Rothko's superpricey painting.

The big picture.
May 22 2007 3:00 PM

The Branding of Rothko

How his art became the ultimate luxury object.

Rothko's White Center. Click image to expand.
White Center 

When the bidding (in $1 million increments, according to YouTube footage) finally ended, the mystery wasn't the money. Everyone knew that David Rockefeller's Rothko would fetch a very high price. Sotheby's, our eBay for billionaires, had guaranteed a figure of $46 million to keep the painting away from its archrival auction house, Christie's. Before the sale, the picture was reportedly shopped to potential buyers, with the added enticement of short loans, presumably to see if its hot pinks and yellows clashed with the bedroom furniture.

Money was the last thing on Rothko's mind when he painted White Center (Yellow, Pink and Lavender on Rose) in 1950. Clement Greenberg claimed in the mid-1950s that the great achievement of Rothko's paintings, along with those of his Abstract Expressionist confreres Barnett Newman and Clyfford Still, was that "they have escaped the 'object' (and luxury-object) associations that attach themselves increasingly to the easel picture." The irony is that Rothko—which sounds a bit like a brand name—had invented a new kind of aesthetic commodity. The gaudy winning bid of $72.8 million, the highest ever paid for a work of contemporary art at auction, confirmed Sotheby's confidence that a Rockefeller Rothko is now the ultimate luxury object.

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If there was no mystery in the price tag, there was none in the painting's provenance, either. In our anxious age of restitution, such transparency of ownership is golden. The recent grand opening of the galleries for Greek and Roman art at the Met was shadowed with murmurings about objects allegedly acquired by theft and subject to future restitution claims. Elizabeth Taylor just learned that she can keep her Van Gogh, allegedly a piece of Nazi war loot she purchased at Sotheby's in 1963, because the statute of limitations has run out. Ronald Lauder got his celebrated $135 million Klimt because a court ruled that its original owners, from whom the Nazis had stolen it, had the right to sell it to him.

The Rothko on the block, by contrast, had hung for almost 50 years in the Chase Manhattan office of the bank's chairman, David Rockefeller: No dubious pedigree there. He had bought it for less than $10,000 in 1960, the year before Rothko's career-making (and price-hiking) retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art. Rockefeller, who is 91 and chairman emeritus of MoMA, promised to donate the proceeds of the sale to charity. One might wonder which brand, exactly, the six bidders at Sotheby's were bidding for. New York dealer Nicholas Maclean was quoted in the Times as saying that someone had "just bought a Rockefeller." 

There was, however, a bit of mystery in the buyer, identified by the New York Times as "a mysterious bearded collector in a skybox." Rubles for the first time were among the accepted currencies for Sotheby's bidders. If the bearded buyer was indeed an oil-rich tycoon from Moscow or Smolensk, this, too, might be seen as a kind of restitution. Rothko, who immigrated to the United States in 1913, was born Marcus Rothkowitz in Dvinsk, Russia, in 1903, and remembered his family mourning Tolstoy's death in the old country.

The real mystery, though, lies in the painting itself. Mystery was what Rothko was desperate to instill into his paintings. He spoke of the "inner light" that he felt radiated out of his richly stained canvases. He wanted viewers to have a spiritual experience, and welcomed the "Rothko rooms" that proliferated among American museums after collector Duncan Phillips created a "little chapel for meditation" in his gallery in Washington. "The people who weep before my pictures are having the same religious experience as I had when I painted them," Rothko wrote with typical pomposity. He considered the cycle of dark paintings he created for the de Menil family's chapel in Houston his masterpiece.

Do the paintings still carry this spiritual charge? Maybe for some viewers. But Rothko's status has slipped since his suicide in 1970, when, stupefied with alcohol and barbiturates, he slashed his veins in his studio. The dark martyr of American art doesn't seem dark at all in White Center. And the light emanating from the stacked rectangles suggests a nice sunset, the kind you find (as both Barbara Novak and Robert Hughes have noted) in American landscape paintings of the Gilded Age. Our simple sensual pleasure in a luscious, candy-colored picture like White Center is always a little guilty, given the Nietzschean angst and agony that supposedly went into its making. "We are always a little embarrassed," as John Ashbery once wrote, "at esteeming his work for wrong reasons that he foresaw and continually warned against."

That expanse of pulsating pink may recall for some viewers the shade of lipstick on Andy Warhol's classic images of Marilyn Monroe, one of which sold for $28 million at Christie's the night after the Rockefeller Rothko was auctioned off. At the same Christie's sale, a 1963 Warhol picture of a car crash, Green Car Crash (Green Burning Car I), sold for $71.7 million, just short of the Rothko record set 24 hours earlier. Now there's a mystery. 

Christopher Benfey is Mellon professor of English at Mount Holyoke. His latest book, A Summer of Hummingbirds, about writers and artists in Gilded Age America, has just been published by the Penguin Press.

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