I here by declare 2012 Rothko mania year and I salute the anonymous buyers of the two spectacular, mesmerizing multiform canvases that shook the Contemporary Art auctions this year. It might be a trend, it might be a chain of coincidences, it might even be an evil plot by the master minds of the art world to shove Damien Hirst, Jeff Koons and Murakami once and for all out of the picture, but it seams like collectors are drooling over ‘Modern Classic’ art more than ever. Besides the deliciously hypnotizing, dreamy effect that a classic, massive, vibrant Rothko has on us, what is it about these canvases that had collectors starry eyed as they kept bidding higher and higher, setting record prices?
Mark Rothko was a complicated man, an innovator and one of the last great Romantics of modernism. Love at first sight struck him like a blade through the heart in 1949 when MoMa exhibited its newly acquired treasure: Matisse’s Red Studio, the painting whose enigmatic color inspired Rothko’s signature works from the 50’s and 60’s. Red. Red was the predominant color in his paintings, the color that embodied passion, life, fire, energy, love and death. Red still breathes serene vitality into the large-scale canvases that convey different emotions to anyone who stands in front of them as that is their purpose, according to the artist.
However, it’s not all about the red, we’re talking about the art market here, of course there is more to it. In 2012 a total of seven Rothko’s came up for auction. Considering the art market’s bubble burst in 2008, the lower quality works that emerged in 2009 gradually rising parallel to collectors’ confidence, and in addition to the lack of top quality works by the artist that manages to make its way back into the market, seven Rothkos out of which two were record setters is not bad at all, if you don’t mind me saying.
May’s spring auction fever was Orange, Red, Yellow’s turn to shine at Christie’s New York. The striking 1961 eight foot-tall Rothko stepped up to the chopping block with an estimate of $35 million – $45 million, and moon-walked out of the room sold for nearly $87 million making it the most expensive work by the artist sold at auction up to date. The crowd rejoiced, the auctioneer pat himself on the back and a tear or two was possibly shed as Orange, Red, Yellow is no ordinary Rothko. The work came from the estate of the esteemed David Pincus, an American clothing manufacturer and “passionate art patron” that passed away almost a year ago. Moreover, it was painted at the height of Rothko’s career, the same year he had his major retrospective at MoMa – the first of its kind for a living artist of his generation.
Similarly, from 1954 there is another one of Rothko’s masterpieces that deserves recognition not only for setting the record of the artist’s second most expensive work sold at auction selling at a mere $75.1 million at Sotheby’s New York during the November sales, but for being the “ultimate crescendo of Rothko’s first one man exhibition in a major US museum at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1954”. Presumably there is only a small supply of works ‘available’ for the market and this specific one is a thing of beauty as it is one of twelve canvases painted between 1950 and 1955 that are bigger than 9 feet. 9 feet, people!
The unique visual impact associated with Abstract Impressionism that these Rothkos convey is their selling point. Besides that, they are distinctive works that are already part of art history. 50 years of records of the market and 30 years of auction market fill their provenance with prestige. Don’t we all wish we had a Rothko? Better yet, the wall space to hang a mighty Rothko? So you see my dear reader, never underestimate the power of floating rectangles of color as they might just have an interesting story to tell.