Sale 3836
Online: Post-War & Contemporary Art
Online 8 - 20 May 2014

Painted one year before the end of the Second World War, Mark Rothko'sUntitled takes its cue from the Surrealists before him, looking inward to the artist's own unconscious mind for inspiration and material for the work. Exploiting diluted washes of color, Rothko's works from the mid-1940s emerge as biomorphic, Surrealist-inspired paintings of hybrid creatures floating in primordial waters. Like many early Abstract Expressionists, Rothko was interested in the Earth's prehistoric origins and creation myths. Together with Adolph Gottlieb, he argued for the importace of such imagery and subject matter. In a 1943 manifesto, art, they declared, should be "an adventure into an unknown world" and its subject matter must be "tragic and timeless," demonstrating a "spiritual kinship with primitive and archaic art" (M. Rothko and A. Gottlieb quotedAbstract Expressionist New York, New York, 2011, at www.moma.org). Famously citing Joan Miro's The Family, which he had often visited in New York at the Museum of Modern Art, Untitled draws from plant, insect, and humanoid fragments of cellular life. These forms, Rothko maintained, "have no direct association with any particular visible experience, but in them one recognizes the principle and passion of organisms" (M. Rothko quoted at, ibid.).

And yet, while the influence of Surrealism is undeniable, Robert Rosenblum in his seminal essay on Rothko's early paintings suggests the timing of the Second World War was equally as influential on the young group of Abstract Expressionists, stating: "The daily chronicle of evil reported in the newspapers and on the radio, the living presence in the United States of growing numbers of refuges from hell were ample testimony to the actuality of the Nazis, of the war, of the atom bomb; yet the remoteness and monstrosity of these events in Europe and the Pacific could also give them an unreal, almost symbolic character that only an eye-witness observer could force into contemporary fact. For artists like Rothko, the impulse during those years of dread must have been a familiar one in times of unthinkable terror: an eyes-shut flight to primitive beginnings to the vital sources of life, art, myth. It was a path already taken by Franz Marc and Wassily Kandinsky on the eve of the First World War in their blanket rejection of the unbearable present of modern history in favor of a prehistoric world where all might begin again" (R. Rosenblum,Mark Rothko: The Surrealist Years, exh. cat., The Pace Gallery, New York, 1981, p. 6-7).

In this delicate yet powerful work on paper, Rothko takes a further step to solidify the themes which would come to dominate the rest of his career. Taking his lead from Surrealism and the language of abstraction we can begin to detect the emergence of the familiar blocks of color that were to become the signature elements of his later masterpieces. With veiled forms such as those found in Untitled, Rothko began to investigate a new language of reality, or plastic reality as the artist termed it, which explained the artist's philosophy of abstract art. "Proceeding from the key concept of the 'reality of tactility' as opposed to the 'reality of appearance," curator Oliver Wick explained, "Rothko described a tangible plasticity which would set painted shapes in motion, advancing and receding. This would endow the flat image with a physical, material reality, as if it were a very low relief. 'Plasticity,' he [Rothko] explained, 'is the quality of presentation of a sense of movement in painting.' Plasticity thus defined, became the fundamental condition of Rothko's pictorial reality and hence the precondition for a 'real' perceptual experience on the part of the viewer" (O. Wick, 'Mark Rothko: Seeing Blind and Drawing as Remembrance Commemorated,' Mark Rothko: Works on Paper 1930-1969, exh. cat., Galerie Beyeler, Basel, 2005, p. 17). Over the next few years, Rothko would continue to meld these delicate and wisp-like forms into solid blocks of color that would result in some of the greatest masterpieces of abstract art.

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