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Untitled
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Untitled

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About the item

Equivalent in scope and scale to Mark Rothko’s late works on canvas, Untitled from 1969 is one of the largest works on paper that the artist ever painted and the first of its kind to appear at auction in almost twenty years. Painted just months before the artist’s tragic demise, it is an extraordinarily rare late masterpiece by an artist at the height of his mature style and the apogee of his creative powers.\n\nIn the spring of 1968, Rothko suffered an aneurism and on doctor’s orders refrained from making large paintings on canvas during his convalescence, working on smaller, more manageable works on paper instead. Although he had regained his health sufficiently by 1969 to resume work on large canvases, he found that the restrictions forced by his ill health had opened new creative possibilities; working on paper had introduced new imagery and techniques that he wanted to explore. Indeed, in one of the most productive periods of his artistic career in which he worked every day, from the summer of 1968 until his death in February 1969, the majority of his production was on paper.\n\nWith these works, Rothko sought to break away from the traditional notion that paper was only suited to small scale work. Scale was important for Rothko: “I realise that historically the function of painting large pictures is… grandiose and pompous. The reason I paint them however… is precisely because I want to be very intimate and human.” (The artist, cited in Bonnie Clearwater, The Rothko Book, London, 2006, p. 185). In works such as Untitled, which are equivalent in scale to his canvases, he invests the paperwork with the drama of scale that was absent from his earlier works in the medium. What sets Untitled apart from many of the works on paper from the period, such as the grey and brown paperworks from 1968 which inspired the black and grey canvases of the following year, is that this paper was laid down on canvas, thereby giving it the presence and magnificence of the canvases for which he was hitherto best known.\n\nWorking with paper afforded a new creative avenue for Rothko, who, by 1969 had pared down his artistic language to such a degree that it helped give rise to the austerity of Minimalism. What Rothko liked about the medium of paper was the radiance of hue that resulted from light reflecting off the white paper beneath semi-translucent ink, an effect that he could not achieve directly on his unprimed canvases which tended to absorb rather than reflect the light.\n\nUntitled offers a master class in this technique. Two dense forms of opaque black pigment, each approaching the edge of the support, each subtly different in hue from the other, sit on top of an inky background of midnight blue. While the two central forms obfuscate the paper support entirely and absorb all light, the deep blue of the surround is more translucent and more thinly applied, allowing a glimmer of reflected light to pass through from the white paper below. Although subtle, it is this light that energises the entire composition which hinges on the subtle differences in hue and opacity of the painted surface. While the lower rectangle is a cooler black, the rectangle that fills the top two thirds of the composition has more pronounced red tones. The horizon line between the two offers a deep glow of light through the inky blue of the background, enhancing the velvety blackness of the immobile forms and invoking the sense of depth, stillness and quietude in the artwork. “These late creations, with their dense, unmodulated surfaces, do not flicker with light; rather, they generate a strong, constant glow” (Dore Ashton, ‘Introduction’ in Bonnie Clearwater, Mark Rothko: Works on Paper, New York 1984, page 55).\n\nRothko considered black to be a crucial member of the chromatic spectrum as opposed to representing an ‘absence’ of colour, a belief expressed with extraordinary care in Untitled. Although Rothko had been experimenting with a more sombre palette throughout the 1960s, these works reached their spectacular culmination in the last years of his life, following Dominique de Menil’s commission for the Chapel at the University of St. Thomas, Houstan, Texas. One of Rothko’s most significant artistic legacies, the development and execution of the works for the Chapel occupied much of the artist’s final years, with Rothko completing fourteen works for the project, although installation was not to be finally completed until 1971. Rothko was given extensive control over the architectural design of the chapel by his enlightened patrons, and conceived of five large single panels, along with three sizable triptychs, to fill the octagonal space, all in overwhelmingly dark tones of deep reds and blue. The commission encouraged the artist in his change of creative mood and increasing use of dark hues: Rothko’s paintings and works on paper of the late 1960s, including Untitled, have a greater sense of profundity and a powerful emotional depth that had not always existed within his earlier, more colourful, works. Rothko wrote of his immense gratitude to his patrons at the opportunity provided by the Chapel commission to pursue the next momentous steps in his artistic journey: “The magnitude, on every level of experience and meaning, of the task in which you have involved me, exceeds all my preconceptions. And it is teaching me to extend myself beyond what I thought was possible to me. For this I thank you.” (The artist, cited in Bonnie Clearwater, The Rothko Book, London, 2006, p. 160). Untitled can be viewed, in many respects, as the culmination of the creative discoveries that resulted from the Chapel: with all extraneous distraction of colour and form eliminated, the impact on the onlooker is one of sheer power and wonder; the monochromatic expanse of sombre tones encourages a pseudo religious sense of awed reverence and communion within the viewer.\n\nMany adhere to the view of Rothko’s official biographer Robert Goldwater about the late works that “In their sombre colours, or lack of colour, in their starkness and quiet, above all in a remoteness of a kind never evident in any of his previous work, they seem already to contain the mood that led to his tragic end” (Robert Goldwater cited in Bonnie Clearwater, Mark Rothko: Works on Paper, New York 1984, p57). Indeed, 1969 was a melancholic year for Rothko: his aneurism the previous year had made him aware of his own mortality; in January he separated from his wife and moved into his studio; bouts of depression were aggravated by his alcoholism and he sensed, incorrectly, that his influence was on the wane as a new generation of Minimalist artists – ironically inspired by his elimination of pictorial elements – were chasing his coat tails.\n\nHowever, there is a very clear sense of a new beginning in these late works, as witnessed in Untitled. Forced to experiment by his illness and the creative cul-de-sac of his pared down vocabulary, the use of paper brought new impetus to Rothko’s oeuvre. Untitled sits squarely alongside the black and grey canvases of the period not as a coda to his earlier oeuvre but as the beginning of a new direction. As Dore Ashton surmises: “Yes, there is tragedy in these works, as there is tragedy in the times, and Rothko as shaman or dramatist translates for us his vision of the human dilemma. The fact that the brooding majesty of the late works has elicited a sense of tragedy from viewers is perhaps proof that Rothko did achieve his goal: the evocation of ‘basic human emotions – tragedy, ecstasy, doom’” (Dore Ashton, ‘Introduction’ in Bonnie Clearwater, Mark Rothko: Works on Paper, New York 1984, p. 59).\nSigned and dated 1969 on the reverse
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medium

Oil on paper laid down on canvas

creator

Mark Rothko

condition

Colour: The colours in the catalogue illustration are fairly accurate, although fails to convey the tonal variation between the different hues of black. Condition: This work is in very good condition. Very close inspection reveals some very minor canvas draw to the top left and right corners, and a diagonal scuff towards the bottom left corner. No restoration is apparent under ultraviolet light. "In response to your inquiry, we are pleased to provide you with a general report of the condition of the property described above. Since we are not professional conservators or restorers, we urge you to consult with a restorer or conservator of your choice who will be better able to provide a detailed, professional report. Prospective buyers should inspect each lot to satisfy themselves as to condition and must understand that any statement made by Sotheby's is merely a subjective, qualified opinion. Prospective buyers should also refer to any Important Notices regarding this sale, which are printed in the Sale Catalogue. NOTWITHSTANDING THIS REPORT OR ANY DISCUSSIONS CONCERNING A LOT, ALL LOTS ARE OFFERED AND SOLD AS IS" IN ACCORDANCE WITH THE CONDITIONS OF BUSINESS PRINTED IN THE SALE CATALOGUE."

dimensions

177.8 by 102.9cm.

exhibition

Basel, Galerie Beyeler, Mark Rothko, 1990-1991, cat. no. X, illustrated in colour

provenance

Estate of the Artist Marlborough-Gerson Gallery, New York Galerie Krugier, Geneva Private Collection, USA Sale: Sotheby's, New York, 3 May 1989, Lot 139 Private Collection, New York Galerie Beyeler, Basel Sale: Sotheby's, New York, Contemporary Art, Part 1, 3 May 1993, Lot 43 Acquired directly from the above by the present owner

signedDate

Signed and dated 1969 on the reverse

consignmentDesignation

Property From a Private Swiss Collection

creator_nationality_dates

1903 - 1970


*Note: The price is not recalculated to the current value. It refers to the actual final price at the time the item was sold.

*Note: The price is not recalculated to the current value. It refers to the actual final price at the time the item was sold.

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