SALE 0920 LOT 51


American (1903-1970) 

UNTITLED, C. 1948 

brush and black ink, watercolor and gouache on paper, embossed with the artist's 

estate stamp lower left 

17 1⁄2 x 9 inches (sight) 


Catalog Essay | September 17, 2020 | Lot 51

Born Markus Rothkowitz in Latvia in 1903, Mark Rothko immigrated to the United States with his family in 1913. He entered Yale University in 1921, but left two years later to go to New York. There, in 1925, he began to study at Parsons School of Design under Arshile Gorky, who strongly influenced him and the other Abstract Expressionists. Rothko and Gorky shared an interest in European Surrealism which is evidenced by the biomorphic forms in their paintings from the early 1940s. 

Rothko’s surrealist work from the 1940s coincides with the aftermath of the second world war. After hearing of the horrors of war from abroad, artists in New York responded with mythical and primitive, and symbolic motifs. They explored Surrealism and automatism learned from European artists exiled in the Americas after the war. 

Scholar Bonnie Clearwater in her book Mark Rothko: Works on Paper, notes “The years 1947-1950 were a crucial period in Rothko’s development. Abstraction finally supplanted Surrealism in his paintings...the small number of extant works on paper from this transitional period indicates that Rothko concentrated on the production of paintings on canvas. In the 1947 watercolor Fantasy the amorphous masses of color abandon the strict geometry of his Surrealist paintings.” Fantasy from 1947 is akin to the example offered here from the same period. As Clearwater goes on to say “...In general, these works on paper were created with techniques similar to those seen in the Surrealist watercolors. Rothko still used black ink in these watercolors, but less calligraphically; and although he used some sgraffiti in some of the works, their surfaces are less tactile.” 

This shift away from calligraphy and texture immediately foreshadowed Rothko’s mature style. By the mid 1940s, Rothko’s work became completely abstract. He had joined the group of artists including Jackson Pollock, Clyfford Still, Willem de Kooning, Helen Frankenthaler, Barnett Newman and others, who became known as the Abstract Expressionists. This group was united by their abilities to paint feelings of raw emotion and from their appreciation and subsequent rejection of the modern techniques of early 20th century Europe such as Surrealism, Cubism and Bauhaus.


Like many of his fellow Abstract Expressionist artists, Rothko preferred not to title his works. As evidenced in the current offering, “Untitled, circa 1948”. They wanted to avoid influencing the viewer, instead they numbered their works and believed that the art could speak for itself. 

To me art is an adventure into an unknown world, which can be explored only by those willing to take the risk ~ Mark Rothko 

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