Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Revisiting Rothko

Last night I was rereading some of my posts on my Art in the Studio blog  and came across the very long, 6-part post I wrote about Mark Rothko based on the biography by James Breslin (Mark Rothko: A Biography.) Sometimes I cringe at the writing in my early posts, but I was quite satisfied with the job I did on this topic, thanks to the vast quantities of information that James Breslin unearthed and published. I'm quoting myself below on the subject of Rothko's lack of sales and extremely low prices despite his exhibiting work in some of the very best venues. The contrast between now and then is illuminating and may provide a lesson in persistence.

"Red, Brown, Black and Orange" by Mark Rothko, also known as No. 21

Rothko in the news recently
A couple of weeks ago we learned that his Harvard murals that have been resurrected and will be exhibited bathed in light that attempts to restore the original coloration that was lost due to exposure and Rothko's painting methods. (Here's the story on those from a Sunday's NY Times story.)

And here's the quote from today's NYT about the most recent auction sale of a work:
"Mr. Rotter was talking about the success of Rothko’s abstract canvases. Two of them were the stars of the Mellon sale on Monday, and on Tuesday, the most expensive painting of the evening was the artist’s “No. 21 (Red, Brown, Black and Orange) (image above).” Executed in 1951, it sold to a telephone bidder for $45 million. Its provenance was pristine, having come from the collection of the Houston oil billionaire Pierre Schlumberger and his wife, São, though the canvas failed to reach its high estimate of $50 million." (NY Times link here.)

 Mark Rothko 1960

Now here's a long quote from my Rothko #4 post that is the ultimate contrast with the position of his work these days:

Sales and Galleries
Perhaps it was not only his natural anxiety that gave Rothko that look in the photo but also the fact that his wife Mell was eight months pregnant at the time and about to quit the job that supported the Rothko family. Rothko was 47 and had received a statement from Betty Parsons for the year ended 1950 showing that he had sold six pictures, earning him $3,279.69 for the year. (And this was the most he made from painting during one year until 1955!)

Just before the baby (named Kathy Lynn but called Kate after Rothko's mother) was born, Rothko was offered a three-year contract for an assistant professorship at Brooklyn College. The salary from this job was about $5,000 a year and it was enough to support the three of them and a separate studio(!). Rothko appreciated the income but failed to get along with the faculty at Brooklyn College and his contract was not renewed. So in 1954, about to be unemployed and desperately searching for somewhere to move after their apartment building had been condemned, Rothko left Betty Parsons Gallery because his work was not selling and joined Pollock, Still and Newman at the Sidney Janis Gallery across the hall from Parsons. Although Breslin points out that economic times were bad during the late '40s/early '50s, Rothko and the others knew that Betty Parsons was not actively pursuing sales and creating demand for their work to the extent that should have been possible and that Sidney Janis proved he could accomplish.

Rothko, untitled 1949

Incredible Shows But No Sales
The fact that Rothko was not selling work is pretty incredible when you read the list of exhibitions that he participated in during the late '40s/early '50s: annual solo shows at Betty Parsons, two Whitney annuals, inclusion in "Seventeen Modern American Painters" organized by Motherwell at the Frank Perls Gallery in Beverly Hills, the Los Angeles County Museum's 1951 Annual, an annual at the California Palace of the Legion of Honor in San Francisco, two group shows at the Sidney Janis Gallery, group exhibits at Yale, Harvard, Wesleyan, and the Universities of Illinois, Indiana, Minnesota and Nebraska. And he showed internationally in Tokyo, Berlin, Amsterdam and Sao Paulo. He was also included in two exhibits at MoMA during 1951 and then given his own gallery with eight paintings at MoMA as part of "Fifteen Americans" in spring 1952.

Rothko, No. 10, from the National Gallery of Art

And here's more about sales, prices and building a career, also from my #4 post.

He Couldn't Even Give Away His Paintings!
A review of Rothko's prices shows that they were continuing to increase as his reputation grew. In the 1951 show at Parsons, his prices ranged between $500 and $3,000, with most in the middle of that range. But in 1951 Rothko sold only one painting, his Number 10, 1950 (see image above). Alfred Barr, Director of MoMA, wanted to acquire this painting but knew his board would not approve the purchase, so he got Philip Johnson to buy it and donate it to the museum. (Feelings against Rothko were so strong that one board member resigned in protest even of the donation!) The price at Betty Parsons Gallery for the painting was $1500, but Johnson was given a 25 percent discount, reducing the price to $1200. Rothko's share was only $830, but this changed within a few years.

Rothko, White Center, 1950

Making a Living From Art - Finally
In 1957 Rothko wrote to Motherwell that he had been able to live by his work for the past 18 months for the first time in his 53 years of life. By 1959 Rothko's income jumped from $20,000 to $60,000 a year as art started to become an investment. Fortune magazine wrote about "The Great International Art Market" in 1955-56 and suggested that for the wealthy, "ownership of art offers a unique combination of financial attractions...a hedge against inflation, a route to legitimate income-tax reduction, a way to lighten the burden of inheritance taxes." Art was now a commodity.

If you would like to read all the Rothko posts, you can start here with the first one and then search the blog for the other five parts. I think his is an incredible story and perhaps an inspiration for all artists struggling to sell their work.

1 comment: