto he co-authored in 1943 with Barnett Newman and Adolph Gottlieb: "the simple expression of the complex thought." (The New York Times, June 13, 1943)

Far from being a dramatic requiem—a romantic myth largely supported by Rothko's untimely death in 1970—this group of late works appear to announce a stylistic development. Could they in fact embody a preface to an entirely original phase? Certainly, the artist has moved on from the compositions of floating, feathery clouds against a monochromatic field prevalent from 1953 onward. In Untitled (1969), the wispy grey and the velvety black (and less often brown) portions fill the picture plane, maintaining a sense of the vertical stacking of Rothko's earlier color forms, but eliminating any implicit spatial structure of ground versus object. Instead, the pure white edges act as a window into another unknown world or dimension, providing the vibrant counterpoint to the luminescent veils of pigment, stretched across the picture plane. The atmospheric depths of Untitled (1969) pull the viewer irresistibly into the painting more effectively than the more opaque and outwardly glowing works with their figure/ground compositions.

Considered within the context of Rothko's overall production in the last two years of his life, the innovations of the black, white-edged paintings are manifestly evident. Also painted during this supposedly 'dark period' are a group of aerated luminous pictures of a translucent character similar to the veiled color tonalities of Untitled, 1969. Executed both on paper and canvas, they are painted with a different palette: the coolest blues, muted tans, and warm glowing pinks. While it is impossible to date these works precisely, it has been established that they were painted concurrently with the darker pictures such as Untitled or immediately before. Given their accepted chronology and the introduction of new color relations and spatial configurations, it is certainly possible to conclude that Rothko was actively occupied with formal experimentation at the time. Mere acknowledgment of the possibility is important as it would compel a re-consideration of Rothko's state of mind during his last year.   

Although the pale colors found in the lighter works are diametrically opposed to those of Untitled, the two groups of late paintings "share one distinguishing characteristic: the presence of a white edge or margin." (B. Doherty in Exh. Cat. New York, Pace Wildenstein, Mark Rothko: the Last Paintings, 1994, p. 5)  Rothko's preference for white edges during the late 1960s is an interesting point of formal convergence between Rothko and other artists of the day, whether as a response to the monochromes of the younger generation or a plunge into conceptual practices (however restrained).  Therefore, it is not in Untitled's ethereal presence, but rather in its materiality that we find Rothko's contemporaneity.

Among these artists, a shared fascination with the conceptual nature of the white edges is most evident with Barnett Newman (with whom Rothko maintained a close friendship and extensive correspondence) and Brice Marden. For these artists, working concurrently in the late 1960s, edges become a focus of attention offering visual cues that coalesce and propel one's awareness back into the interiors with a heightened apprehension of their status. They limit the picture's illusionism. Newman's The Stations of the Cross: Twelfth Station of 1965 and Marden's extraordinarily reductive Untitled 1960 exhibit a similar, although functionally different treatment of edges.

Barnett Newman's Stations of the Cross: Twelfth Station displays edges that correspond to the specific iconography of these paintings: the single moment when Christ cried out 'God, why have you forsaken me?' - 'Lema sabachthani', the subtitle Newman gave to the series. Because these works were not intended to express the succession of events found in traditional depictions of the Stations of the Cross but an instant of human desperation, the white edges that frame most of these compositions may be interpreted as the outer limits of an ever growing fear, the experience of the sublime.

Like Rothko, Marden excels at making color that is both emotionally evocative and abstract.  His paint bonds with the surface and edges as if it were finding its natural limit. Yet, Rothko's ethereality is for the most part, absent in Marden's work and the younger artist has always been careful to reinforce the handmade quality of his art. The residual markings on the narrow strip along the bottom of his monochromes are clearly functional, meant as an index or history of the painting and the artist's process. Marden related this practice to Jasper Johns, whose work he studied when working as a guard during the latter's retrospective at New York's Jewish Museum. An analogous area at the bottom of paintings such as White Target (1957) reveals a shared fascination with material layering.

Rothko's black, white-edged paintings have been called conceptual rather than perceptual. Likewise, Newman's use of black in The Stations of the Cross: Twelfth Station corresponds to his view that: "black is what an artist uses when he is trying to break into something new" (Thomas Hess, Barnett Newman, New York, 1971, pp. 94) Based on this premise, black should therefore not be necessarily read as a channel for conveying emotion. Moreover, the role of color has at times been questioned by artists who like Rothko are expressively known for it. Contrary to what his body of work may suggest, Rothko denied that he was a colorist, and yet, without Matisse, the master colorist, Rothko's signature style is simply unimaginable. The Red Studio, first permanently installed in New York's Museum of Modern Art in 1949, had a profound impact on the formation of Rothko's aestheticism. According to Dore Ashton, Rothko candidly recalled that upon looking at this work as he did for hours, "you became color, you became totally saturated with it, as if it were music." (Rothko cited in J. E. B. Breslin, Mark Rothko: A Biography, Chicago, 1993, p. 283)

Although undeniably influenced by Matisse's treatment of color, Rothko's work exhibits complexities closer to the metaphysical. Eliciting intensely emotional, even spiritual experiences, Rothko's vast seas of color transcend into the realm of the sublime. Robert Rosenblum convincingly argues that Rothko followed the great tradition of Northern artists like Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840), placing us on the threshold of the abstract sublime precisely through shapeless infinities of color. Friedrich's Monk by the Sea (1809-10) is the preeminent image of the Romantic sublime, an awe-inspiring picture where humanity is confronted with the overwhelming greatness of nature. ``As a type of semantic container for the Romantic experiences of awe, terror, boundlessness, divinity...;'' the sublime is perhaps, the defining characteristic of Untitled. (Robert Rosenblum, "The Abstract Sublime,'' Art News 59, February 1961, pp. 38-41, 56 and 58)

In his 1999 book On Modern American Art, Rosenblum further associates Rothko with Titian and Rembrandt, as Rothko's style embodies the final conquest of substance by shadow, of local color by expansive atmospheric veils. (p. 112). Executed between 1969 and 1970, the now famous dark, white-edged paintings encompass 18 paintings works (cat. raisonné nos. 814 through 831), several of which are found in museum collections including the National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C., the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum.