The Life and Art of Mark Rothko

Man sitting in chapel designed by painter Mark Rothko
Mark Rothko Chapel, Houston, Texas. Richard Bryant/ArcaidImages/Getty Images

Mark Rothko (1903-1970) was one of the most well-known members of the Abstract Expressionist movement, known primarily for his color-field paintings. His famous signature large-scale color-field paintings, consisting solely of large rectangular blocks of floating, pulsing color, engulf, connect with, and transport the viewer to another realm, another dimension, freeing the spirit from the confines of everyday stress.

These paintings often glow from within and seem almost alive, breathing, interacting with the viewer in silent dialogue, creating a sense of the sacred in the interaction, reminiscent of the I-Thou relationship described by renowned theologian Martin Buber.

About the relationship of his work to the viewer Rothko said,  “A picture lives by companionship, expanding and quickening in the eyes of the sensitive observer. It dies by the same token. It is therefore risky to send it out into the world. How often it must be impaired by the eyes of the unfeeling and the cruelty of the impotent.”  He also said, 'I am not interested in the relationship between form and colour. The only thing I care about is the expression of man's basic emotions: tragedy, ecstasy, destiny. 

Biography

Rothko was born Marcus Rothkowitz on September 25, 1903 in Dvinsk, Russia. He came to the United States in 1913 with his family, settling in Portland, Oregon.

His father died soon after Marcus arrived in Portland and the family worked for a cousins' clothing company to make ends meet. Marcus was an excellent student, and was exposed to the arts and music during these years, learning to draw and paint, and to play the mandolin and piano. As he grew older he became interested in socially liberal causes and leftist politics.

 

In September 1921 he attended Yale University, where he stayed for two years. He studied liberal arts and science, cofounded a liberal daily newspaper, and supported himself with odd jobs before leaving Yale in 1923 without graduating to commit himself to life as an artist. He settled in  New York City in 1925 and enrolled at the Arts Students League where he was taught by the artist, Max Weber, and Parsons School of Design where he studied under Arshile Gorky.  He returned to Portland periodically to visit his family and joined an acting company while there one time. His love of theater and drama continued to play an important role in his life and art. He painted stage sets, and said about about his paintings, "I think of my pictures as drama; the shapes in my pictures are the performers."

From 1929-1952 Rothko taught children art at the Center Academy, Brooklyn Jewish Center. He liked teaching children, feeling that their pure unfiltered responses to their art helped him to capture the essence of emotion and form in his own work.  

His first one-person show was in 1933 at the Contemporary Arts Gallery in New York. At the time, his paintings consisted of landscapes, portraits, and nudes.

In 1935 Rothko joined with eight other artists, including Adolph Gottlieb, to form a group called The Ten (although there were only nine), who, influenced by Impressionism, formed in protest to the art that was typically being exhibited at the time. The Ten became most well-known for their exhibit,"The Ten: Whitney Dissenters," which opened at the Mercury Galleries three days after the opening of the Whitney Annual. The purpose of their protest was stated in the introduction to the catalogue, which described them as "experimenters" and "strongly individualistic" and explained that the purpose of their association was to call attention to American art that was not literal, not representational and preoccupied with local color, and not "contemporary only in the strictly chronological sense." Their mission was "to protest against the reputed equivalence of American painting and literal painting."

In 1945 Rothko married for the second time. With his second wife, Mary Alice Beistle, he had two children, Kathy Lynn in 1950, and Christopher in 1963. 

After many years of obscurity as an artist, the 1950s finally brought Rothko acclaim and in 1959 Rothko had a major one-man exhibit in New York at the Museum of Modern Art. He was also working on three major commissions during the years 1958 to 1969: murals for the Holyoke Center at Harvard University; monumental paintings for the Four Seasons Restaurant and Seagrams Building, both in New York; and paintings for the Rothko Chapel.

Rothko committed suicide at the age of 66 in 1970. Some think that the dark and somber paintings that he did late in his career, such as those for the Rothko Chapel, foreshadow his suicide, whereas others consider those works an opening up of the spirit and an invitation into greater spiritual awareness. 

The Rothko Chapel

Rothko was commissioned in 1964 by John and Dominique de Menial to create a meditative space filled with his paintings created specifically for the space.  The Rothko Chapel, designed in collaboration with architects Philip Johnson, Howard Barnstone, and Eugene Aubry, was ultimately completed in 1971, although Rothko died in 1970 so did not see the final building. It is an irregular octagonal brick building that holds fourteen of Rothko's mural paintings. The paintings are Rothko's signature floating rectangles, although they are darkly hued - seven canvases with hard-edged black rectangles on maroon ground, and seven purple tonal paintings.

It is an interfaith chapel that people visit from all over the world. According to The Rothko Chapel website,"The Rothko Chapel is a spiritual space, a forum for world leaders, a place for solitude and gathering. It’s an epicenter for civil rights activists, a quiet disruption, a stillness that moves. It’s a destination for the 90,000 people of all faiths who visit each year from all parts of the world. It is the home of the Óscar Romero Award."  The Rothko Chapel is on the National Register of Historic Places.

Influences on Rothko's Art

There were a number of influences on Rothko's art and thought. As a student in the mid to late 1920s Rothko was influenced by Max Weber, Arshile Gorky, and Milton Avery, from whom he learned very different ways of approaching painting. Weber taught him about Cubism and non-representational painting; Gorky taught him about Surrealism, the imagination, and mythic imagery; and Milton Avery, with whom he was good friends for many years, taught him about using thin layers of flat color to create depth through color relationships. 

Like many artists, Rothko also greatly admired Renaissance paintings and their richness of hue and apparent inner glow achieved through the application of multiple layers of thin glazes of color.

As a man of learning, other influences included Goya, Turner, the Impressionists, Matisse, Caspar Friedrich, and others.

Rothko also studied Friedrich Nietzsche, the 19th century German philosopher, and read his book, The Birth of Tragedy. He incorporated in his paintings Nietzsche's philosophy of the struggle between the Dionysian and Apollonian.

Rothko was also influenced by Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Goya, Turner, the Impressionists, Caspar Friedrich, and Matisse, Manet, Cezanne, to name but a few.

1940s

The 1940s was an important decade for Rothko, one in which he went through many transformations in style, emerging from it with the classic colorfield paintings that are primarily associated with him. According to his son, Christopher Rothko in MARK ROTHKO, The Decisive Decade 1940-1950, Rothko had five or six different styles in this decade, each one an outgrowth of the preceding one. They are: 1) Figurative (c.1923-40); 2. Surrealist - Myth-based (1940-43); 3. Surrealist - Abstracted (1943-46); 4. Multiform (1946-48); 5. Transitional (1948-49); 6. Classic/Colorfield (1949-70)."

Sometime in 1940 Rothko makes his last figurative painting, then experiments with Surrealism, and eventually does away entirely with any figural suggestion in his paintings, abstracting them further and paring them down to indeterminate shapes floating in fields of color​ - Multiforms as they were called by others -  which were greatly influenced by Milton Avery's style of painting. The Multiforms are Rothko's first true abstractions, while their palette foreshadows the palette of the color field paintings to come. He clarifies his intention further, eliminating shapes, and begins his color field paintings in 1949, using color even more expressively to create monumental floating rectangles and to communicate the range of human emotion within them.

Color Field Paintings

Rothko is most well-known for his color field paintings, which he began painting in the late 1940s. These paintings were much larger paintings, almost filling up an entire wall from floor to ceiling. In these paintings he used the soak-stain technique, initially developed by Helen Frankenthaler. He would apply layers of thinned paint onto the canvas to create two or three luminous abstract soft-edged rectangles.

Rothko said that his paintings were large in order to make the viewer part of the experience rather than separate from the painting. In fact, he preferred to have his paintings shown together in an exhibit in order to create a greater impact of being contained or enveloped by the paintings, rather than broken up by other artworks. He said that the paintings were monumentalnot to be "grandiose", but in fact, to be more "intimate and human." According to the Phillips Gallery in Washington, D.C., "His large canvases, typical of his mature style, establish a one-on-one correspondence with the viewer, giving human scale to the experience of the painting and intensifying the effects of color. As a result, the paintings produce in the responsive viewer a sense of the ethereal and a state of spiritual contemplation. Through color alone—applied to suspended rectangles within abstract compositions—Rothko's work evokes strong emotions ranging from exuberance and awe to despair and anxiety, suggested by the hovering and indeterminate nature of his forms."

In 1960 the Phillips Gallery built a special room dedicated to displaying Mark Rothko's painting, called The Rothko Room.  It contains four paintings by the artist, one painting on each wall of a small room, giving the space a meditative quality. 

Rothko stopped giving his works conventional titlesin the late 1940s, preferring instead to differentiate them by color or number. As much as he wrote about art during his lifetime, as in his book, The Artist's Reality: Philosophies on Art, written about 1940-41, he began to stop explaining the meaning of his work with his color field paintings, claiming that "Silence is so accurate."

It is the essence of the relationship between the viewer and the painting that is important, not the words that describe it. Mark Rothko's paintings have to be experienced in person to be truly appreciated.

Resources and Further Reading

Kennicot Philip, Two Rooms, 14 Rothkos and a world of difference, Washington Post, January 20, 2017

Mark Rothko, National Gallery of Art, slideshow 

Mark Rothko (1903-1970), Biography, The Phillips Collection

Mark Rothko, MOMA

Mark Rothko: The Artist's Reality, http://www.radford.edu/rbarris/art428/mark%20rothko.html 

Meditation and Modern Art Meet in Rothko Chapel, NPR.org, March 1, 2011 

O'Neil, Lorena, The Spirituality of Mark Rothko, The Daily Dose, Dec. 23 2013http://www.ozy.com/flashback/the-spirituality-of-mark-rothko/4463

Rothko Chapel

Rothko's Legacy, PBS NewsHour, Aug. 5, 1998