Lot 23
  • 23

Mark Rothko

8,000,000 - 12,000,000 USD
bidding is closed


  • Mark Rothko
  • Untitled (Plum and Dark Brown)
  • signed and dated 1964 on the reverse
  • oil on canvas
  • 93 1/8 x 76 in. 236.5 x 193 cm.


The Artist
Marlborough A.G., Liechtenstein/Marlborough-Gerson Gallery, Inc., New York (as Plum and Dark Brown; acquired in 1969)
C & M Arts, New York (acquired in 1994-1995)
Private Collection, Switzerland
Private Collection, United States
Acquired by the present owner from the above


Los Angeles, Los Angeles County Museum of Art; Chicago, Museum of Contemporary Art; The Hague, Haags Gemeentemuseum, The Spiritual in Art: Abstract Painting 1890-1985, November 1986 - November 1987, p. 32, illustrated in color
New York, C & M Arts, Newman, Rothko, Still: Search for the Sublime, April - May 1994, n.p., illustrated in color
Houston, Menil Collection, Mark Rothko: The Chapel Commission, December 1996 - March 1997, cat. no. 7
New York, Gagosian Gallery, Malevich and the American Legacy, March - April 2011, p. 127, illustrated in color


David Anfam, Mark Rothko, The Works on Canvas, Catalogue Raisonné, New Haven and London, 1988, cat. no. 770, p. 612, illustrated in color


This painting is in good condition. Please contact the Contemporary Art department at 212-606-7254 for a condition report prepared by Terrence Mahon. The canvas is not framed.
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

Untitled (Plum and Dark Brown) holds an important place in the mature oeuvre of Mark Rothko. Painted by the artist in 1964, only a few canvases separate the present work from Rothko's preparatory paintings for the famous 1965 Rothko Chapel series commissioned by Dominique and John de Menil. Untitled (Plum and Dark Brown)'s relationship to the Chapel paintings is reflected in the works' shared scale, composition and color palette. This darkened palette is often simplistically equated with the increasingly somber mood that characterizes Rothko's last years, before his untimely death in 1970. But far from feelings of angst or distress, the experience of works like Untitled (Plum and Dark Brown) and the Rothko Chapel paintings are regularly characterized as deeply moving and of a highly introspective nature.  The power of Untitled (Plum and Dark Brown) to channel Rothko's essentially expressive aim was solidified when the work was featured in one of the most comprehensive exhibitions ever mounted on the topic of abstract art, The Spiritual in Art: Abstract Painting 1890-1985. In this landmark exhibition, Untitled (Plum and Dark Brown) represented the importance of Rothko's work within the tradition of modern abstraction and the sublime.

In 1986, The Spiritual in Art: Abstract Painting 1890-1985 debuted at the Los Angeles Country Museum of Art and then traveled to the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago and the Gemeentemuseum in The Hague. The exhibition presented for its international audience a historical continuum with Rothko and his fellow practitioners of abstraction as important contributors to the non-objective aesthetic in its mature state. The scholarly catalogue is comprised of contributions from distinguished art historians, many of whom discuss the historical roots of symbolism and transforming the way that abstract art is understood. Specifically, Rothko's work was discussed in conjunction with Romanticism and the fourth dimension. Linda Dalrymple Henderson describes the primary non-mathematical association of the fourth dimension as "an idealist philosophical interpretation of it as a higher reality beyond three-dimensional, visual perception". She pinpoints the historical sources that link the fourth dimension to the concepts of the infinite and the Romantic Sublime, and argues for maintaining the link between infinity and mysticism, rather than secularism. (Exh. Cat, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, The Spiritual in Art: Abstract Painting 1890-1985, 1986, p. 219). Even if Rothko did not directly embrace the fourth dimension in his work to the degree that he related to the Romantic tradition, the experience of his artistic output is steeped in the concepts outlined in the exhibition. Untitled (Plum and Dark Brown) facilitates introspective meditation that is unhampered by either images or narrative, and evokes the elevation of spirit through the materials of form and color that Rothko masters in his work.

Rothko was aware of the historical legacy to which his work was related. Rather than reaching beyond the canvas as the Romantics did before him, he argues for the importance of an experience closer to home: "The romantics were prompted to seek exotic subjects and to travel far off places. They failed to realize that, though the transcendental must involve the strange and unfamiliar, not everything strange or unfamiliar is transcendental. .... Pictures must be miraculous: the instant one is completed, the intimacy between the creation and the creator is ended. He is an outsider. The picture must be for him, as for anyone experiencing it later, a revelation, an unexpected and unprecedented resolution of an eternally familiar need." (Mark Rothko, "The Romantics were prompted..." Originally published in Possibilities, I, New York, 1947, p. 84). This insistence that through the experience of a great work of art, an individual can unlock a higher level of consciousness is central to what Rothko sought to achieve in paintings such as Untitled (Plum and Dark Brown).

As early inspiration, Piet Mondrian's 1940 arrival in New York had a profound impact on the artistic development of Rothko and his milieu. Diane Waldman has pointed out the influence that Mondrian had on Rothko: "His attraction to order, stability, rectilinear structure and balanced asymmetry, his ...need to express a Platonic ideal, a higher spiritual or metaphysical truth through abstract form, are all clearly related to Mondrian's own goals." (Exh. Cat. New York, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Mark Rothko, 1903-1970: A Retrospective, 1978, p. 53). But Rothko has simplified these ideas until Mondrian's work appears punctilious and hermetic in comparison. In Rothko's paintings, the horizontal and vertical emphasis implies an expansive plane that continues in all directions into a limitless horizon. It is as though the immense universe is opened and accessible through Rothko's intense focus. This simplicity of Rothko's presentation of this grid allows for the soaring weightlessness of the viewer in the presence of Untitled (Plum and Dark Brown). Rothko's friend Barnett Newman was also interested in the ideas and possibilities developed by Mondrian. Both Rothko and Newman moved from painting surrealistic forms to a simplified allegiance to the underlying organizational tool found in the grid and rectilinear elements. Like Rothko, Newman focused on the simple details provided by the grid as an entree into non-objective painting. The orthogonally oriented canvases by both artists created an environment to consume and move the viewer via color, composition and scale.

The size of Untitled (Plum and Dark Brown) in relation to the viewer is important to the efficacy of Rothko's mature canvases. When standing directly in front of the work, the viewer confronts a canvas that extends above and beyond the range of vision, thereby locating the viewer squarely in the heart of experiencing the work itself. Rothko explains his choice of scale in simple terms: "I paint very large pictures. I realize that historically the function of painting large pictures is painting something very grandiose and pompous. The reason I paint them, however ... is precisely because I want to be very intimate and human. To paint a small picture is to place yourself outside your experience, to look upon an experience as a stereopticon view with a reducing glass. However you paint the larger pictures, you are in it. It isn't something you command." (Mark Rothko, "I Paint Very Large Pictures, 1951" in Kristine Stiles and Peter Selz, ed., Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art, 1996, p. 26).

Unlike his Abstract Expressionist colleagues Jackson Pollock and Clyfford Still, Rothko's emphasis did not include the gesture of the artist's hand. He worked to convey themes pervasive to human experience in his pictures without the obfuscating mediation of recognizable images. Even individual brushstrokes and the originating persona they imply are nearly eliminated. To accomplish this goal, Rothko worked incredibly thin layers of paint into the canvas. The thinness was achieved through adding large amounts of turpentine to his oil paint, which when applied to the canvas would stain the surface and fuse with the support. This thinness belies the laborious process of the paint's application and contributes to the ethereal quality of even the darkest tones. 

Consequently, Untitled (Plum and Dark Brown) can be understood in relation to Ad Reinhardt's Black Paintings. Striking aesthetic similarities include a flat, rather than thick, application of paint accompanied by the dark color palette that both artists often used during the 1960s. Beyond these material concerns is the manner in which both paintings reveal themselves to the viewer who devotes time and attention to experiencing the works. In Reinhardt's works, the cruciform shape attained through subtle mediation of color does not immediately avail itself to the viewer, coming to light only through close study. Similarly, the subtle variations in Untitled (Plum and Dark Brown) are only fully appreciated when careful contemplation is employed in their service. In this work, brightness is subsumed by a deep richness that is heavy with emotion and meaning.

By the time he painted Untitled (Plum and Dark Brown), Rothko had achieved financial and critical success that he met with a sense of trepidation. In 1958 he won the Guggenheim International Award and a commission to paint a series of paintings for the Four Seasons Restaurant in the Seagram's building. Both of these events were a source of frustration for Rothko. He returned the money for the Guggenheim prize and withdrew from the Seagram Building commission, refusing to mount his works in their intended site in the restaurant.  But this did not signal a retreat from the art world; instead it indicated the great care Rothko brought to the context of his career and his individual works. One set of paintings Rothko executed in conjunction with the Seagram mural project was given by the artist to the Tate Gallery, London in the late 1960s; Rothko was represented in the 1958 United States pavilion of the Venice Biennale; and in 1960, the Phillips Collection dedicated a room in their new American wing to three major Rothko paintings. Perhaps most importantly, in 1961 the Museum of Modern Art gave Rothko his first one-man museum exhibition, in which he stipulated that his paintings be hung close together in very low light (Exh. Cat. New York, The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 1978, p. 66). This configuration codified the ambient conditions for viewing Rothko's paintings that would be replicated in numerous installations of his work, including in the Rothko Chapel.

It is with the Rothko Chapel paintings that Untitled (Plum and Dark Brown) shares its closest affinity. The fourteen paintings hung in the Houston, Texas Rothko Chapel were created as a site-specific installation. The Chapel's octagonal interior is sparsely furnished with simple wooden benches in front of massive Rothko paintings, executed in dark washes similar to those of Untitled (Plum and Dark Brown). As the eyes adjust to the black, brown and purplish layers, the viewer becomes attuned to the mood of the space, imbued with a sort of monastic simplicity and spiritual purity. David Anfam describes the Chapel as a place "where walls, wall-like images, the voids of architecture and the voided pictorial rectangles commune with each other." And consequently, "the ethos points beyond 'painting' as such." (David Anfam, Mark Rothko: The Works on Canvas, New Haven and London, 1988, p. 73).

Untitled (Plum and Dark Brown) bears a deep resemblance to the Chapel paintings and carries with it the transcendental mood and profound emotion associated with reaching a plane of higher consciousness. In the Rothko catalogue raisonnĂ©, David Anfam points out that in the wake of the all-consuming Chapel commission, Rothko's annual painting production dropped dramatically (Ibid., p., 97). Thus, Untitled (Plum and Dark Brown) is one of only a few single panel works to emerge at the end of Rothko's career. It is rare indeed when a work of art is able to transcend earthly referents in search of a greater totality of purpose. Untitled (Plum and Dark Brown) is a window into this possibility for the viewer who is willing to embark on this journey.