Mark Rothko

1903 — 1970


Mark Rothko was a vital part of the generation of painters who came to prominence in New York in the mid-1940s and who came to change people’s perceptions of art and what art could be. One of the most important of the Abstract Expressionists, his paintings from the late 1940s onwards placed him at the forefront of the so-called ‘Color Field’ painters. His post-war works have become instantly recognisable, not least his celebrated sequence of brooding paintings created as part of an abandoned commission for murals for the Seagram Building in New York; a group of these is now in the collection of Tate, London, while others are held by a number of other museums.

By the time that Rothko developed his Abstract Expressionist idiom, he had already gained significant recognition as an artist, despite tough beginnings. Rothko had been born in a part of Latvia which at the time formed a part of the Russian Empire; his father left, as life there was particularly hard for a Zionist Jew. The family emigrated to Portland, Oregon. Rothko was granted a scholarship to Yale University, but left, frustrated with the air of privilege and conservatism that he felt surrounded him there. He then moved to New York, occasionally attending the classes of the New York School of Design, where Arshile Gorky taught, and the Art Students League, which was to prove a fertile incubation tank for many of the artists of his generation.

Rothko had already shown a great interest in literature and mythology, and the mythic soon infused his own pictures, replacing the more figurative scenes that had dominated his work in the 1920s and early 1930s, not least during his association with the Works Progress Administration and with ‘The Ten’, the group of largely Russian-Jewish painters with whom he had exhibited in protest against a Whitney show in 1936 and which had also included his friend Adolph Gottlieb. At this point, Rothko was still working under the name Marcus Rothkowitz; it was in 1940 that he began to abbreviate it to ‘Mark Rothko.’

During the 1940s, mythic elements came increasingly to the fore in Rothko’s pictures, as amorphous, semi-biological forms came to dominate the compositions. He had a small break from painting, and then returned with gusto, soon being granted exhibitions in a number of places, including the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. He also taught at the California School of Fine Art alongside Clyfford Still, whom he came to revere, even borrowing one of his works as a form of talisman.

It was during this time that Rothko shifted towards abstraction in his own works. Now, the scaffolding and formal arrangement of elements that had already underpinned his earlier works came to the fore, as bolder blocks of colour dominated the compositions. After a transitional phase in which these areas were shown sometimes next to each other, he developed the horizontal stacks of shimmering colour which remain at the heart of his best-known works, and which would inform his visual vocabulary for the rest of his life. For Rothko, these works removed the interference of visible subject matter and instead plunged the viewer into a mythic realm of colour. ‘I’m interested only in expressing basic human emotions– tragedy, ecstasy, doom and so on,’ Rothko explained. ‘[The] fact that lots of people break down and cry when confronted with my pictures shows that I communicate those basic human emotions… The people who weep before my pictures are having the same religious experience I had when I painted them’ (Rothko, quoted in M. López-Remiro (ed.), Mark Rothko: Writings on Art, New Haven & London, 2006, pp. 119-20).

From this point onwards, Rothko’s works gained immense recognition, leading to exhibitions, articles, awards, museum acquisitions – and attempted acquisitions that Rothko himself blocked, ever-conscious of the life of his pictures after they left his studio. Eventually, his fame also led to his being granted one of the most prominent commissions of his career: that of the Seagram Murals. Inspired by the Medici library designed by Michelangelo, with its bulging walls intruding where windows should grant relief, Rothko created a sequence of designs for the building. However, he eventually abandoned the project as he decided that his art was at odds with the notion of elegant diners eating in luxury in the Four Seasons restaurant, which his works were to adorn. A more successful outcome was to follow in the form of the renowned commission from John and Dominique de Menil for a space for multi-denominational contemplation in Houston, now known as the ‘Rothko Chapel.’

Rothko’s works varied over the years, sometimes introducing more colours, with their fringing edges giving the fields a cloud-like sense of hovering in front of the canvas, sometimes becoming more rigid, as in his later works, many of which were dominated by black and grey. The exertions of his mural projects helped bring about an aneurism that limited his physical activities, frustrating Rothko greatly. In 1970 these frustrations, coupled with the depression from which he had long suffered, drove Rothko to take his own life. This subsequently led to the creation of the Mark Rothko Foundation, helmed by his children, which worked assiduously to maintain and promote his work.