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Mark Rothko

The father of color field painting


A painting is not a picture of an experience, but is the experience.

Mark Rothko was an American abstract painter of Latvian Jewish descent, best known for his abstract canvases featuring vast fields of color. One of the defining artists of his generation, Rothko is closely identified with the New York school, a circle of painters that emerged during the 1940s as a new collective voice in American art. During a career that spanned five decades, he created a form of abstract painting that was entirely his own.

Image courtesy of the Portland Art Museum

Mark Rothko was born Marcus Yakovlevich Rothkowitz in Daugavpils, Latvia (at that point still part of the Russian Empire). His father was a pharmacist and intellectual who initially provided his children with a secular and political, rather than religious, upbringing. Despite their modest income, the family was highly educated. Following his father's return to Orthodox Judaism, Rothko, the youngest of four siblings, was sent to the cheder, although his elder siblings had been educated in the public school system. In an environment where Jews were often blamed for many of the evils that befell Russia, Rothko's early childhood was plagued by fear.

To avoid their sons being drafted into the Imperial Russian Army, Rothko’s family emigrated from Russia to the U.S. in 1913, where they settled in Portland. His father’s death, a few months later, of colon cancer, left the family without economic support and Markus had to work in one of his uncle's warehouses, selling newspapers. His father's death led Rothko to permanently sever his ties with religion.

Guitarist, (undated)
Photo by Alexander Liberman


During his youth, Rothko was mostly preoccupied with politics and social issues. In 1921, he entered Yale University intending to become a labor leader, but after two years he dropped out as he found the institution to be elitist and racist, and started to wander about the U.S. In the autumn of 1923, Rothko found work in New York's garment district. While visiting a friend at the Art Students League of New York, he saw students sketching a model - this was the beginning of his life as an artist. 


Untitled (nude) 1, (undated)


He later enrolled in the Parsons The New School for Design where he studied under Arshile Gorky and took courses by Cubist artist Max Weber. Rothko's move to New York had landed him in the fertile local art scene. In 1928, he took part in a group exhibition at the Opportunity Gallery. His paintings, mostly moody, expressionist urban scenes were applauded among critics and peers. To supplement his income, Rothko began instructing schoolchildren in drawing, painting, and clay sculpture at the Academy of the Brooklyn Jewish Center, something which he would be doing for over twenty years.

Underground Fantasy, 1940


During the early 1930s, Rothko met Adolph Gottlieb, who was part of a group of young artists surrounding the painter Milton Avery. Avery's abstract nature paintings, especially their richness in form and color, would have a strong influence on Rothko's work. The group of artists spent much time together, vacationing at Lake George, and Gloucester, Massachusetts. In the daytime, they would paint, and in the evenings, they discussed art.

In 1933, he held his first one-person show at the Portland Art Museum, consisting mostly showing drawings and aquarelles. For this exhibition, the artist took the very unusual step of displaying works done by his young students, alongside his own. Upon his return to New York, he held his first East Coast one-man show at the Contemporary Arts Gallery. It was in the works that were displayed here that Rothko's use of rich color-fields started to move beyond Avery's influence.

Untitled, 1945-1947
Untitled, 1942-1943


Late 1935, Rothko joined an artist collective that named themselves ‘The Ten’, he was also accepted into a renowned group called ‘The Artist Union’ whose ambition it was to self-organize group exhibitions in a move against the established museums and art galleries. In 1938, Rothko finally became a citizen of the United States, prompted by fears that the growing Nazi influence in Europe might provoke sudden deportation of American Jews. Concerned about antisemitism, Rothko abbreviated his name from "Markus Rothkowitz" to "Mark Rothko".

Rothko moving Untitled,1954, photograph by Henry Elkan


It was at this point that Rothko entered what would later be called his "transitional" years, which involved phases of figurative mythological abstraction and "biomorphic" abstraction. Fearing that modern American painting had reached a conceptual dead end, Rothko was intent upon exploring subjects that were to have a social impact. Inspired by the works of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, he took an interest in psychoanalytical theories concerning dreams and archetypes, but his most crucial philosophical influence was Friedrich Nietzsche's The Birth of Tragedy. From this moment on, he endeavored to relieve modern man's spiritual emptiness – an emptiness which, he believed, resulted from a lack of mythology. This was the start of a period of surrealism influenced by mythological fables and symbols.

In 1943, he met with noted collector and art dealer Peggy Guggenheim, who was initially reluctant to take on his artworks. Rothko's one-person show at Guggenheim's The Art of This Century Gallery, in late 1945, resulted in few sales, with prices ranging from $150 to $750. The exhibit however also received quite a few negative reviews from critics.

SACRIFICE OF IPHIGENIA, 1942
In limbo, 1941-42


Rothko first developed his signature composition and highly personal form of Abstract Expressionism in 1947. Described as multiforms or “Color Field painting” by critic Clement Greenberg in 1955, it was a style characterized by vast open space and an expressive use of color. Unlike many of his fellow Abstract Expressionists, Rothko never relied on dramatic techniques such as violent brushstrokes or the splattering of paint. Instead, his paintings achieved their effects by juxtaposing large areas of melting colours that seem to float within the picture plane. For the artist, these blurred blocks of color, devoid of landscape, human figures, or symbols, possessed their own life force. MoMA’s former chief curator William S. Rubin wrote:

His colored rectangles seemed to dematerialize into pure light….

Orange and Tan, 1954


Rothko spent the rest of his life refining this style through continuous simplification. He restricted his designs to two or three “soft-edged” rectangles that filled wall-sized vertical formats. These large-scale designs were used, in Rothko's words, to make the viewer feel "enveloped within" the painting. For some critics, the large size was an attempt to make up for a lack of substance, but Rothko stated:

I realize that historically the function of painting large pictures is painting something very grandiose and pompous. The reason I paint them, however ... is precisely because I want to be very intimate and human. To paint a small picture is to place yourself outside your experience, to look upon an experience as a stereopticon view or with a reducing glass. However you paint the larger picture, you are in it. It isn't something you command!

He even recommended that viewers position themselves just eighteen inches away from the canvas, so that they might experience a sense of intimacy, a transcendence of the individual, and a sense of the unknown.

Image by Carol Franks


At this point, Rothko’s work was included in numerous international solo shows and group exhibitions. Unfortunately, Rothko’s growing success led to jealousy among his peers and when Fortune magazine named a Rothko painting in 1955 ‘a good investment’, they branded him a sell-out with bourgeois aspirations.

Despite his fame, Rothko felt a growing personal seclusion and a sense of being misunderstood as an artist. He feared that people purchased his paintings simply out of fashion and that the true purpose of his work was not being grasped by the critics or collectors. He finally abandoned all attempts at explaining the meaning and purpose of his works, stating that silence is "so accurate".

My paintings' surfaces are expansive and push outward in all directions, or their surfaces contract and rush inward in all directions. Between these two poles, you can find everything I want to say.

White Center (Yellow, Pink and Lavender on Rose),1950
Untitled, 1969, oil on paper laid down on canvas


In essence, his multiforms were the same expression of basic human emotions as his surrealistic mythological paintings, with a central role for "tragedy, ecstasy, and doom".

I’m interested only in expressing basic human emotions—tragedy, ecstasy, doom, and so on. And the fact that a lot of 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 I painted them. And if you, as you say, are moved only by their color relationship, then you miss the point.

Rothko Chapel interior, photo: Hickey Robertson
Rothko Chapel interior, photo: Hickey Robertson


It was this comment that may have signaled the construction of the Rothko Chapel. From 1958 to 1966 Rothko worked intermittently on a series of 14 immense canvases, virtual monochromes of darkly glowing browns, maroons, reds, and blacks, which would eventually be placed in a chapel in Houston. After his death, this space was renamed the Rothko Chapel.

By 1968, Rothko’s health was in decline from years of severe anxiety and his drinking and smoking habits. In 1970, at 66 years old, the chronically depressed artist committed suicide, leaving behind a body of work that brought him both critical and commercial success during his lifetime and that would go on to influence generations of artists.

Rothko's studio, image via Pinterest


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Sources: Wikipedia, Wikiart, Brittanica, MoMa, National Gallery of Art, Tate, Artnet