Why this Mark Rothko Painting is Now Worth $50 Million
May 22, 2019
Last week, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art decommissioned “Untitled, 1960,” a prized painting by Mark Rothko, selling it for just over $50 million (50,095,250 USD to be precise) at Sotheby’s Contemporary Art Evening Auction of 16 May, topping the high estimate by $95,250. Originally gifted to the museum by Peggy Guggenheim in 1962, the painting is said to have been selected by Rothko himself with the SFMOMA in mind. It has been exhibited at the museum half a dozen times over the decades. I had the good fortune of viewing it there myself in 2002. It was the first Rothko painting I ever saw in person. At just over 175 cm tall—nearly my exact height (I am slightly taller)—it was not large enough to truly immerse me within its color fields. However, staring at its surface up close I was surprised at how painterly its surface was. Seeing the visible drips and brush marks made Rothko come to life for me in a most personal way. I had previously only read about his paintings in books. Seeing such direct evidence of his hand gave the painting a spirit. I had also previously read many accounts of the luminous quality of Rothko paintings. Standing farther back from “Untitled, 1960,” I indeed perceived this phenomenon for myself. Its three bands of color—burgundy at the top, maroon in the middle, and silvery grey at the bottom—seemed to almost throb outward from the grayish-brown background. I was transfixed by the painting: whether that was because I had built the experience up in my head before hand, or it was because the painting truly is mystifying, I cannot say. Regardless, this painting made a permanent mark on my memory. So for those of you asking why this painting was worth $50 million in the first place, without resorting to puffery, here are my opinions:
The Seagram Murals
The most compelling reason “Untitled, 1960” is worth so much money is that Rothko painted it the same year that he finished his most famous commission—The Seagram Murals. The story of this commission is legendary in the art field, as it solidifies Rothko as a true perfectionist, and an artist who doggedly stuck to his ideals. The Bronfman family, who owned Seagram distilleries, paid Rothko $35,000 USD in 1958 to paint a custom suite of canvasses that were intended to hang on the walls of the Four Seasons Restaurant on the ground floor of the new Seagrams corporate headquarters on Park Avenue, which being designed by Ludwig Mies Van Der Rohe. Rothko accepted the commission. He chose somber, dark hues for the canvases, mostly reds, oranges, and purples. The project had a transformative effect on his style, and in the opinion of many who study his oeuvre, it marked the maturation of his technique.
The 30 or so paintings that Rothko completed for the commission took nearly two years to paint. But just before completing the transaction, when the restaurant finally opened, Rothko went there for a meal with his wife. A Jackson Pollock painting was evidently hanging on the wall as a temporary stand-in for the yet-to-be-delivered Rothko paintings. Rothko was reportedly disgusted by the experience. He could not stand the idea of his paintings being hung in the restaurant as a backdrop for the dinner dates of the elites. According to one Rothko studio assistant, Rothko allegedly said, “Anybody who will eat that kind of food for those kind of prices will never look at a painting of mine.” He refused delivery of the paintings, and instead returned his commission money to Seagrams and donated many of the canvases to the Tate Gallery in London, where they still remain. “Untitled, 1960” came out of that same period of intense creative maturation. It shares a color palette and mood with The Seagrams Murals, and is a signifier of the year in which Rothko claimed his agency as a 20th Century master.
The Dark Years
The second reason “Untitled, 1960” is so valuable is because it marks a pivotal time in the evolution of the so-called “Black Paintings.” Rothko committed suicide in 1970, at age 66. The decade leading up to his death was marked by a transition in his work towards a darker and more somber palette, a period that culminated in the series of monumental black paintings that he created for The Rothko Chapel in Houston. John and Dominique de Menil commissioned Rothko in 1964 to design the chapel and to create the paintings that would hang on its walls. Rothko did not live to see the completion of the chapel in 1971. Nonetheless, the 14 paintings that he created for the space are considered his masterpiece.
“Untitled, 1960,” is thus, to me, a sort of harbinger. It is somber, but glowing; introspective, yet universal. Soon after its creation came a body of work that parallels the descent into depression that eventually drove Rothko to end his own life. It feels like a more personal painting than the canvases Rothko made for the Seagrams Murals, and more experimental than the haunting, mythical works Rothko made for his eponymous chapel. In a strange kind of way, “Untitled, 1960” is a hopeful painting. It demonstrates the beauty inherent in solitude and introspection. These reasons are enough to validate the historic relevance and extraordinary market value of “Untitled, 1960.” It is nonetheless sad to me that the SFMOMA saw fit to set it loose from their collection, especially considering Rothko evidently wanted that institution in particular to possess it. But at least the museum has stated that the sale will make way for the museum to buy many more works. And who knows? Perhaps there are painters working today whose work can summon similar feelings as Rothko. It is certainly fun to hope.
Featured image: Mark Rothko - Untitled, 1960. Oil on canvas. 69 x 50 1/8 in (175.3 x 127.3 cm). Property from SFMOMA. Acquired from the above through a gift of Peggy Guggenheim, 1962.
All images used for illustrative purposes only
By Phillip Barcio