Art Markets: Rothko: Fame, fortune and depression

A highlight of the Fall 2007 auction season in New York was the Christie’s sale of a painting on canvas by Mark Rothko (1903-1970), Untitled (Red, Blue, Orange). Selling at $30.5 million (with buyer’s premium), it set a record high for the artist.

To measure the benchmark set by the Christie’s auction for collector interest, compare the response of Untitled with a Van Gogh on the block at Sotheby’s a week earlier. Van Gogh’s oil on canvas, Wheat Fields, failed to reach its $28 million reserve and went unsold. Like his Dutch predecessor, Rothko suffered from a depression that cut short his life; yet by the time Rothko found his style, modernism had become fashionable to an extent unimaginable in Van Gogh’s era. rothko red blue orange.jpgAs a result, Rothko was able to earn good fees and enthusiastic reviews for his art during his lifetime. The market value of his work has only increased in the years since his death.

Mark Rothko, Untitled (Red, Blue, Orange) is a powerful piece of post-modern art hinting at deeper truths.
Photo courtesy of Christie’s Images Ltd.

At a casual glance, Rothko’s characteristic color field paintings seem to support the suspicion that modern art is a game anyone with enough chutzpah can play. After all, paintings consisting of blocks of color may appear to be something any competent house painter could execute. And yet, when understood and properly viewed, Rothko’s works can carry the viewer across the threshold of everyday waking reality and into a place beyond the ability of the human mind to register and the human hand to represent.

Little wonder that a million-dollar commission to paint murals for the elegant Four Seasons restaurant in New York’s Seagram Building (1958) was refused. Rothko wasn’t in the business of decorating walls. His paintings were windows into the unknowable. Like religious artists, Rothko sometimes worked in triptychs; he also painted the color panels for the sanctuary of a Philip Johnson-designed chapel in Houston (1964-1967). For museum exhibitions, he specified the dim lighting of a synagogue at evening prayers.

Although Rothko presented himself as a secular Jewish intellectual steeped in Freud and Nietzsche, one may wonder if the Orthodox Judaism of his early childhood was, consciously or not, at the bottom of his quest for what he called the “tragic and timeless.” In Judaism, God cannot be represented and transcends the physical universe. Rothko seemed to paint the unimaginable point where time and space began, the moment in Genesis where light and form emerged from darkness.

The paintings that brought fame to Rothko were nothing like the work he first exhibited in New York in the 1920s and 30s. It took the painter two decades to find his own style as he migrated from dark, moody Expressionism and into more colorful Surrealist paintings drawing from dreams and mythology. By 1948 he broke with Surrealism in his quest to get beyond physical forms, past even symbols, and into the root of existence. A pair of paintings he completed in that year, No. 18 and Untitled, consisted of his soon-to-be characteristic blurry blocks of color. He described them as possessing the primal “breath of life” that was lacking in most art.

Three works sold at auction in recent years can be used to map his creative evolution. His 1924-25 work, The Peddler, marking his early career as an Expressionist, depicts a merchant hauling his wares on a gritty street. The representation of urban, ethnic life is almost Ashcan in quality. The oil on canvas sold at Sotheby’s in May 2005 for $22,500 (including buyer’s premium).

The witty 1944 work, Untitled, is a Surrealist rendering fashioned with a “Miro meets Dali in Madrid” influence, his style loosened and spatial with forms flattened and colors softened. The watercolor on cardboard sold at Sotheby’s in May 2005 for $350,000 (including buyer’s premium).

The arrival of what became his signature style, the “multiform” blocks of color, is brilliantly expressed in a 1954 painting, No. 7 (Dark Over Light). Completely devoid of anything representational, the canvas becomes an arrangement of color and a study of its contrasts. The 90 x 58-inch canvas sold at Christie’s in Nov. 2007 for $18,750,000 (including buyer’s premium).

The style that brought fame to Rothko after years of toiling in obscurity began to take form after an exhilarating encounter with architecture and art during a five-month tour of museums in Europe in early 1950. Visiting the monastery of San Marco in Florence, he was inspired by the frescoes painted by Fra Angelico, steeped in reverence but infused with bright, vivid color, displayed amidst the splendor and tranquility of the monastic environment. Here he felt the pull of the unknown, a spiritual, mystical yearning. Afterward, Rothko used bold blocks of color in his paintings to evoke a transcendental experience for the viewer. He eliminated the representational forms of European religious art and created portals of color, windows to the soul.

The sale of a painting to Blanchette Rockefeller, the wife of John D. Rockefeller III, for $1000 and of Number Ten (1950) to the Museum of Modern Art cemented his career in art. Rothko was finally able to live from his work, yet he agonized over the prospect of prostituting his gifts. The specter of well-heeled shoppers lunching at Four Seasons under one of his murals sickened him.

Despite his acceptance among the powerful (he was Joseph Kennedy’s guest at JFK’s inaugural ball), Rothko felt increasingly alienated from the art world. Critical of the new Pop Art trend, he referred to artists such as Warhol, Lichtenstein and Johns as “charlatans and young opportunists.” In his final years, his palette became dark and somber. The deep, still darkness of Untitled (Black and Gray) 1969, has none of the exuberance and joy of earlier works.

After his death, a celebrated lawsuit by daughter Kate Rothko against Marlborough Fine Art determined that the gallery had defrauded Rothko and the Rothko estate by under-reporting the sales of his work. Nowadays, however, it’s the work itself and the legend of Rothko that bring attention to his paintings, which retain their power to provoke a transcendental experience.