The unstoppable Mark Rothko

Since 2007, when White Center (Yellow, Pink and Lavender on a Rose) sold for $72.8 million (approximately £45 million), the appetite for a Mark Rothko painting has grown and grown.
He is not only a great investment choice, but also a cultured one. As of the most dynamic artists of his generation and beyond, the emotive power of Rothko is outside of normal.
For a while, that work of art, which was executed in 1950, was the most expensive post-war painting to ever have sold at auction, until this year, when another of his masterpieces, Orange, Red, Yellow (1961) went for $86.9 million (£53.8 million).
The excitement for Rothko is ravenous, and so it is, that with every announcement that a work of his is to go under the hammer, the industry buzzes with a kind of electricity that has been missed.
No surprise then that with Sotheby’s revealing that No.1 (Royal Red and Blue) is to lead its Evening Sale of Contemporary Art this November, an unspoken frenzy has quickly spread.
“The stunning aura of its brilliant red and orange surface is superbly countered by the intensely vivid blue stack towards its base, giving the viewer a sense that the canvas is illuminated from within,” describes the auction house.
“The painting is central to Rothko’s mature mode of artistic expression in which he pioneered unprecedented territory in a spectacular outpouring of innovation.”
Given that this is one of the artist’s most important works of art, the interest in acquiring it is even more intense than the usual feverish hysteria. It can thus be argued that while Sotheby’s has put at a reasonable estimated selling price of $35 million to $50 million (£21.6 million to £30.9 million), it could easily eclipse that and be another record-breaking sale.
Described as “ravishingly beautiful” by Tobias Meyer, Sotheby’s worldwide head of contemporary art, No.1 (Royal Red and Blue) is one of the eight large-scale masterpieces selected by Rothko himself for his seminal 1954 show at the Art Institute of Chicago.
Earlier that year, the institute’s curator Katherine Kuhr had approached Rothko about the idea of hosting a one-man exhibition, which he not only accepted, but also actively took part in helping organising.
“I particularly want that marvellous large red one,” Kuhr had written in one of many letters to the artist in the run up to the exhibition. Clearly she had found something poetic in No.1 (Royal Red and Blue), which has been in the same collection for the last 30 years.
What is it that he achieves in his classic works that makes them so fascinating and hard to ignore? What is in these huge blocks of colour that speaks to our unconscious? Rothko never said.
In his later life, as he moved more towards absolute abstraction, he didn’t talk about his work anymore, not that he had been especially loquacious in that respect.
Instead, he left it to his paintings to silently articulate whatever sentiment went into it. For an artist to somehow explain his work seemed superfluous, a senseless pollution on what had come into existence. It wasn’t necessary to verbalise something that should be felt.
However, it is possible to get a rough idea of his thinking in a letter that he, along with the artist Adolph Gottlieb, sent to the New York Times’ Art Editor, Edward Jewell in June 1943.
Jewell had, a mere handful of days beforehand, penned an article expressing his befuddlement to what had greeted him at an exhibition entitled the Federation of Modern Painters and Sculptors. He didn’t understand what Rothko or Gottlieb were doing with their obscure paintings; he didn’t get the purpose of the mythological symbolism of their work.
“We do not intend to defend our pictures,” they wrote in response to the art editor’s criticisms. “They make their own defence. We consider them clear statements. Your failure to dismiss or disparage them is prima facie evidence that they carry some communicative power.”
That they were deliberately ambiguous isn’t to be confused with pretentiousness, they had simply found themselves in a position where they finally understood their calling.
To others it might have seemed opaque, but like true greats, there often isn’t a need for recognition and thus they didn’t really care. To be free is to live by one’s own philosophy, not by the judgement of others. That Rothko is supremely popular today is wonderful, but he never needed the validation. His work would conquer.
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