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Mark Rothko (1903 - 1970)

Lot 26: Mark Rothko (1903-1970)


May 11, 2005
New York, NY, US

More About this Item


No. 10
signed and dated 'MARK ROTHKO 1949' (on the reverse)
oil on canvas
60 3/4 x 29 1/2 in. (154.3 x 74.9 cm.)
Painted in 1949.

Artist or Maker

Mark Rothko (1903-1970)


New York, Betty Parsons Gallery, Mark Rothko, January 1950.
Toledo Museum of Art, 37th Annual Exhibition: Contemporary American Paintings, June-August 1950, no. 68.
San Francisco Museum of Art, 20th Anniversary Exhibition: The Museum and Its Collections- Collections of Modern Art in the Bay Area, January-February 1955.
San Francisco Museum of Art, Modern Masters in West Coast Collections: An Exhibtion Selected In Celebration of the Twenty-fifth Anniversary of the San Francisco Museum of Art, 1935-1960, October-November 1960.


B. Krasne, "Mark Rothko," Art Digest, no. 24, 15 January 1950, p. 17.
D. Anfam, Mark Rothko The Works on Canvas Catalogue Raisonné, New Haven, 1998, p. 319, no. 417 (illustrated in color).
Mark Rothko, exh. cat., Fondation Beyeler, Basel, 2001, p. 24, fig. 10 (illustrated in color).


Betty Parsons Gallery, New York
Mr. and Mrs. Joseph Bransten, San Francisco, 1950
By descent to the present owners, 1980


1949 was the break through year for Mark Rothko. After an extensive exploration of art history, Rothko was finally able to realize his wholly unique voice. Although heavily vested in Romanticism and the Modernist tradition, at this time Rothko's work began making a profound addition to the conversation of art history instead of quoting it. Rothko wrote in 1943, "The progression of a painter's work, as it travels in time from point to point, will be toward clarity: toward the elimination of all obstacles between the painter and idea, and between the idea and the observer" (quoted in J. Breslin, Mark Rothko: A Biography, Chicago, 1998, p. 246). No. 10 is an extraordinary example from that crucial year when Rothko's "idea" came into sharp focus.

Rothko's mature paintings explore the existential crisis, the human condition and the beauty and awesome nature of life. His art aimed to express lofty ideas that, in lesser hands, could be construed as overwrought. No. 10 asserts Rothko's authority and negates a pragmatic dismissal of these romantic ideals. In an age of science, reason and doubt, Rothko's paintings return us to spirituality and the uncertainties that accompany it. Robert Rosenblum writes, "Ultimately, the basic configuration of Rothko's abstract paintings finds its source in the great Romantics: in Turner, who similarly achieved the dissolution of all matter into a silent, mystical luminosity; in Friedrich, who also placed the spectator before an abyss that provoked ultimate questions whose answers, without traditional religious faith and imagery, remained as uncertain as the questions themselves" (R. Rosenblum Modern Painting and the Northern Romantic Tradition: Friedrich to Rothko, New York, 1975, p. 215).

No. 10 is comprised of luscious clouds of reds, purples and greens that subtly morph from one to another. It is a study of humanity in light. Rothko wrote, "I am not interested in relationships of color or form or anything else. I am interested only in expressing the basic human emotions- tragedy, ecstasy, doom, and so on- and the fact that lots of people break down and cry when confronted with my pictures shows that I communicate with those basic human emotions. The people who weep before my pictures are having the same religious experience I had when I painted them. And if you, as you say, are moved only by their color relationships, then you miss the point!" (quoted in S. Rodman, Conversations with Artists, New York, 1957, pp. 93-94). The effect of No. 10 demonstrates this perfectly. The colors and composition are transient, one giving way to another with the formal relationships constantly shifting. It is an exuberant and elusive painting whose multiple forms and colors provoke our emotions through its organic composition which undermines its own structural fixedness and veracity.

Mark Stevens describes the Multiforms, as, "works marvelously in flux, all the elements in place, the string still not pulled taut" (M. Stevens, "Mark Rothko," Mark Rothko Multiforms, exh. cat., The Pace Gallery, New York, 1990, p. 4). No. 10 and other paintings from 1949 have not yet coalesced into the floating rectangles that define Rothko's later work. It is the sense of discovery, of an artist testing the limit of his aesthetic powers coming up each time with provocative and unique solutions, that gives the Multiforms their power. They are a true realization of Rothko's "idea." No. 10's sense of improvisation perfectly conveys the lofty but abstract ideals that Rothko espoused.

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