Mark Rothko is among the pantheon of artists whose ability to evoke universal truths through painting has fundamentally shifted our visual culture. Gifted by the artist to the Weisman family in a gesture of friendship and remaining in the family since then, Untitled (Nude)
and Untitled (Underwater Series)
embody two crucial stages in the artist’s creative growth, acting as pivotal exemplars in the development of Rothko’s voice in New York’s mid-century artistic firmament. Rothko met the late Jesse Weisman in the 1930s and the two became trusted friends, sharing summer rental houses in Mahopac, NY on their family vacations with their wives and children. As Jesse’s daughter, Susan Weisman McGee, recalls, “when my brother, Peter, was young and the Rothkos would come over to visit, Mark would sit Peter on his lap and draw pictures of cowboys and Indians.” Untitled (Nude)
and Untitled (Underwater Series)
were given to Susan’s parents over the years of their extended friendship. Presented at auction for the first time, these works are foundational checkpoints in the progression of Rothko’s practice leading up to his iconic Multiforms
, and foreshadow Rothko’s later artistic achievements, enduring as important points of access to the artist and his influences.
Executed in 1939 when the artist was known as Mark Rothkowitz, Untitled (Nude)
marks the genesis of Rothko’s restless search for a unique point of view. Rothko, who had immigrated to the United States with his family from the Russian Empire in 1913, attended Yale for two years before leaving in 1923 to enroll in the Art Students League. While there, Rothko was influenced by notable faculty such as Thomas Hart Benton, Reginald Marsh and John Sloan who had made the venerable institution a "stronghold of realist tradition during the 1920s and 1930s” (Exh. Cat., New York, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Mark Rothko in New York,
1994, p. 13). Rothko spent much of that time employing a New York-specific Social Realist style, painting everyday people on the subway, in restaurants and at the beach. Influenced by his forebears in Modernism, particularly Max Weber, Georges Braque, Pablo Picasso and Paul Cézanne, Rothko’s larger goal became capturing the essential character of his subjects, thus abandoning depictions which could be linked to a specific time and place. Untitled (Nude)
is one such subject, softly smiling at the viewer, her face submerged in shadow. She twists her body, facing forward and bracing herself to keep erect, an unabashed act of display that differs from traditional archetypes of the nude, complicating the nature of the subject’s identity and context. Part of a group of nudes and portraits that depicted "pale, wan creatures, many of them isolated from one another and from the bustle of their surroundings” the present work forgoes verisimilitude to subvert conventions of portraiture and distance itself from figurative representation (Exh. Cat., New York, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Mark Rothko in New York,
1994, p. 16).
Furthering this trajectory toward abstraction, Untitled (Underwater Series), incorporates many of the artistic gestures and themes that Rothko would explore for the rest of his career. Throughout the 1940s, the New York creative community was indelibly influenced by an exodus of Surrealist artists fleeing the horrors of Europe, among them André Breton, André Masson and Yves Tanguy. The present work is a paragon of Rothko’s concept of “Plasticity,” defined by the “sensation of movement both into the canvas and out from the space anterior to the surface of the canvas.” In Rothko’s mind, “Plasticity” can be initiated in art when “the artist invites the spectator to take a journey within the realm of his canvas. The spectator must move with the artist’s shapes in and out, under and above, diagonally and horizontally; he must curve around spheres, pass through tunnels, glide down inclines, at times perform an aerial feat of flying from point to point, attracted by some irresistible magnet across space” (Christopher Rothko, Ed., Mark Rothko: The Artist’s Reality, Philosophies of Art, New Haven 2004, p. 47). Untitled (Underwater Series) inspires this sensation of unbound movement—bringing together organic shapes and hard-edged forms in a symphony of dissonant and Surrealist-inspired elements of the composition. The present work also grants access to Rothko’s thought process; forms are delineated in washes of tone, and then reshaped with attenuated black borders and pin-wheel overlays, which makes concrete the formation of an idea and then its eventual execution. Importantly, the present work presages Rothko’s celebrated use of unexpected and affecting color relationships; a passage of sky blue is submerged in a field of burnt sienna, undertones of lime green are washed over with dusty gray, and linear dashes of vibrant white offset inflections of cherry red.
Rarely seen, Mark Rothko’s works from the 1930s and 1940s are essential to understanding the artist, his creative origins, and his later works which would shift the course of twentieth-century art. Both Untitled (Nude) and Untitled (Underwater Series) are proxies for Rothko’s ever-changing artistic identity, acting as contexts for experimentation, as well as generative sites for the artist’s most foundational ideas.