The Rise of Rothko –

The Rise of Rothko –

Mark Rothko

TITLE: No. 1 ARTIST: Mark Rothko

London’s Tate Modern is currently holding an exhibition of Mark Rothko’s later works through to 1st February 2009. The collection plunges the viewer into his deep “colorfields” – chromatic spaces for meditation. Marcus Rothkowitz was born in Latvia in 1903 and his family moved to the United States when he was ten. He devoted his life to art in the 1920’s, founding the Artist Union of New York and then in 1934 he mixed with the future major artists of the New York school, including Jackson POLLOCK and Adolph GOTTLIEB. For simplicity Mark ROTHKO (his name was americanised in 1940) is often associated with the American abstract expressionist movement. However Rothko was outside its sphere of influence by the end of the 1940s when his artistic approach broke completely free of figurative depiction, limiting himself to the creation of zones of vibrant colour that he considered spaces of living energy – materialisations of the spirit – and not abstractions. Described by Clement Greenberg as “Colorfield Paintings”, Rothko considered his paintings as “spiritual substrata”.

At the end of the 1950s, his colours became darker. Heavy reds, browns and blacks dominated his palette until his suicide in 1970. This sombre vein of work was less appreciated by collectors than his brighter colours until 2007 when an Untitled work with various shades of black painted just a few months before the artist’s death fetched more than USD 10 million (14 November 2007, Sotheby’s).

In 1961, the Museum of Modern Art of New York gave Rothko a major solo exhibition. Four years later, one of his Colorfield paintings from 1955, Two dark rectangles on a red background (204 x 107 cm), sold for 10,000 dollars. In 1966, a similar painting, Red Number 22 (1957), sold for USD 15,500 … 20 years later, his better works were fetching over a million dollars and in 1999 his vibrant N°15 yellow and red fetched more than USD 10 million at Sotheby’s, his first auction sale above that threshold. In May 2008, the same painting came up for sale again at Christie’s where it fetched no less than 45 million dollars! However this was not Rothko’s most spectacular auction sale: on 15 May 2007 a piece entitled White Center generated the highest bid of that year when it sold for 65 million dollars at Sotheby’s, a sum representing the highest hammer price for a post-war work of art. Moreover, during 2007 his price index was considerably boosted by six works selling above the 10 million dollar line, taking his annual sales revenue to 207 million dollars. Until 2007, the final balance in the best years was somewhere between 35 and 50 million dollars. Between January and November 2008, the total Rothko auction sales revenue stood at close to 50 million dollars, largely thanks to the above-mentioned USD 45m sale of No.15 (1952) Indeed, 2008 would have been another exceptional year for Rothko 2008 if his 1956 painting Orange, Red and Yellow (205 cm x 175 cm) had not been shunned by buyers at Sotheby’s in May… It was one of the highlights of the Post-War and Contemporary Art sale on 14 May 2008… when the market was still relatively euphoric.

The only record set by Rothko in 2008 has been his bought-in rate: 26.6% of his works offered from January to November remained unsold. This is three times the usual rate (average of 9% between 1998 and 2007).

**Nicholas Forrest is an art market analyst, art critic and journalist based in Sydney, Australia. He is the founder of, writes the art column for the magazine Antiques and Collectibles for Pleasure and Profit and contributes to many other publications.

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