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Mark Rothko (1903 - 1970)

Lot 19: Mark Rothko (1903-1970)

Christie's

February 6, 2002
London, United Kingdom

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No. 15 signed, numbered and dated at a later date 'MARK ROTHKO 1949 5097.49' (on the reverse) oil on canvas 68 x 413/4in. (170 x 106.3cm.) Painted in 1949 PROVENANCE Sidney Janis Gallery, New York. Marlborough A.G., Liechtenstein/Marlborough Fine Art Ltd, London (1969). Private Collection, Europe (1970). Anon. sale, Christie's New York, 18 November 1981, lot 35. Anon. sale, Sotheby's New York, 20 May 1983, lot 419. Private Collection, New York (1983). Edward Tyler Nahem, New York (1988). Jan Krugier Gallery, New York (1988). Andr‚ Emmerich Gallery Inc., New York (1988). Michell-Innes & Nash, New York. Acquired from the above by the present owner. LITERATURE B. Krasne, "Mark of Rothko", in Art Digest 24, 15 January 1950, p. 17. E. de Kooning, "Two Americans in Action: Frank Kline, Mark Rothko", Art News Annual 27, 1958, (illustrated p. 96). Apollo 114, November 1981, (illustrated in colour p. 38). Art in America 69, November 1981, (illustrated in colour p. 43). R. Duthy, "The Investment File", in The Connnoisseur 209, January 1982, (illustrated p. 50). D. Anfam, Mark Rothko, Works on Canvas, New Haven and Washington, D.C., 1998, no. 399 (illustrated in colour p. 395). EXHIBITION New York, Betty Parsons Gallery, Mark Rothko, January 1950, no. 15. New York, The Museum of Modern Art, Mark Rothko, January-March 1961, no. 15. This exhibition later travelled to London, Whitechapel Art Gallery, October-November 1961, no. 13 (illustrated); Amsterdam, Stedelijk Museum, November-December 1961, no. 13; Brussels, Palais des Beaux-Arts, January 1962, no. 13; Basel, Kunsthalle Basel, March-April 1962, no. 13; and Rome, Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Moderna, Mark Rothko, April-May 1962, no. 13 (illustrated). Paris, Mus‚e d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, Mark Rothko, December-January 1963, no. 9. Basel, International Art Fair, (Marlborough Gallery, New York), June 1970. NOTES Rothko's "Moment of Light" by David Anfam During the second half of the 1940s Mark Rothko's art underwent an extraordinary transformation. By the end of that decade, the cryptic personages, symbols and swirling organic forms of such "mythic" compositions as Rites of Lilith (1945) had matured into his "classic" works consisting of one or more rectangles that hover within a field of colour. These imageless icons have placed Rothko among the key exponents of abstract painting in the twentieth century. No.15 is an exquisite example of this climactic moment of discovery in his development. Part of the importance of Rothko's ultimate shift from figuration to abstraction lies in the unique set of factors that influenced his thought in these transitional years. On the personal level, the late 1940s were the mid-point in a long career that had begun around 1924 and closed with Rothko's suicide in February 1970. This was therefore the ideal juncture for a painter in his prime - forty-six years of age in 1949 - to take stock of the past while formulating the next artistic moves that he would make. Rothko's mother had also happened to die in October 1948, an event which plunged him into acute depression. Such a trauma has the potential to either paralyse or galvanize. Fortunately, it seems to have produced the second result, as witnessed by the prolific output of 1949: some forty canvases that are at once innovative and richly varied. Indeed, it would be no exaggeration to suggest that this was the phase when Rothko first began to exploit in earnest the poetic force of sheer colour. In turn, wider elements of history and culture meshed with Rothko's personal circumstances in the late 1940s. At that time, the terrible cataclysms of the Second World War and its aftermath led into the anxieties of the emergent Cold War. On the one hand, this created a mood of dark uncertainty in the arts - ranging from existentialist-influenced literature to the Hollywood film noir - that certainly impacted upon the outlook of Rothko and his fellow Abstract Expressionists. On the other, the avant-garde in Europe and especially the United States were emboldened to react against the hostile climate: they sought new styles aiming to evoke the inner realities that were felt to lie beyond mere external appearances. Abstraction, as Rothko's friend Adolph Gottlieb said in 1947, thus became in their estimate the true "realism" of the postwar era. That same year, Jackson Pollock, to cite just one vanguard name, forged his non-representational idiom using poured and flung paint. And in the winter of 1947-48 Rothko himself avowed that the "familiar identity of things" must be "pulverized" in order to reach transcendental experiences (cited in D. Anfam, Mark Rothko: The Works on Canvas - A Catalogue Raisonne (New Haven and London, 1998, p. 58). As Rothko pulverised the biomorphic organisms that inhabited the flux of such aptly titled paintings as Aquatic Drama (1946), so their shapes began to swell across the subsequent canvases. There they deliquesce like frozen gases into the bright hazes of his so-called "multiforms", the compositions preceding the greater degree of resolution that he would soon achieve in No.15 and similar works. Although the term "multiform" was applied to the paintings posthumously and probably was not Rothko's own, it still captures the essence of the pictures. This is their sense of open possibilities. Here shapes become, in Rothko's word, "performers" that are able to move in manifold ways - expanding into luminous veils, shrunken to solid chromatic blocks, opaque, airy, upfront or distant, and so forth. The handling of pigment now assumes a watercolour-like quality and its manipulation reflects the considerable skills that Rothko had already perfected in that medium. The legacy of his technique in the works on paper from around 1945-46 contributes to the overall visual translucence of No.15 as well as its quiet virtuosity. Notice, for instance, how the striking fuschia hue of the main rectangle perhaps derives in part from a blue wash laid over an orange-red ground. Or witness the delicate variety of brushwork: from staccato horizontal strokes (the whites below the middle area), through a liquid touch (the olive vertical that anchors the lower left corner), to neutral expanses virtually soaked into the canvas (the basic orange ground). Areas that look as though they lie behind others - consider the strongest orange edgings at the left side of the green halo around the magenta - in fact stand over them, and vice-versa. In this respect, the manifold surface of No.15 almost resembles the effect of some shimmering tapestry woven, as it were, from tinted aether. Another quintessential feature of No.15 is its tense merger of opposites: oranges set against green, hazy lower fragments held fast by the electric magenta mass above, and the absence of imagery even as the picture itself has become a vivid presence, a kind of surrogate for the artist's own, that confronts the spectator. In a lecture of 1958 Rothko was to list "tension" among the crucial ingredients of his art (cited in D. Ashton, "Letter from New York," Cimaise, December 1958, p. 39). It was also among the oldest - insofar as Rothko had always been obsessed with opposing elements. From the outset, he explored such polarities as the figure and its environment, the human drama against the abstract planes of architecture, and the relationship of light and shadow. The paintings of the late 1940s and early 50s refine these extremes to the furthest limits, in the process establishing pictorial equivalents for the two different sides to Rothko's temperament. The sensual side attracted immediate attention, and rightly so. When No.15 was exhibited in Rothko's landmark exhibition of January 1950 at the Betty Parsons Gallery, a critic was struck by its "pyrotechnic excitement of fuschia, pale green and peach" (B. Krasne, "Mark of Rothko," Art Digest, 15 January 1950, p. 17). The same writer was likewise dazzled by the "blinding sunburst range" of the other paintings from 1949 arrayed there. Behind this new-found chromatic intensity lay two major influences. Firstly, Matisse - to whom Rothko would dedicate a 1954 masterpiece and whose Red Studio (1911) in the Museum of Modern Art taught him how colour - when used in field-like expanses - could manage not so much to represent luminosity as to actually embody it. Secondly, Bonnard. The French painter's New York exhibitions in 1946-47 and 1948 are now widely acknowledged to have cast a spell over Rothko's eyes. Without the catalyst of Bonnard's iridescent layerings and his unusual palette - in which, say, violet will offset gold - No.15 represents the type of conception that might otherwise have taken Rothko another year or two to distill.Given his allegiance to "tension", however, Rothko of course kept his sensualism in check. That austerity accounts for the stark rectangle that dominates No.15 and announces the format that he would maintain, with many variations, for the next twenty years. The paradox of holding boundless colour within rigid angles has been succinctly described by John Golding as "liquid geometry" (J. Golding, Paths to the Absolute, London, 2000, p. 163). If Mondrian, towards whom Rothko had a love-hate attitude, was one source for these right-angled motifs, another may exist in a more everyday yet also, in a sense, metaphysical realm. It is the theatre and its double, the cinema. In his youth Rothko trained as an actor, became an avid cinema-goer and even depicted the audience in a Movie Palace (1934/35). A myopic person, he must have been sensitive to that famously magic moment when darkness and the empty proscenium of a theatre or cinema are suddenly awash with hypnotic light and drama. For it is radiance that Rothko injects into the otherwise blank rectangles that he brought to the fore in 1949, transforming them once and for all into his signature images of veiled mystery and rapt immediacy. We, the viewers, are the audience that they hold in thrall. What better way to convey this discovery than in the title of a poem by a contemporary of the artist whom he indeed admired? Wallace Stevens. The historic turning-point in Rothko's evolution that No.15 and other works of that year epitomise is, in Stevens's poignant phrase, nothing less than the "Moment of Light". SALESROOM NOTICE Please note that the work is signed and dated in red 'MARK ROTHKO 1949' (on the reverse).

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