Mark Rothko: life and works
Mark Rothko, born Markus Yakovlevich Rotkovich (September 25, 1903 – February 25, 1970), was an American painter of Russian Jewish descent. Although Rothko himself refused to adhere to any art movement, he is generally identified as an Abstract Expressionist. With Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning, he is one of the most famous postwar American artists.
Considered as one of the most renowned figures in the history of Abstract Expressionist movement, Mark Rothko left a significant legacy throughout his life as an artist. Primarily during the 1950s, he gave his contribution to American art with his impressive works that continue to live on even after his death.
Discover more about Mark Rothko – his early life, struggles, and most importantly, his astounding works of art that made him a true gem in the history of art.
Mark Rothko biography
Marcus Rothkowitz, also known as Mark Rothko, was born on September 25, 1903 in Dvinsk, a place in Russia that is now the modern-day Daugavpils, in Latvia. His father was named Jacob, who worked as a pharmacist, while his mother was Anna.
During his childhood, he and his family moved to the United States and decided to remain there. He was only 10 years old when the Rothkowitz family left Dvinsk to settle in Portland, Oregon. One of the biggest events that shaped his career was when he joined a group of artists, along with Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning, who were also based in New York. Eventually, this group referred to themselves as Abstract Expressionists because of their genre of paintings.
Rothko became famous particularly for his artworks that depicted rectangles with luminous colors, which he intended to stimulate deep emotions. He also had quite a few other paintings that were intensely emotional and m eaningful in every aspect.
Rothko attended school in Lincoln High School, located in Portland. As a student, he was quite brilliant and did well in the academics. In college, he pursued a degree in liberal arts, as well as the sciences, in Yale University. However, he failed to finish his course and decided to leave school in 1923.
Afterwards, he travelled to New York City to take up a course at the Art Students League with Max Weber, one of the only professors there to have firsthand knowledge of and enthusiasm for European modernism. Rothko’s early expressionist paintings on everyday subjects reflected Weber’s influence as well as that of artists such as Marc Chagall. By 1929, he found employment at the Brooklyn Jewish Center, where he served as a teacher.
Soon after, Rothko showed evidences of his exceptional skill as an artist. In fact, his works were often featured in New York’s Contemporary Arts Gallery and Portland’s Museum of Art. It was in 1933 when his fame as an artist blossomed as several people began to take notice of his original and intense artworks.
By the 1930s, there were a few other modern artists who decided to have their artworks exhibited. This included Rothko, and the group was labelled as “The Ten”. Rothko focused on exhibiting his works for the Works Progress Administration, where his masterpieces became federally-sponsored.
Early in his life as an artist, Rothko’s works featured various scenes and images of the bustling urban lifestyle. His paintings also exude some mystery, intense emotions and isolation. During the post-World War era, he began to feature images of survival and death because of the situations that prevailed at the time of war. There were also some paintings that included concepts that were rooted from various religions and ancient mythical themes.
It is also worth noting that Rothko’s works included creatures and elements that were rather outwordly in nature. These themes were partly due to the influence of the surrealists’ concepts, particularly by Joan Miro, Salvador Dali and Max Ernst.
Along with Adolph Gottlieb, another artist, Rothko imbibed a strong concept of what art is, according to how they viewed it. He and Gottlieb believed that art should be an adventure of exploring an unknown and mysterious world. The two artists also favored more the simplified and direct expression of an intricate thought.
Hence, in the 1940s, Rothko joined a group of artists who considered themselves as Abstract Expressionists. These artists included Gottlieb, Clyfford Still, Jackson Pollock, Helen Frankenthaler, Willem de Kooning, and Barnett Newman, among a few others. They referred to their works as abstract in nature. This means, their masterpieces offered intense emotions and expression without any reference to the earthly world.
The genre of Rothko’s works continued in the 1950s. Furthermore, unlike other paintings that had descriptive titles, his works only had numbers instead of a brief title. Rothko also opted to create paintings that were large scale, and he worked on vertical canvases. Most of his works included rectangles, which were colored in various colors depending on the message they were trying to imply. These rectangles were also presented with a brightly colored background, which gives an image as though they were floating.
He adopted this style in all his works, and that gave him numerous ideas in terms of the combination of color and proportion. Thus, he used these rectangles and luminous colors to evoke varied moods and emotions to the ones looking at these paintings.
Rothko’s style was refered to as Colorfield Painting. Instead of the usual drips and splashes of paint, his works featured simple use of color with broad sizes. He also painted in several layers of colors, which had an image as though they were glowing from the inside. It is also recommended for viewers to study his works at a very close range, so they could feel and empathize with the emotions provoked by these paintings.
Later in Rothko’s life, he leaned more towards darker and gloomier colors. It was in the 1960s when most of his paintings included a combination of colors such as black, brown and marroon. During this era, he was also earning more from commissions because of his large-scale works. For instance, he created some murals for New York’s Four Seasons restaurant. However, this remained unfinished when he decided to quit working on this project.
Another large-scale painting he made was intended for a chapel based in Houston, Texas. As he consulted the architects of the chapel, he was able to create a solemn and peaceful space for contemplation with his use of immersive colors.
By 1968, Rothko suffered from intense depression due to his personal conflicts. This was also the primary cause of his untimely death when he committed suicide on February 25, 1970. Thus, he left Mary Alice Beistle, his second wife, along with his two children named Christopher and Kate. A legal conflict resulted from over 800 paintings that he left after his death. Soon, his remaining work was divided between various museums throughout the world, as well as the Rothko family members.
Mark Rothko art
Christopher Rothko doesn’t look much like his father, the painter Mark Rothko, who took his own life when his son was 6. The father was rotund and jowly, with a high bald pate and a world-weary demeanor (at least in the best-known portraits.) The son, now 52, is lean and reedy, with a head of just-graying hair and a ready smile.
But in an email describing himself before a recent meeting at a Times Square restaurant, Rothko the son said he would be easy to spot because “I usually look like I could use a nap (or two).” And when he arrived, his pillowy, encircled eyes indeed conveyed sleeplessness, along with a striking resemblance to his father’s eyes, which the poet Stanley Kunitz once described as “liquid with patriarchal affection and solicitude.”
Christopher Rothko gave up a profession as a clinical psychologist to oversee his father’s complex legacy and to lecture about his work. And now, more than a dozen years into that full-time life in the art world, he has published his first collection of critical essays about his father’s painting and its still-unsettling effect on viewers, “Mark Rothko: From the Inside Out” (Yale University Press).
Several times at the outset, Mr. Rothko makes clear what his book is not about, for readers who might come to it with expectations shaped by “Red” (2010), the Tony Award-winning play, or by the stratospheric market heights reached in recent years for Rothko works. (A painting from 1961 sold at auction in 2012 for almost $87 million, setting a record almost broken this year with the sale of another painting for $82 million.)
Because he was so young when his father died, Mr. Rothko writes: “I have no vast cache of private communications to trawl as I think about the art. And certainly the 6-year-old is in no position to write a kiss-and-tell, so those seeking copious revelations about my father’s personal life will be disappointed.” But after three decades of paying close attention to his father’s work and breaking the Champagne bottle, as he describes it, “over the prow of many a Rothko steamer” in museums around the globe, Mr. Rothko said he felt ready to step forward to try to untangle the public’s thinking about these paintings from thinking about his father’s life, which swerves too often toward myth. “People have this image of an irascible, kind of titanic figure,” he said, of an alpha-male Olympian of the Abstract Expressionist movement, smoking and sparring furiously with history. Because of Rothko’s suicide, in 1970, there are the additional readings of his classic sectional paintings, with their totemic weight and sometimes-glowering palette, as statements of existential darkness and foreboding.
“I don’t think anybody would deny that he was deeply depressed in the last two years of his life, his health was failing, but he painted a tremendous number of works in those years, and he was experimenting with at least two new directions,” Mr. Rothko said. “The very act of painting is a hopeful act.”
Through the book’s 18 essays, on topics as broad as Rothko’s reliance on the rectangle and as specific as his infatuation with Mozart, Mr. Rothko’s refrain is that his father worked in a quiet, philosophical, most un-Pollock-like way. (“Specifically, he always painted alone. Always.”) And that his work, far from being muscular and aggressive, is aesthetically fragile and remains so despite its enshrinement by the canon and the market. “It is so dangerously close to nothing that it is easily rendered irrelevant when approached or presented unsympathetically; its initial grip on us can be tenuous at best,” he writes.
But if viewed in the spirit Rothko hoped for, the paintings achieve a “primal, pre-verbal communication” that is powerfully humanistic, highly individual and, in an odd way for paintings still seen by some as elitist, almost populist, Mr. Rothko writes. In 1954, Rothko told his fellow Abstract Expressionist Ethel K. Schwabacher of his dream of having small chapels along roads throughout the country, where lonely travelers could stop and commune with his paintings one at a time, a kind of exalted rest stop somewhere between the drive-through and the motel.
Mr. Rothko and his older sister, Kate Rothko Prizel, who was 19 when her father died, have tended the Rothko flame since the conclusion of an ugly, highly public battle in the 1970s in which they prevailed against Rothko’s executors and the Marlborough Gallery, which they accused of defrauding the estate. (Their mother, the former Mary Alice Beistle, who was known as Mell and married Rothko in 1945, died six months after her husband’s suicide.) The outcome of the case resulted in the restoration of hundreds of paintings to the estate, $9 million in fines, and damages levied against the executors and the gallery, and the restructuring of the Rothko Foundation, which went on to distribute more than 1,000 Rothko works to museums in the United States and abroad.
Dr. Prizel, a pathologist who lives in Washington, was primarily responsible for years for dealing with the stream of questions from those exhibiting, studying and conserving her father’s work. But her brother — who was raised mostly in Ohio by his maternal aunt and uncle, and who later settled in Ann Arbor, Mich., to practice psychology — began to take on a larger role. And around 1999, he stopped taking new patients and transitioned into a life of Rothko stewardship.
“When he told my husband and I that he was going to go in this direction, we were a little surprised and, frankly, we were a little worried for him,” Dr. Prizel said in an interview.“But I think one of the things he’s done is to forge a new relationship with our father through the scholarship.”
Dr. Prizel and Mr. Rothko, who lives on the Upper West Side with his wife and their three children, commune closely in their respective homes with a rotating selection of their father’s work. Much of it will eventually be given to institutions, and it includes many of Rothko’s lesser-known figurative paintings, made during the 20-year span before he became a fully abstract painter. The sky-high prices now being paid by ultra-wealthy collectors, Mr. Rothko said, are on one hand a validation of the importance of Rothko’s work. But they are also causing private owners of prime works to grow less willing to lend to public exhibitions, and inflating insurance and shipping costs for institutions.
“It really is drastically changing the playing field, and I don’t think it’s to the public’s benefit,”
Mr. Rothko said.
He said he hoped his book, written in a scholarly but accessible voice and very much from the perspective of the uninitiated viewer (an emphasis due in part, perhaps, to his days as a therapist), presents a strong public case for Rothko’s continued relevance beyond hype and dollars. “My father didn’t see himself as a revolutionary,” he said. “He saw himself as extending painting’s traditions into our time, to speak to us now, and I think we’re still very much living in a time that needs him.”
Mark Rothko facts
1. Individual experience is key
Rothko strongly believed in the importance of the individual, personal experience about his paintings. In his vision, the viewer would be drawn into a deep, meditative relationship when faced with the canvas, a state of emotional vulnerability and total receptiveness, analogous to Rothko’s emotional state as he painted the canvas in his studio.The Gemeentemuseum has put this conviction into practice ingeniously, hanging several paintings individually inside small, private alcoves that allow for quiet contemplation, and create microcosms of personal experience.
2. The master of color ‘[wasn’t] interested in color’
Since his untimely death, Rothko’s pioneering of the Color Field movement has been described by many critics as indisputable and groundbreaking. To the painter himself, the color was only a vehicle towards an emotional reaction evoked in the viewer, striped of any aesthetic or decorative undercurrent. In a famous statement that embodies his artistic practice, Rothko said: ‘If you are only moved by color relationships, you are missing the point.’
3. The only response that matters is emotional
Rothko was preoccupied with raw human reaction, or what he called the ‘big emotions – tragedy, ecstasy, doom’ – and found this to be the only ‘right’ way to react to his paintings. As she approaches the canvas, the viewer must rid herself of the desire to interpret, or understand, the painting in an intellectual sense, and allow herself to be moved by the emotion engraved in the composition. Ultimately, Rothko saw this as a state where painter and viewer share a set of emotions, almost transcendentally, while facing the same canvas. Within the context of the increasingly intellectualised art of the 1950s and 1960s, this approach was not only original but also controversial.
4. Refrain from calling his paintings ‘beautiful’
Having his paintings serve a decorative purpose was arguably Rothko’s greatest fear as an artist. Whenever he sold a painting privately, he first studied the buyer’s reaction to the canvas in an attempt to gauge whether the new owner would use the painting as an accessory, or a centrepiece. Although there is an indisputable beauty to Rothko’s towering, hypnotising works, his prescribed way of looking at them is to empty your mind of any aesthetic consideration, and perceive them to be moving, awe-inspiring.
5. Rothko’s early works are figurative
Rothko’s early works are decidedly figurative, a far cry from the vast, abstract works he eventually became known for. Subway scenes, interpretations of ancient myth, semi-human figure studies, pastoral settings come together in an eclectic mix of seemingly unrelated subject matter, before becoming blurry abstractions in the next stage of Rothko’s development. The one link between these, and his later works is the painter’s visible penchant for the upright – vertical lines, bodies extended upwards, and omnipresent columns all anticipate Rothko’s mature works. This progression is mapped out very clearly at the Gemeentemuseum exhibition, guiding the visitor across a chronological, yet thematic sequence.
6. Black is never really black
More specifically, the black used by Rothko is a multi-dimensional plane of dark hue, usually placed atop, or next to, a different tone that imbues the rest of the painting with a very subtle colouration. Even in the late, typically dark works, the layer of black is punctuated by semi-apparent flashes of colour from underneath, fighting for air from beyond the initial impression.
7. Rothko’s paintings are among the most expensive artworks ever sold
Rothko’s ‘Orange, Red, Yellow’ (1961) is among the top five most expensive post-war paintings ever sold at auction. It fetched an extraordinary $86.9 million at a Christie’s New York auction in 2012, beating Rothko’s previous record of ‘White Centre (Yellow, Pink and Lavender on Rose)’, which was bought for $83 million at Sotheby’s in 2007. To put this into context, Van Gogh’s ‘Irises’ (1889) sold for a ‘mere’ $53.9 million in 1987.
8. Money was never a drive for Rothko
Despite the record-breaking prices fetched by his paintings in today’s art business, prosperity and fame were never among Rothko’s priorities. The so-called Seagram commission is one spectacular example: in June 1958, Rothko accepted a commission from the owners of the new Four Seasons Restaurant in New York to produce a set of murals for the interior, and to complement the all-star cast involved in the restaurant’s design, complete with Mies van der Rohe and Philip Johnson. After initially accepting what would have been his most lucrative assignment, Rothko broke off the contract abruptly, with little explanation. It is suspected that he thought the project would compromise his integrity as an artist, and render his paintings purely decorative within a luxury dining setting. The Gemeentemuseum has curated a selection of large sketches for the Seagram murals and displays them all them in a single exhibition room, where the atmosphere is thick with premonition as the paintings face each other in deep silence.
9. Rothko’s later works gravitate towards darkness
During the later stages of his career, in the 1960s, Rothko’s paintings began to veer towards darkness, a complete shift from his earlier focus on vibrant canvases where colour seemingly took centre stage. Dark grays and near-blacks began to dominate his palette in what many now see as an omen of his suicide in the winter of 1970. Astoundingly, his final work is a screaming composition of blood reds. ‘Untitled’ (1970) is on display at the deep end of the Gemeentemuseum’s exhibition space, a grand finale, and a natural source of gravitation for the visitor.
10. Mondrian and Rothko have more in common than you think
There is a real, tangible relationship between Piet Mondrian and Mark Rothko, as the Gemeentemuseum shrewdly points out. Their works share an emotional intensity, an undercurrent of raw feeling dictated by the use of shape and colour, structure and consistency that defines them both. The museum’s juxtaposition of their final works – ‘Untitled’ (1970) by Rothko, and ‘Victory Boogie Woogie’ (1944) by Mondrian – is both unexpected and perfectly vital in the context of the exhibition.
Mark Rothko quotes
“A painting is not about an experience. It is an experience.”
“It was with the utmost reluctance that I found the figure could not serve my purposes. But a time came when none of us could use the figure without mutilating it.”
“The progression of a painter’s work as it travels in time from point to point, will be toward clarity.. toward the elimination of all obstacles between the painter and the idea.. and the idea and the observer.. To achieve this clarity is inevitably to be understood.”
“I do not believe that there was ever a question of being abstract or representational. It is really a matter of ending this silence and solitude, of breathing, and stretching one’s arms again transcendental experiences became possible.”
“Since my pictures are large, colorful and unframed, and since museum walls are usually immense and formidable, there is the danger that the pictures relate themselves as decorative areas to the walls. This would be a distortion of their meaning, since the pictures are intimate and intense, and are the opposite of what is decorative.”
“I’m not an abstractionist. I’m not interested in the relationship of color or form or anything else. I’m interested only in expressing basic human emotions: tragedy, ecstasy, doom, and so on.”
“The people who weep before my pictures are having the same religious experience I had when I painted them. And if you, as you say, are moved only by their color relationships, then you miss the point.”
“It is a widely accepted notion among painters that it does not matter what one paints as long as it is well painted. This is the essence of academicism. There is no such thing as good painting about nothing.”
“I think of my pictures as dramas; the shapes in the pictures are the performers. They have been created from the need for a group of actors who are able to move dramatically without embarrassment and execute gestures without shame. Neither the action nor the actors can be anticipated, or described in advance.”
“The fact that people break down and cry when confronted with my pictures shows that I can communicate those basic human emotions.. the people who weep before my pictures are having the same religious experience I had when painting them. And if you say you are moved only by their color relationships then you miss the point.”
“One does not paint for design students or historians but for human beings, and the reaction in human terms is the only thing that is really satisfactory to the artist.”
“I paint very large pictures. I realize that historically the function of painting large pictures is painting something very grandiose and pompous. The reason I paint them, however – I think it applies to other painters I know – is precisely because I want to be very intimate and human. To paint a small picture is to place yourself outside your experience. However you paint the larger picture, you are in it.”
“A picture lives by companionship, expanding and quickening in the eyes of the sensitive observer. It dies by the same token. It is therefore a risky and unfeeling act to send it out into the world. How often it must be permanently impaired by the eyes of the vulgar and the cruelty of the impotent who would extend the affliction universally.”
“To us art is an adventure into an unknown world, which can be explored only by those willing to take the risk.”
“When I was a younger man, art was a lonely thing. No galleries, no collectors, no critics, no money. Yet, it was a golden age, for we all had nothing to lose and a vision to gain. Today it is not quite the same. It is a time of tons of verbiage, activity, consumption. Which condition is better for the world at large I shall not venture to discuss.”
“I think of my pictures as dramas; the shapes in the pictures are the performers. They have been created from the need for a group of actors who are able to move dramatically without embarrassment and execute gestures without shame.”
“The romantics were prompted to seek exotic subjects and to travel to far off places. They failed to realize that, though the transcendental must involve the strange and unfamiliar, not everything strange or unfamiliar is transcendental. The unfriendliness of society to his activity is difficult for the artists to accept. Yet this very hostility can act as a lever for true liberation.”
“One does not paint for design students or historians but for human beings, and the reaction in human terms is the only thing that is really satisfactory to the artist.”
“I insist upon the equal existence of the world engendered in the mind and the world engendered by God outside of it. If I have faltered in the use of familiar objects, it is because I refuse to mutilate their appearance for the sake of an action which they are too old to serve, or for which perhaps they had never been intended. I quarrel with surrealists and abstract art only as one quarrels with his father and mother; recognizing the inevitability and function of my roots, but insistent upon my dissent; I, being both they, and an integral completely independent of them.”