No 9. (White and Black on Wine) is a rare, large and imposing landscape-format painting from 1958 that holds a place of particular historical importance in the history of Rothko's art. Later given the title of "No. 9" by Rothko (around the time of his 1961 retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art), White and Black on Wine is the only work by the artist to have been identified as belonging to the first series of mural paintings that Rothko made for the Four Seasons Restaurant on the ground floor of the prestigious Seagram building in Manhattan.
The story of Rothko's Seagram murals is one of the central legends of his career and has become the kind of fable that impregnates and often threatens to dominate the history of any great artist's life. It is however nonetheless a remarkable and particularly pertinent story because the Seagram commission and the unfolding drama that surrounded Rothko's eventual rejection of it - after having worked on the project for nearly two years - encapsulates and reveals two important parameters of Rothko's character and artistic temperament. The Seagram commission threw Rothko's long held personal keenness to create a complete painterly environment into direct conflict with his deep-rooted socialist principles. Ultimately, the overt luxury of the Four Seasons restaurant proved too offensive to Rothko's conscience and this, alongside the fact that he feared that the solemn paintings that had devised for it would come to be seen as mere decoration, led to his pulling out from the project.
Rothko had made around forty panels as a part of this project which had obsessed him for the previous two years. In all there had been what Rothko described as "three sets of panels", but as his assistant Dan Rice has pointed out, in addition to these, there had also been "a lot of individual paintings that were done almost in exact terms" and "it would be very difficult to say that one was intended as part of the murals and one was not" (cited in J. E. B. Breslin, Mark Rothko ; A Biography, Chicago 1993, p. 406). As White and Black on Wine shows, Rothko threw himself into the Seagram project with relish and began the mural project by extending the formal logic of his paintings with their cascade of horizontal rectangles into an enlarged "widescreen" format. This extension of the horizontal axis of his paintings lent his work a panoramic quality that heightens the profound sense of landscape that many of his cloud-like rectangular forms already evoked. At the same time, in a strong painting like White and Black on Wine, the bold, heavy color, the imposing scale of the work and the powerful balance of contrasting tones generates an intensely personal feel that is underpinned by overriding sense of urbanity. Rothko was essentially an urban artist, and although, as he once remarked to his daughter Kate, he had often been inspired by the colors of the landscape vistas he had seen in the Southwestern United States, his art was as much informed by the geometry of the New York grid as it was by a yearning for the sublime or by the romanticism inherent in landscape.
It was only later, after the completion of a number of paintings in the same format of White and Black on Wine that Rothko realized that the extended horizontality of this landscape format would conflict unsuccessfully with the repetitious verticality that was generated by the sequence of pillars in the Four Seasons interior. As a consequence he abandoned this first series of paintings and, turning the format on its side, explored a series of vertical rectangular progressions and structures in the later series of works.
It was this selling of the first series of paintings made for the Seagram building that led to confusion and speculation amongst historians as to which works had constituted it. Ronald Alley remarked in his catalogue of the Tate collection in 1987 that, "the only picture from the first series that has been definitely identified is White and Black on Wine, 1958, formerly in the collection of William. S. Rubin, New York and now in that of Ben Heller" (Catalogue of the Tate Gallery's Collection of Modern Art, London, 1981, p. 660). He gives no reason for this definite attribution however, and may have based it solely on the exceptional size of the painting and in particular its height which is the same as many of the Four Seasons panels. When hanging his one-man retrospective at the Whitechapel Gallery in 1961, Rothko gave instructions that referred to the Seagram mural paintings as a "unit" and remarked that "The only exception to this grouping of the murals is the picture owned by Mr Rubin, White and Black on Wine 1958". This work, he explained, was the only one of the Seagram paintings that "could take its place, but with raised hanging, among the other works since it is a transitional piece between the earlier pictures of that year and the mural series." (cited in Breslin op.cit:, p. 635). It seems from this statement that Rothko clearly felt the work to be an important part of a "first series" that now no longer existed.
That Rothko considered White and Black on Wine an important work is indicated not only by his inclusion of it in both his MoMA retrospective and the Whitechapel exhibitions, but also by the fact that in 1969 he became "desperately anxious" for one of his foremost collectors, Ben Heller, to buy the work from its then owner William Rubin. Ben Heller was one of Rothko's earliest collectors having bought his work periodically from 1955 onwards. The sale of White and Black on Wine to Heller however was to cause a strain on their relationship as in order to buy the work, Heller was obliged to pay partly with another Rothko that he owned; Browns of 1957. The exchange of his work angered Rothko who ever afterwards would ring up Heller periodically saying, 'This is Rothko. How many Rothko's do you own today?" (ibid, p. 418).
One of Rothko's largest individual works White and Black on Wine is one that dominates its environment in such a way that its powerful colors pervade its environment and seem to permeate, like sonar, through the skin of the viewer. Emulating Rothko's aim with the Seagram murals to create not a series of pictures, but "a space", White and Black on Wine is a work that also fulfills another of the criteria that Rothko wanted of his paintings. It has that unavoidable presence that Rothko once described to Murray Israel as being of the kind that "when you turned your back to the painting, you would feel that presence the way you feel the sun on your back" (cited in Breslin, op. cit., p. 275).
Rothko in his W. 53rd Street studio, c. 1953 photograph by Henry Elkan c 2003 Kate Rothko Prizel & Christopher Rothko/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Installation view, Mark Rothko retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1961 c 2003 Kate Rothko Prizel & Christopher Rothko/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
No. 9 (White and Black on Wine)
Oil on canvas
Signed 'MARK ROTHKO' (on the reverse)
New York, Museum of Modern Art; London, Whitechapel Art Gallery; Amsterdam, Stedelijk Museum; Brussels, Palais des Beaux-Arts de Bruxelles' Basel, Kunsthalle; Rome, Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Moderna; Paris, Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, Mark Rothko, January 1961-January 1963, no. 33 (New York, London, Amsterdam, Brussels, illustrated), no. 34 (Basel and Rome, illustrated), no. 29 (Paris).
Cleveland Museum of Art, Landscape, Interior and Exterior: Avery, Rothko, and Schueler, July-August 1975, no. 6 (illustrated, titled as Black, Maroons, and White).
New York, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum; Houston, Museum of Fine Arts; Minneapolis, Walker Art Center and Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Mark Rothko: A Retrospective Exhibition, October 1978-September 1979, no. 150 (illustrated in color, shown in New York only).
Berlin, Schloss Charlottenburg, Grosse Orangerie, Zeichen des Glaubens-Geist der Avant Garde: Religiöse Tendenzen in der Kunst des 20. Jahrhunderts, May-July 1980, no. 179 (illustrated on the back cover).
Basel, Fondation Beyeler, Mark Rothko, February-April 2001, pp. 122-123 (illustrated in color).
105 x 166 in. (266.7 x 421.6 cm.)
P. Sollers, "Le murs de sens", Art de France, 1964, p. 248, no. 4 (illustrated).
J. Hogrefe, "Rothko Work Sets Record with $1.8 Million Sale", The Washington Post, 10 November 1983, pp. C1, C8-C9.
T. Ayers, ed., Art at Auction 1983-84, London and New York, 1984 p. 135 (illustrated in color).
B. Clearwater, "Shared Myths: Reconsideration of Rothko's and Gottlieb's Letter to The New York Times", Archives of American Art Journal, 24, no. 1, 1984, p. 23-25.
L. Havelock-Allan, "Vingt ans de prééminence de l'art américain", Connaissance des Arts, 388, June, 1984, p. 94 (illustrated in color).
R. W. Walker, "The Art Market: Record-Breaking Rothko", Art News, 83, February, 1984, p. 18 (illustrated).
R. Duthy, "The Fortunes of Rothko", Connoisseur, 215, November, 1985, p. 174 (illustrated in color).
Tate Gallery, Liverpool, Mark Rothko: The Seagram Mural Project, 1989.
E. B. Wyer, "Flaky Art: Modern Masterpieces Are Crumbling", New York Magazine, 25 January 1988, pp. 42-48.
N. Hiromoto, Mark Rothko, Tokyo, 1993, no. 40 (illustrated in color).
G. Engelhard, "Abstraktion: Mark Rothko", Art: das Kunstmagazin, 7, July, 1996, p. 20 (illustrated in color).
D. Anfam, Mark Rothko: The Works on Canvas, New Haven and London, 1998, p. 478, no. 616 (illustrated in color, p. 479).
Sidney Janis Gallery, New York
William Rubin, New York, 1959
Joseph Slifka, New York, 1964
Ben Heller, New York, 1967
His sale; Sotheby's, New York, November 1983, lot 88
Shigeki Kameyama, Tokyo, 1983
Fukuoka City Bank, Ltd., Fukuoka