Lot 16
  • 16

MARK ROTHKO | Untitled (Red on Red)

7,000,000 - 10,000,000 USD
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  • Mark Rothko
  • Untitled (Red on Red)
  • oil on paper mounted on canvas
  • 38 3/4 by 25 in. 98.4 by 63.5 cm.
  • Executed in 1969.


Estate of the Artist (Estate No. 1305.69)
Marlborough-Gerson Gallery Inc., New York
M. Knoedler & Co., Inc., New York 
Acquired by the present owner from the above in February 1981


Rome, Marlborough Galleria d'Arte; Bergamo, Galleria Lorenzelli; and Turin, Galleria Martano, Mark Rothko, February - April 1971, n.p., no. 15 (text) (Rome), n.p., no. 15, illustrated (Bergamo)
New York, Marisa del Re Gallery, Inc., Ten Abstract American Masters, May 1981, n.p. (text)


Karen Thomson, ed., The Blema and H. Arnold Steinberg Collection, Montreal, 2015, p. 113, no. 117, illustrated in color

Catalogue Note

Bursting with chromatic vibrancy, Mark Rothko’s Untitled (Red on Red) entrances viewers, inviting them to bask in the fiery glow of its luminous forms. Executed in 1969, Untitled (Red on Red) is distinguished by its brilliant palette of luscious reds. A gem of the illustrious Blema and H. Arnold Steinberg Collection, the present work appears at auction for the first time, nearly four decades after joining the Steinbergs' collection. Prior to the Steinbergs’ acquisition of the work, Untitled (Red on Red) was selected for a 1971 monographic exhibition tour Mark Rothko, which travelled to the Marlborough Galleria d’Arte in Rome, Galleria Lorenzelli in Bergamo, and Galleria Martano in Turin. Although Rothko created works on paper throughout the entirety of his career, Untitled (Red on Red) reflects the climax of the evolution of his output on paper. Bonnie Clearwater explains that “the late vibrant paintings on paper contain a force not [previously] experienced.” (Exh. Cat. New York, American Federation of the Arts, Mark Rothko: Works on Paper, 1984, p. 54) Untitled (Red on Red) employs the visual vocabulary of Rothko’s “matured style,” with its “two soft-edged and rounded rectangles,” and bespeaks the great achievement of his output: the illusory creation of light. (Duncan Phillips in Exh. Cat., Washington, D.C., National Gallery of Art, Mark Rothko, 1998, p. 248) The medium of paper, especially prominent in the later stages of his oeuvre, allowed Rothko to flaunt his ability to produce the perceptual effect of a lit surface; viewers luxuriate in the sultry hues of Untitled (Red on Red), experiencing, if only for a moment, an overwhelming sense of awe. For this reason, Robert Rosenblum defines Rothko as the art historical descendant of the nineteenth century master painters Joseph Mallord William Turner and Caspar David Friedrich; equally interested in the sublime, Rothko advanced their artistic achievements by moving into the realm of total abstraction—a development which he fully realizes in Untitled (Red on Red). A paragon of Rothko’s expressive command of pigment, Untitled (Red on Red) demonstrates the artist’s profound ability to communicate spatial depth and volume through abstract form. Two rectangular panels—comprising layers of brick red and deep crimson—fill almost the entire composition and hover atop a backdrop of translucent washes of light red. Traces of scarlet pigment brim to the surface along the work’s perimeter. Viewers can feel the touch of Rothko’s brushstroke; they can sense the movement of his gesture across the modulated planes. In describing his practice, Rothko explained: “Two characteristics exist in my paintings; either their surfaces are expansive and push outward in all directions, or their surfaces contract and rush inward in all directions.” (The artist cited in Ibid., p. 299) In the present work, the surface pushes outward in all directions; the loose brushstrokes that dust the edges of the panels elicit a sense of extension, as if Rothko could barely contain them in the intimately-scaled sheet of paper he selected. Jeffrey Weiss characterizes the evocation of space in Rothko’s slab-like forms by suggesting they “possess an elusive quality of plentitude or depth.” (Ibid., p. 303) Upon close viewing, the expanse of Untitled (Red on Red)’s two panels feels immeasurable.

Untitled (Red on Red) shimmers with energy, illuminating the space surrounding it. A sliver of pink from beneath the two panels peers through the thin space between them, creating the illusion of a beam of light. It blurs the panels’ lines, glistening with the brilliance of the sun’s rays as they pierce through a sea of clouds. Max Kozloff terms Rothko’s paintings ‘auto-luminous,’ for they emit “a radiance that belongs to the [work] alone rather than to the realm of representation.” (Jeffrey Weiss, “Rothko’s Unknown Space,” in Ibid., p. 304) Rosenblum describes the rectangular planes in Rothko’s paintings as “infinite, glowing voids [that] carry us beyond reason to the Sublime; we can only submit to them in an act of faith and let ourselves be absorbed into their radiant depths.” (Robert Rosenblum, “The Abstract Sublime,” ARTnews 59, no. 10, February 1961) To view the present work is to experience a perceptual transformation; meditation on its glorious planes removes viewers from their surroundings.

With its strikingly saturated hues, Untitled (Red on Red) exemplifies the drama Rothko came to attain on paper. Of the finest examples of his works on paper, the present work helps viewers “chart the artist’s quest for an elemental language that would communicate basic human emotions and move all mankind.” (Bonnie Clearwater, Exh. Cat. New York, Mark Rothko Foundation, Mark Rothko: Works on Paper, 1984, p. 17) Although the works from this period are characterized by ominous tones, Untitled (Red on Red) is distinguished by its vibrancy and demonstrates the complexities of Rothko’s colors and nuances within his palette: the chromatic interplay of fiery scarlet and blazing crimson attest to the artist’s mastery of color. Untitled (Red on Red) embodies Rothko’s most significant contributions to the history of art: eliciting deep emotional responses through an irresistible chromatic aura.

The following work is being considered for inclusion in the forthcoming Mark Rothko online Resource and Catalogue Raisonné of works on paper, compiled by the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.