Mark Rothko in the News

A significant painting goes on sale and a son reads the words of his father
This 1960 Mark Rothko painting from the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art is expected to sell in the range of $35 million to $50 million at Sotheby’s. Kate Rothko Prizel and Christopher Rothko/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Mark Rothko has been in the news lately, with significant sales of his artwork coming up next month and the release last month of a short film about his enduring tribute to a fellow artist. 

In May, an important work Rothko painted in 1960 will be put up for sale by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in Sotheby’s contemporary art evening auction with an estimate of $35 million to $50 million. Two other significant works on paper will appear in a separate Sotheby’s sale.

Earlier this month, the condolence letter that Rothko wrote to Lee Krasner after Jackson Pollock’s fatal car crash was featured in a short film produced by the Archives of American Art and shared on the ARTnews website. (Coincidentally, a monumental 1960 painting by Krasner, "The Eye Is the First Circle," will be in the same sale at Sotheby's with an estimate of $10 million to $15 million, and could set a new record price for the artist, according to the auction house. The last known major large-scale painting  by Krasner in private hands, it was executed in Springs during the artist's "Umber" phase, after the death of her husband Jackson Pollock in 1956 and her mother in 1959.)

In the film, directed by Wes Miller, scenes shot at the Pollock-Krasner House and Study Center in Springs are superimposed with historical photographs of all three of the artists and of Rothko’s studio and paintings as well. The letter is read by the artist’s son, Christopher Rothko, who is shown opening the curtains to a room and then beginning as the montage of photographs continues. 

“Dear Lee,” he reads, “I wish I could find some way to tell you how I feel about Jackson.” Rothko recalls discussing this with her in their last conversation and the regret that he never had the reason or opportunity to tell Pollock himself. “Particularly in recent months, and in addition to his stature as a great artist, his specific life and struggle had become poignant and important in meaning to me . . . that the great loss I feel is not an abstract one.” Rothko closes the letter with a wish that he had been at the memorial service and an invitation to visit. After his son reads those lines, he closes the curtains.  

The film is as brief as the letter, but it manages to reveal a great deal of both artists’ emotional pathos and suggests Rothko saw in Pollock the same demons he may also have been fighting. The letter is part of Pollock and Krasner’s papers, which were donated to the Archives of American Art just a year before her death in 1984. Eugene V. Thaw, the estate’s executor, also donated a significant amount of material to the archives after Krasner’s death and the two collections have been merged and digitized. The letter was previously featured in an article on Pollock’s death in the August 2016 edition of EAST magazine.

The Rothko painting, which will be auctioned on May 16, is untitled and from a period when “the artist began to abandon his characteristic bright colors of the 1950s, in favor of more romantic and spiritual deep reds and burgundies. The subdued color palette of deep burgundy, warm blush, royal blue, black-gray, and ephemeral cloud-white is reminiscent of the palette he explored in the famed Seagram Murals, a portion of which remain on view at the Tate Modern” in London, Sotheby’s press release noted.

SFMOMA is selling the work to broaden and diversify its permanent collection, which has “rich holdings of Mark Rothko,” according to Gary Carrels, the museum’s curator of painting and sculpture. The painting was acquired in 1962 directly from the artist in trade for his “Slow Swirl at the Edge of the Sea,” a painting that Peggy Guggenheim had donated to the museum in 1946, which is now in the Museum of Modern Art’s collection in New York.

Before arriving in New York for its exhibition at Sotheby’s and sale, the painting will have traveled to exhibitions in London, Taipei, and Hong Kong. It will be on view at Sotheby’s from Friday, May 3, to May 16.

This article was modified to include information on the sale of Lee Krasner's painting "The Eye Is the First Circle" during the same Sotheby's auction as the Mark Rothko painting.