Mark Rothko’s seminal No.17 to star in New York

Painted at the pinnacle of the artist’s career, the rare ‘blue’ canvas is set to be a highlight of Christie’s Post War & Contemporary Art sales on 10 May in New York

Painted in 1957, Mark Rothko’s No. 17 is one of the artist’s rare ‘blue’ canvases, produced at the dawn of his mature period — just a short time before he embarked on the Seagram Murals, now at London’s Tate Gallery, widely regarded as the pinnacle of his career. Estimated at $30-40 million, No. 17 is to lead Christie’s Evening Sale of Post-War and Contemporary Art in New York on 10 May.

With its vibrant, verdant hues, No. 17 is emblematic of the experiential nature of Rothko’s art — embodying what one critic called the ‘immediate radiance’ of paintings made during this period. The work featured in the artist’s vital retrospective of 1961-63, which travelled Europe, championing Abstract Expressionism and confirming Rothko’s status as one its vanguards.

Visitors to Mark Rothko’s retrospective, which opened at London’s Whitechapel Art Gallery, described their responses as ‘shocked’, ‘spellbound’ and ‘transformed’. Current Whitechapel curator Nayai Yiakoumaki describes the exhibition as ‘very important’, adding that, from that moment on ‘the art world was captivated by Rothko and subsequently, [Tate Director] Norman Reid, approached the artist to discuss a purchase of works… culminating with the substantial donation of eight of the Seagram Murals to the Tate in 1970

Following the retrospective, No. 17 was acquired by an important private Italian collection, where it remained unseen for several decades — re-emerging in 2001, as a central work in a major exhibition mounted by the Fondaton Beyeler. At the close of this exhibition, the work was acquired by a private collection, where it has remained until today.

Mark Rothko (1903-1970), No. 17, 1957. Oil on canvas. 91 1/2 x 69 1/2 in. (232.5 x 176.5 cm.). Estimate: $30,000,000-40,000,000. This work is offered in our Post War & Contemporary Art Evening Sale on 10 May at Christie’s in New York © 1998 Kate Rothko Prizel & Christopher Rothko / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Brett Gorvy, Christie’s International Head of Post-War and Contemporary Art comments: ‘No. 17 is a strikingly beautiful canvas that comes with an exhibition history that places it within the canon of Rothko’s most important paintings of the late 1950’s. We are particularly pleased to be presenting this work to the marketplace at a time when there is such tremendous demand for examples by Rothko of this remarkable quality. With its vibrant, enveloping surface, and its freshness to the auction market, we are confident that No.17 will appeal to a broad global audience.’

The sale of No. 17 follows the tremendously successful result for Rothko’s 1958 painting No. 10, which realised $81,925,000, exceeding its high estimate of $60 million, at Christie’s New York, in May 2015. No.10’s strength at auction demonstrated the tremendous demand for works of this quality by Rothko in the global marketplace — a demand still in full force today.

At the work’s centre, a thin strip of high-keyed azure blue bleeds into neighbouring areas with intoxicating results; Rothko insisted that it was here, where the edges of his painterly passages meet, that the true essence of his paintings were witnessed. It is a work that captures Rothko’s singular painterly powers, capturing the drama and psychological intensity of an artist who became among the most celebrated and influential of the twentieth century.


For more features, interviews and videos, visit Christie’s Daily