Mark Rothko

2008/9 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: Artists

Mark Rothko born Marcus Rothkowitz ( Latvian: Marks Rotko); September 25, 1903 February 25, 1970) was a Latvian-born Jewish American painter and printmaker who is classified as an abstract expressionist, although he rejected not only the label but even being called an abstract painter.


Mark Rothko was born in Daugavpils, Latgalia (then part of the Russian Empire). His father Jacob was a pharmacist and an intellectual, who provided his children with a secular and political, rather than religious upbringing. Unlike Jews in most cities of Czarist Russia, those in Daugavpils were spared a violent outbreak of reprisal. In an environment where Jews were often blamed for many of the evils that befell Russia, Rothko’s early childhood was plagued with fear, as he witnessed the occasional violence brought down upon Jews by Cossacks attempting to stifle revolutionary uprisings. An image that remained with him throughout his adult life was that of open pits, where Cossacks buried Jews they kidnapped and murdered. Some critics interpret Rothko’s later use of rectangular forms as a formal representation of these graves. However, Rothko’s memory may be disputed, as no mass executions were said to have been committed in or near Daugavpils during this period.

Despite Jacob’s modest income, the Rothkowitzes were highly educated, and able to speak Russian, Yiddish and Hebrew. Following Jacob’s return to Orthodox Judaism, he sent Marcus, his youngest son, to the cheder at age five, where Rothko studied the Talmud. This had the adverse effect of stigmatizing him as an outsider within his own family; his elders were educated in the public school system. As a Jew, the young Marcus was therefore an outsider among outsiders.

Emigration to the U.S.

Fearing that his sons were about to be drafted into the Czarist army, Jacob decided to emigrate to the United States, following the path of many other Jews who left Daugavpils in the wake of the Cossack purges, including two of his brothers who managed to establish themselves as clothing manufacturers in Portland, Oregon, a common profession among Eastern European immigrants. Marcus remained in Russia with his mother and elder sister Sonia; they joined Jacob and the elder brothers later, arriving at Ellis Island in the winter of 1913, following a 12-day journey at sea. Shortly after their arrival, on March 27, 1914, Jacob died, leaving his family without economic support. One of Marcus’ great aunts worked as an unskilled laborer and Sonia worked a cash register, while Marcus found employment in one of his uncle’s warehouses, selling newspapers to employees.

Marcus started school in America in 1913, quickly accelerating from third to fifth grade, completing the remaining four grades in three years, then graduating to the secondary level which he completed, with honours, at Lincoln High School in Portland, in June of 1921 at the age of seventeen. He picked up his fourth language, English, and became an active member of the Jewish community centre, where he proved adept at political discussions. Like his father, Marcus was liberal and passionate about such issues as worker’s rights and women’s right to contraception. Typical among Jewish liberals, Rothko supported the Russian Revolution yet his political conviction may be described as decorative in the sense that he was never politically engaged.

Following graduation, he received a scholarship to Yale. The scholarship was based on academic performance, but it has been suggested that Yale only made the scholarship offer in order to lure Marcus' friend, economist Aaron Director. After one year, the scholarship ran out and Marcus was forced to take menial jobs to support his studies.

Marcus found the WASP Yale community too elitist and racist for his taste; Marcus and Aaron Director started a satirical magazine, The Yale Saturday Evening Pest, which lampooned the school’s stuffy, bourgeois attitude. Following his second year, he dropped out, returning only after 46 years to receive an honorary degree.

Artistic apprenticeship

In the fall of 1923, Rothko found employment in the garment district and took up residence on the Upper West Side. It was while visiting a friend at the Art Students League of New York that he witnessed students sketching a nude model. According to Rothko, this was the beginning of his life as an artist. He was twenty years old and had taken some art classes in high school but his initial experience was far from an immediate calling. Even his self-described "beginning" at the Art Students League of New York is not exactly true, for, two months after he returned to Portland to visit his family, he joined a theatre group run by Clark Gable’s wife, Josephine Dillon. Whatever his promise as an actor, at 5'10" and a sturdy weight, he did not display looks typically associated with successful commercial actors.

Returning to New York, Rothko enrolled in the New School of Design, where one of his instructors was the artist Arshile Gorky, probably his first encounter with a member of the avant-garde. That Autumn, he took courses at the Art Students League of New York taught by still-life artist Max Weber, another Russian Jew. It was from Weber that Rothko began to see art as a tool of emotional and religious expression and Rothko’s earliest paintings portray a Weberian influence.

Rothko's circle

Rothko's move to New York provided a fertile atmosphere for the experience of art from all cultures and periods. Modernist painters showed in the New York Galleries, and the city’s museums were an invaluable resource for the foster of a budding artist’s knowledge, experience and skills. Among those early influences were the works of the German Expressionists, the surrealist work of Paul Klee and the paintings of Georges Rouault. In 1928, Rothko had his own showing with a group of young artists at the appropriately named Opportunity Gallery. His paintings covered dark, moody, expressionist interiors as well as urban scenes and were generally well-accepted among critics and peers. Despite some growing success, Rothko still needed to supplement his income, and in 1929, he began giving classes in painting and clay sculpture at the Centre Academy where he remained as teacher until 1952. During this time, he met Adolph Gottlieb, who, along with Barnett Newman, Joseph Solman and John Graham, was part of a group of young artists surrounding the painter Milton Avery, 15 years Rothko’s senior. Avery’s stylized natural scenes, utilizing a rich knowledge of form and color, would be a tremendous influence on Rothko, whose own paintings soon after meeting Avery, began to address similar subject matter and colour, as in Rothko’s 1933/34 Bathers, or Beach Scene.

Rothko, Gottlieb, Newman, Solman, Graham and their mentor Avery, spent considerable time together, vacationing at Lake George and Gloucester, Massachusetts, spending their days painting and their evenings discussing art. During a 1932 visit to Lake George, Rothko met Edith Sachar, a jewelry designer. The two were married on November 12th and maintained, at first, a close and mutually supportive relationship. The following summer, Rothko’s first one-man show was held at the Portland Art Museum, consisting mostly of drawings and aquarelles, as well as the works of Rothko’s pre-adolescent students from the Centre Academy. His family was unable to understand his decision to be an artist, especially at a time when the Depression was at its all time worst. Having suffered serious financial setbacks, the Rothkoviches were mystified by Rothko’s seeming indifference to financial necessity. They felt he was doing his mother a disservice by not finding a more lucrative (and realistic) career.

First one-man show in New York

Returning to New York, unhampered by his lack of family support, Rothko had his first large one-man show at the Contemporary Arts Gallery, showing 15 oil paintings, mostly portraits, along with some aquarelles and drawings. It was the former that would capture the critic’s eyes; Rothko’s use of rich fields of colors showed a master’s touch, and moved beyond the influence of Avery. In late 1935 Rothko joined with Ilya Bolotowsky, Ben-Zion, Adolph Gottlieb, Lou Harris, Ralph Rosenborg, Lou Schankerand Joe Solomon to form " The Ten" (Whitney Ten Dissenters,) whose mission it was (according to a catalog from a 1937 Mercury Gallery show,) "to protest against the reputed equivalence of American painting and literal painting." Rothko was already heading in the direction of his renowned later works. Yet, despite this newfound exploration of colour, Rothko turned his attention to another formal and stylistic innovation, inaugurating a period of surrealist paintings influenced by mythological fables and symbols. This period can be read as a by-product of Rothko’s growing reputation among his peers, particularly the Artists Union. Begun in 1937, and including Gottlieb and Soloman, their plan was to create a municipal art gallery to show self-organized group exhibitions. The Artists Union was a cooperative which brought together resources and talent to create an atmosphere of mutual admiration and self-promotion. In 1936, the group had a showing at the Galerie Bonaparte in France and in 1938 a show at the Mercury Gallery, in direct defiance of the Whitney Museum’s supposed regionalist agenda which the group felt was burdened by outright provincialism. It was also during this period that Rothko found employment, as did many other artists, with the Works Progress Administration, a labor relief agency created under Roosevelt’s New Deal in response to the economic crisis. As the Depression waned, Rothko continued on in government service, working for TRAP, an agency that employed artists, architects and laborers in the restoration and renovation of public buildings. Avery, DeKooning, Pollock, Reinhardt, David Smith, Louise Nevelson and Rothko’s old teacher Arshile Gorky, were also employed by TRAP, including eight of the "Ten."

Development of style

In 1936, Rothko began writing a book, never completed, about the similarities in the art of children and the work of modern painters. The work of modernists, influenced by primitive art, could be compared to that of children in that "child art," according to Rothko, "transforms itself into primitivism, which is only the child producing a mimicry of himself." In this same manuscript, he observed that "the fact that one usually begins with drawing is already academic. We start with color." The modernist artist, like the child and the primitive whom he is influenced by, expresses an innate feeling for form that is, in the best and most universal work, expressed without mental interference; it is a physical and emotional, non-intellectual experience. Rothko was using fields of color in his aquarelles and city scenes and his subject matter and form was, by this time, decidedly non-intellectual, of formal concern, though the composition betrays a deep intellect. Rothko seemed to have reached an illumination concerning the progression of his later works; however it is to the next period we must turn our attention, before proceeding to the mature, rectangular fields of colour and light that either culminated or self-destructed in the Rothko Chapel.

This period, between the primitivist and playful urban scenes and aquarelles of the early period and the late, transcendent fields of colour, is one of transition, incorporating elements from both his early and late periods. It is marked by a rich and often complex milieu provoked mostly by two important events in Rothko’s life: the onset of World War and his reading of Friedrich Nietzsche.

Artistic maturity

Rothko separated from his wife, Edith Sachar, in the summer of 1937, following Edith’s increased success in the jewelry business. Apparently, he did not enjoy working for his wife and felt both threatened by and jealous of her financial success; Rothko was, by comparison, a financial failure. He and Edith reconciled in the Fall, yet their relationship remained tense. On the 21st of February, 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. A similar rise of Nazi sympathy in the United States only increased these fears and in January of 1940, Marcus Rothkowitz changed his name to Mark Rothko, as the name "Roth," a common abbreviation, had become, as a result of its commonality, identifiably Jewish. Following the Hitler-Stalin Pact of 1939, Rothko, along with Avery, Gottlieb, and others, left the American Artists’ Congress in protest of the Congress’ association with radical communism. In June, he and a number of other artists formed the Federation of Modern Painters and Sculptors. Their agenda was to keep art free from political propaganda.

Inspiration from mythology

Fearing modern American painting had reached a dead-end, Rothko was intent on exploring subjects other than urban and natural scenes, subjects that would complement his growing concern with form, space and colour. The world crisis of war lent this search an immediacy as did his insistence that the new subject matter be of social impact, able to transcend the confines of current political symbols and values. In his important essay, " The Romantics Were Prompted," published in 1949, Rothko observed that the "archaic artist . . . found it necessary to create a group of intermediaries, monsters, hybrids, gods and demigods" in much the same way that modern man found intermediaries in Fascism and the Communist Party. For Rothko, "without monsters and gods, art cannot enact a drama".

Rothko’s use of mythology as a commentary on current history was by no means novel. Rothko, Gottlieb and Newman read and discussed the works of Freud and Jung, in particular their respective theories concerning dreams and the archetypes of the collective unconscious, and understood mythological symbols as images that refer to themselves, operating in a space of human consciousness that transcends specific history and culture. Rothko later said his artistic approach was "reformed" by his study of the "dramatic themes of myth." He apparently stopped painting altogether for the length of 1940, and read Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams and Frazer’s Golden Bough.

Influence of Nietzsche

Yet the most crucial book for Rothko in this period would be Friedrich Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy.

Rothko’s new vision would therefore attempt to address modern man’s spiritual and creative mythological requirements and would, as Nietzsche claimed Greek tragedy had, seek to redeem man from the terrors of a mortal life. Modern artistic aims ceased to be Rothko’s goal. From this point on, his art would bear as its ultimate aim the burden of relieving modern man’s fundamental spiritual emptiness, an emptiness created in part by the lack of a mythology to properly address, as Nietzsche wrote, "the growth of a child’s mind and . . . to a mature man his life and struggles" and to provide the aesthetic recognition necessary for the freeing of those unconscious energies previously liberated by the mythological images, symbols and rituals.

Rothko considered himself a "mythmaker," and proclaimed that the only valid subject matter is that which is tragic. "The exhilarated tragic experience," he wrote, "is for me the only source of art."

His vision of myth as a replenishing resource for an era of spiritual decay or void was set in motion decades before by Carl Jung, T. S. Eliot, James Joyce and Thomas Mann, among others, but unlike his predecessors, Rothko would, in his late period, develop his philosophy of the tragic ideal into the realm of pure abstraction, thereby questioning the very foundation of man’s ability to transform his cradle of imagery into a new set of images, no longer dependent on tribal, archaic and religious mythologies, the very symbols Rothko utilized, not without frustration, during this middle period.

These paintings contrast barbaric scenes of violence with those of civilized passivity, with imagery drawn primarily from Aeschylus’ Oresteia trilogy. In his 1942 painting, Omens of the Eagle, the archetypal images of, in Rothko’s words, "man, bird, beast and tree . . . merge into a single tragic idea." The bird, an eagle, was not without contemporary historical relevance, as both the United States and Germany (in its claim to inheritance of the Holy Roman Empire) used the eagle as a national symbol. Rothko’s cross-cultural, trans-historical reading of myth perfectly addresses the psychological and emotional roots of the symbol, making it universally available to anyone who might wish to see it. A list of the titles from this period is evocative of Rothko’s use of the myth: Antigone, Oedipus, The Sacrifice of Iphigenia, Leda, The Furies, Altar of Orpheus. Judeo-Christian imagery is evoked: Gesthamane, The Last Supper, Rites of Lilith; as are Egyptian (Room in Karnak) and Syrian (The Syrian Bull). Soon after the war, Rothko felt his titles were limiting the larger, transcendent aims of his paintings, and so removed them altogether.

The new paintings were unveiled at a 1942 show at Macy’s department store in New York. In response to a negative review by the New York Times, Rothko and Gottlieb issued a manifesto (written mainly by Rothko) which stated, in response to the Times critic’s self-professed "befuddlement" over the new work,

"We favour the simple expression of the complex thought. We are for the large shape because it has the impact of the unequivocal. We wish to reassert the picture plane. We are for flat forms because they destroy illusion and reveal truth."

At the root of Rothko and Gottlieb’s presentation of archaic forms and symbols as subject matter illuminating modern existence, is the influence of Surrealism, Cubism and abstract art. In 1936, Rothko attended two exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art, "Cubism and Abstract Art," and "Fantastic Art, Dada and Surrealism.", which greatly influenced his celebrated 1938 Subway Scene.

In 1942, following the success of shows by Ernst, Miró, Tanguy, and Salvador Dalí who had immigrated to the United States because of the war, Surrealism took New York by storm. Rothko and his peers, Gottlieb and Newman, met and discussed art and ideas with these European pioneers (Mondrian, in particular) and began to regard themselves as heirs to the European avant-garde. Their program, of which the new experiments with mythic form is catalyst, was to merge the two European styles of Surrealism and abstraction. As a result, Rothko’s work became increasingly abstract; perhaps ironically, Rothko himself described the process as being one toward "clarity." In the Museum of Modern Art, he became fascinated by Matisse’s Red Room, later attributing to it the source of inspiration for his later abstract paintings.

Break with Surrealism

On June 13, 1943, Rothko and Edith separated again. Rothko suffered a long depression following their divorce. Thinking a change of scenery might help, Rothko returned to Portland and later traveled to Berkeley, where he met artist Clyfford Still, with whom he began a close friendship. Still’s deeply abstract paintings would be of considerable influence on Rothko’s later works. In the fall, Rothko returned to New York where he met the collector Peggy Guggenheim and her assistant, Howard Putzel, who convinced Guggenheim to show Rothko in her Art of the Century gallery. In 1944, photographer Aaron Siskind introduced Rothko to Mary Alice Beistle, a 23-year old illustrator of children’s books, and the two fell in love and were married in the spring of 1945. The marriage was considerably happier than his first. Rothko’s one-man show at the Guggenheim in late 1945 resulted in few sales (priced between $150 and $750) and less-than-favorable reviews. Sensing that his art was becoming passé and no longer a viable medium for the direction he was moving (stimulated by Still’s abstract landscapes of colour), Rothko broke with the Surrealists, explaining:

"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."

Rothko could no longer bring himself to continue interpreting the unconscious symbolism of everyday forms. The experiment had run its course. His future lay with abstraction; in it, Rothko found release from the Surrealist program of the humanist impulse to mere "memory and hallucination." Despite the abandonment of his project as a "Mythomorphic Abstractionist" (as described by Art News), Rothko became primarily identified with his Surrealist works for the remainder of the 1940s. The Whitney Museum included them in their annual exhibit of Contemporary Art from 1943 to 1950. The "Abstract Expressionist" movement was a loose consortium of mostly secular, urban Jews including Rothko and two other artists he was associated with, Gottlieb and Newman. Self-perceived outsiders and intellectuals, they viewed the freedom afforded by Modernism with no small degree of suspicion, interpreting this freedom as a source of suffering as opposed to release.

His 1945 masterpiece Slow Swirl at Edge of Sea magnificently illustrates Rothko’s newfound propensity towards abstraction. Interpreted by many critics as a meditation on Rothko’s courtship of his second wife Mell, the painting presents two humanlike forms embraced in a swirling, floating atmosphere of shapes and colors, subtle grays and browns. The rigid rectangular background foreshadows Rothko’s later experiments in pure colour. The painting was completed, not coincidentally, the year the Second World War ended.


1946 saw the creation of Rothko’s new "multiform" paintings. In viewing the catalogue raisonné, one finds a gradual metamorphosis from surrealistic, myth-influenced paintings of the early part of the decade to those highly abstract, Clyfford Still-influenced forms of pure colour. The term "multiform" is applied by art critics; it was never utilized by Rothko himself, yet it is an accurate description of these paintings, which, as with his paintings of the later part of the previous decade, are best viewed as a period of transition from that of surrealism to abstraction. Several of them, including No. 18 (1948) and Untitled (also 1948), are masterpieces in their own right. Rothko himself described these paintings as possessing a more organic structure, as self-contained units of human expression. For Rothko, these blurred blocks of various colors, devoid of landscape or human figure, let alone myth and symbol, possessed their own life force. They contained a "breath of life" he found lacking in most figurative painting of the era. This new form seemed filled with possibility, whereas his experimentation with mythological symbolism was, at best, a tired formula, much as he viewed his late 1930’s experiments in urban settings. The "multiforms" brought Rothko to a realization of his mature, signature style, the only style Rothko did not fully abandon, perhaps only because he died before he had the chance.

Earlier that year Rothko spent some time in California following a brief resurgence of interest among Californians in his Surrealist paintings. He found work teaching at the California School of Fine Art and while there encountered the work of Clyfford Still. Rothko, in the middle of a crucial period of transition, was impressed by Still’s abstract fields of colour, influenced in part by the landscapes of Still’s native North Dakota. In 1947, during a subsequent semester teaching at the School of Fine Art, Rothko and Still flirted with the idea of founding their own curriculum; they would realize this idea the following year in New York. Named "The Subjects of the Artists School," they employed David Hare and Robert Motherwell, among others. Though it would fold the same year, the school was the centre of a flurry of activity in contemporary art. In addition to his experience teaching, Rothko began contributing articles to two new art publications, Tiger’s Eye and Possibilities. Using the forum as an opportunity to assess the current art scene, Rothko also discussed in detail his own artwork and philosophy of art . These articles reveal an artist in transition, seeking to eliminate figurative elements from his work. He described his new method as "unknown adventures in an unknown space," free from "direct association with any particular, and the passion of organism."

Signature period

It was not long before the "multiforms" developed into the signature style; by early 1949 Rothko exhibited these new works at the Betty Parsons Gallery. For critic Harold Rosenberg, the paintings were nothing short of a revelation. Rothko had, after painting his first "multiform," secluded himself to his home in East Hampton on Long Island, only inviting a select few, including Rosenberg, to view the new paintings. The discovery of his definitive form came at a period of great distress to the artist; his mother Kate died in October 1948 and it was at some point during that winter that Rothko happened upon the striking symmetrical rectangular blocks of two to three opposing or contrasting, yet complementary colors. Additionally, for the next seven years, Rothko painted in oil only on large canvas with vertical formats. This considerably large proportion was utilized in order to overwhelm the viewer, or, in Rothko’s words, to make the viewer feel enveloped within the painting. For some critics, the largeness of size made up for the lack of substance. In retaliation, 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 went so far as to insist a viewer position themselves exactly 46 centimeters (18 in.) away so that the viewer might experience a sense of intimacy as well as awe, a transcendence of the individual, a sense of the unknown.

Again, Rothko’s aims, in some critics’ and viewers’ estimation, exceeds his methods. Many of the abstract impressionists exhibited pretensions for something approximating a spiritual experience, or at least an experience that exceeded the boundaries of the purely aesthetic. In later years, Rothko would do much to promote this spiritual aspect of his artwork, a sentiment that would culminate in the construction of the Rothko Chapel.

Many of the "multiforms" and early signature paintings display an affinity for bright, vibrant colors, particularly reds and yellows, expressing energy and ecstasy. By the mid 1950’s however, close to a decade before the completion of the first "multiforms," Rothko began to employ dark blues and greens; for many critics of his work this shift in colors was representative of a growing darkness within Rothko’s personal life. The general method for these paintings was to apply a thin layer of binder mixed with colour pigment directly onto uncoated and untreated canvas, and paint significantly thinned oils directly onto this overlay, creating a dense mixture of overlapping colors and shapes. His brush strokes were fast and light; a method he would continue to utilize until his death; his increasing adeptness at this method is apparent in the paintings completed for the Chapel. With a total lack of figurative representation, what drama there is to be found in a late Rothko is in the contrast of colors, radiating, as it were, against one another. His paintings can then be likened to a sort of fugal arrangement: each variation counterpoised against one another, yet all existing within one architectonic structure.

European travels

Rothko and Mell visited Europe for five months in early 1950. The last time he was in Europe was during his childhood in Latvia, a part of Russia then, yet he did not return to the motherland, preferring to visit the important museums of England, France and Italy. Despite his viewing of many paintings, it was the architecture and the music of Europe that left a deep impression on Rothko. He much admired European art, and he visited the major museums of Paris, yet it was the frescoes of Fra Angelico in the monastery of San Marco at Florence that most impressed him. Angelico’s intimately bright tempera frescoes magnificently contrast with the grandeur and monastic serenity of the surrounding architecture. Certainly the spirituality and concentration on light appealed to Rothko’s sensibilities, as did Angelico’s economic circumstances, which Rothko saw as similar to his own, having always been forced to struggle to exist as an artist. Of Angelico, Rothko stated "As an artist you have to be a thief and steal a place for yourself on the rich man’s wall." He felt he was still struggling, despite some promising developments, including the sale of a painting for one thousand dollars to Mrs. John D. Rockefeller III and the purchase of "Number 10" (1950) for the Museum of Modern Art. He was also represented in one-man shows at the Betty Parson Gallery in 1950 and 1951, as well as in shows across the world, including Japan, São Paulo and Amsterdam. The 1952 "Fifteen Americans" show curated by Dorothy Canning Miller at the Museum of Modern Art formally heralded the abstract artists, including works by Jackson Pollock and William Baziotes, it also created a dispute between Rothko and Barnett Newman, after Newman accused Rothko of having attempted to exclude him from the show. Growing success as a group lead to infighting and claims to supremacy and leadership. When Fortune magazine named a Rothko painting as a good investment, Newman and Still out of jealousy branded him a sell-out, of secretly possessing bourgeois aspiration. Still wrote Rothko to request the paintings he had given Rothko over the years; Rothko was deeply depressed by his former friends’ jealousy.

While in Rome, Mell discovered that she was pregnant and on December 30, she gave birth to a daughter, Kathy Lynn, whom the parents called "Kate" in honour of Rothko’s mother. And shortly thereafter, due to the Fortune magazine plug and purchases by legitimate clients, Rothko’s financial situation began to improve. In addition to sales of paintings, he also had money from his teaching position at Brooklyn College. In 1954, he exhibited in a solo show at the Art Institute of Chicago, where he met art dealer Sidney Janis, who also represented Pollock and Franz Kline, and the relationship proved mutually beneficial. Despite fame, Rothko felt a growing personal seclusion, a sense of being misunderstood as an artist. He feared that people purchased his paintings simply out of fashion, that the true purpose of his work was not being grasped by collectors, audiences or critics. He wanted his paintings to move beyond not only classical art, but abstraction as well. For Rothko, the paintings were objects that possessed their own form and potential and therefore, must be encountered as such. Sensing the futility of words in describing this decidedly non-verbal aspect of his work, Rothko abandoned all attempts at responding to those that might inquire after its meaning and purpose, stating finally that silence is "so accurate." His 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."

He began to insist that he was not an abstractionist, that such a description was as inaccurate as labeling him a great colorist. His interest was:

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 colour relationship, then you miss the point.

For Rothko, colour is "merely an instrument." In a sense, the "multiforms" and the signature paintings are, in essence, the same expression, albeit one of purer (or less concrete or definable, depending on your interpretation) means, which is that of the same "basic human emotions," as his surrealistic mythological paintings. What is common among these stylistic innovations is a concern for "tragedy, ecstasy and doom." It was Rothko’s comment on those breaking down in tears before his paintings that may have convinced the De Menils to construct the Houston Chapel. Whatever Rothko’s feeling about the audience or the critical establishment’s interpretation of his work, it is apparent that, by 1958, whatever spiritual expression he meant to portray on canvas, it was growing increasingly dark. His bright reds, yellows and oranges subtly transformed into dark blues, greens, grays and blacks.

In 1958, Rothko was awarded the first of two major commissions that proved both rewarding and frustrating. They were to be the last major artistic statements of the artist’s career. The beverage company Joseph Seagram and Sons had recently completed their new building on Park Avenue, designed by architects Mies Van der Rohe and Philip Johnson. Rothko agreed to provide wall paintings for the building’s restaurant, The Four Seasons; this was the first time he was required to not only design a series of paintings but to produce artwork for a specific space. Over the following three months, Rothko completed forty paintings, three full series in dark red and brown, altering his horizontal format to the vertical to complement the restaurant’s vertical features: columns, walls, doors and windows.

The following June, Rothko and his family traveled to Europe and while on the SS Independence he disclosed to John Fischer, publisher of Harper's, his true intention for the Seagram murals was to paint "something that will ruin the appetite of every son-of-a-bitch who ever eats in that room. If the restaurant would refuse to put up my murals, that would be the ultimate compliment. But they won’t. People can stand anything these days."

While in Europe, the Rothkos traveled to Rome, Florence, Venice and Pompeii. In Florence, he visited the library at San Lorenzo to see first-hand the library’s Michelangelo room, from which he drew further inspiration for the murals, remarking that the "room had exactly the feeling that I wanted [ . . . ] it gives the visitor the feeling of being caught in a room with the doors and windows walled-in shut." Following the trip to Italy, the Rothkos voyaged to Paris, Brussels, Antwerp and Amsterdam, before returning to the United States. Once back in New York, Rothko and Mell visited the Four Seasons and, upset by the restaurant’s pretentious atmosphere, Rothko abandoned the project on the spot, deciding to return his advance to Seagram and Bros. and keep the paintings for himself. (The final series was dispersed and now hangs in three locations: London’s Tate Gallery, Japan’s Kawamura Memorial Museum and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.)

United States

Rothko’s first completed space was created in the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., following the purchase of four paintings by collector Duncan Phillips. It was at this time that Rothko first met John and Dominique de Menil, when the couple had journeyed from Houston to New York to meet him. Rothko’s fame and wealth had substantially increased; his paintings began to sell to notable collectors, including the Rockefellers. In January of 1961, Rothko sat next to Joseph Kennedy at Jack Kennedy’s inaugural ball. Later that year, a retrospective of his work was held at the Museum of Modern Art, to considerable commercial and critical success. In spite of this newfound notoriety, the art world had turned its attention from the now passé abstract expressionists to the "next big thing", Pop Art, particularly the work of Warhol, Lichtenstein, and Rosenquist.

Rothko labeled Pop-Art artists "charlatans and young opportunists" and wondered aloud during a 1962 exhibition of Pop Art, "are the young artists plotting to kill us all?" On viewing Jasper Johns' flags, Rothko said, "we worked for years to get rid of all that." It was not that Rothko could not accept being replaced, so much as an inability to accept what was replacing him. He found it valueless, though it received much admiration as collectors sold off their Rothkos, Newmans and Gottliebs and replaced them with Rauschenbergs, and staged retrospectives of artists then in their mid-twenties.

As with the Seagram Mural, the Harvard Mural would remain incomplete. For this project, a wall of paintings for the penthouse of Harvard’s Holyoke Centre, Rothko completed twenty-two sketches, from which five murals were completed, a triptych and two wall paintings. Yet Harvard President Nathan Pusey, following an explanation of the religious symbology of the Triptych, had the paintings hung in January of 1963, and later shown at the Guggenheim. During installation, Rothko found the paintings to be compromised by the room’s lighting and, despite the installation of fibreglass shades, the paintings were removed and, weakened by sunlight, stored in a dark room.

On August 31, 1963, Mell gave birth to a second child, Christopher Hall. That autumn, Rothko signed with the Marlborough Gallery for sales of his work outside the United States. Stateside, Rothko continued to sell the artwork directly from his studio. Bernard Reis, Rothko’s financial advisor, was also, unbeknownst to the artist, the Gallery’s accountant and, together with his co-workers would later be responsible for one of art history’s largest scandals.

The Chapel

The Rothko Chapel is located adjacent to the Menil Collection in Houston, Texas. The building is small, windowless, and unassuming; a decidedly geometric, postmodern structure in a decidedly postmodern, pre-fabricated neighbourhood. The Chapel, the Menil Collection, and the nearby Cy Twombly gallery were funded by Texas oil millionaires John and Dominique de Menil.

In 1964, Rothko moved into his last studio at 157 East 69th Street, equipping the studio with pulleys carrying large walls of canvas material to regulate light entering in from a central cupola, necessary to re-create the lighting he had planned for the Rothko Chapel. Despite warnings from friends about the difference in light between New York and Texas, Rothko persisted with his studio experiment, setting to work on the canvases that would make up his final artistic statement to the world when they were finally unveiled at the Chapel’s opening in 1971. Rothko told friends he felt the chapel to be his single most important artistic statement. He became considerably involved in the layout of the building, insisting that it feature a central cupola equivalent to that of his studio. Architect Philip Johnson, unable to compromise with Rothko’s vision, left the project in 1967 and was replaced with Howard Barnstone and Eugene Aubry, Houston locals who were honored to have the opportunity to work with Rothko and willing to make the necessary compromises. The architects frequently flew to New York to meet with the artist; on one occasion they brought with them a miniature of the final building for his approval. For Rothko, the Chapel was to be a destination, a place of pilgrimage far from the centre of art (in this case, New York) where seekers of Rothko’s "religious" artwork, could journey. That one had to journey specifically to see his artwork implied an already sympathetic audience in an increasingly indifferent postmodernist art market. Initially, the Chapel, now non-denominational, was to be specifically Roman Catholic, and the three years Rothko worked on the project (1964-67) he believed it would remain as such. Thus Rothko’s design of the building and the religious implications of the paintings were inspired by Roman Catholic art and architecture: its octagonal shape based on the Byzantine church of St. Maria Assunta, its triptychs based on any number of triptychs representing the Crucifixion. It was an odd commission for a secular Jew — yet the universal "spiritual" aspect of Rothko’s work the De Menils believed would complement the mystical elements of Roman Catholicism. Perhaps Rothko’s willingness, indeed his excitement, regarding the project, was emblematic of the sense of persecution Rothko felt he was receiving from the art world in the years up to and including those spent at work on the Chapel. Perhaps it was his marriage, disintegrating under the burden of alcoholism and drugs, that later led to his suicide. In retrospect, some have interpreted the triptych as a sort of death-wish, in the sense that some Catholic theologians interpreted Christ’s willing sacrifice on the cross as a sort of suicide, a willing self-destruction. It is difficult to know exactly the personal demons the artist was purging with the Chapel, or if he was purging demons at all. What is clear is that the Chapel paintings are the zenith of the "darkness and impenetrability" that, during the latter half of the 1950’s and the early part of the 1960’s, viewers increasingly encountered in Rothko’s work.

Rothko’s procedure of "breathing paint on canvas" required considerable physical stamina that the ailing artist was no longer able to muster. To create the paintings he envisioned, Rothko was forced to hire two assistants to apply the chestnut-brown paint in quick strokes of several layers: "brick reds, deep reds, black mauves." On half of the works, Rothko applied none of the paint himself, and was for the most part content to supervise the slow, arduous process. He felt the completion of the paintings to be "torment" and his inevitable goal was to create "something you don’t want to look at."

The Chapel is the culmination of six years of Rothko’s life and, for some viewers, it as well culminates a career in art that charted a gradually growing concern for the transcendent. For some, to witness these paintings is to submit one’s self to a spiritual experience, through its transcendence of subject matter into the realm of pure colour the paintings remove the merely historical, symbolic, local and metaphoric trappings of specific denominational artistic expressions of the spirit allowing for an experience approximating that of consciousness itself. It forces one to approach the limits of experience in the post-Kantian sense of the categories of space and time and awakens one to the awareness of one’s own existence. For others, the Chapel houses 14 large paintings (three triptychs and five individual works) whose dark, nearly impenetrable surfaces are the very definition of hermeticism and self-absorption.

The Chapel’s final appearance was the result of many fits and starts between artist, architect and commissioners. During the design stage, the paintings were re-arranged several times before ending up in the positions they are now seen. It was the central cupola that presented the greatest problem. Originally supplemented by six floodlights at the skylight’s base and a row of floods halfway down the ceiling, the skylight allowed for too much glaring Texas sunlight that, over a period of time, began to damage the paintings. In 1974, a scrim was installed to diffuse the light and in 1976, a metal baffle replaced the scrim. For some, the baffle compromised the original vision of the artist by creating interference in the room’s simplicity of design, casting shadows on the paintings where there was once light, making for an atmosphere substantially different from that intended by the artist.

The layout of the paintings is as follows: a monochrome triptych in soft brown on the central wall (5 x 15 ft. each) and a pair of triptychs on its left and right made of opaque black rectangles. Between the three triptychs are four individual paintings (11 x 15 ft. each) with one additional individual painting facing opposite the central triptych. The effect is to surround the viewer with massive, imposing visions of darkness, inviting yet distancing, impenetrable yet penetrating. Despite its basis in religious symbolism (the triptych) incorporating less-than-subtle imagery (the crucifixion), the paintings are very difficult to attach specifically to traditional, mythological Christian symbolism and therefore act on the viewers somewhat subliminally (though no less directly than figurative religious art). The paintings do require an active spiritual or aesthetic inquiry on the part of the viewer in much the same way as a religious icon that incorporates specific symbolism. Rothko’s erasure of these symbols both removes and creates barriers to the work, that of an experience of the absolute possible by a vision of human tragedy.

Rothko never saw the completed Chapel and never installed the paintings. On February 28, 1971, at the dedication, Dominique De Menil said of the paintings: "We are cluttered with images and only abstract art can bring us to the threshold of the divine", noting Rothko’s courage in painting these impenetrable fortresses of colour. The drama for many critics of Rothko’s work is the uneasy position of the paintings between, as Chase notes, "nothingness or vapidity" and "dignified ‘mute icons’ offering ‘the only kind of beauty we find acceptable today’."


In the spring of 1968, Rothko suffered an aneurysm of the aorta, a result of his chronic high blood pressure. Ignoring doctor’s orders, Rothko continued to drink and smoke heavily, avoid exercise and maintain an unhealthy diet. However, he followed the advice not to paint pictures larger than a yard in height and turned his attention to smaller formats, including acrylics on paper. Due to impotence, Rothko and his wife Mell separated on New Year’s Day 1969, and he moved into his studio. Sensing the end was near, Rothko and his financial advisor, Bernard Reis, created a foundation intended to fund "research and education" that would receive the bulk of Rothko’s work following his death. (Reis later sold the paintings to the Marlborough Gallery at a considerable loss and pocketed the difference with Gallery representatives, the result of which was one of the longest and most heavily hyped legal battles in art history.)

On February 25, 1970, Oliver Steindecker, Rothko’s assistant, found the artist in his kitchen, lying dead on the floor in front of the sink, covered in blood. His arms had been sliced open with a razor lying at his side. During autopsy it was discovered he had also overdosed on anti-depressants. He was 66 years old.


The settlement of his estate became the subject of the famous Rothko Case.

In early November, 2005, Rothko's 1953 oil on canvas painting, Homage to Matisse, broke the record selling price of any post-war painting at a public auction at U.S. $22.5 million dollars.

In May 2007 Rothko's 1950 painting White Centre (Yellow, Pink and Lavender on Rose), broke this record again, selling at $72.8 million dollars at Sotheby's New York. The painting was sold by philanthropist David Rockefeller, who attended the auction.

A previously unpublished manuscript by Rothko about his philosophies on art, entitled The Artist's Reality, has been edited by his son, Christopher Rothko, and was published by Yale University Press in 2006.

Rothko Chapel inspired Morton Feldman's 1971 musical composition of the same name and Peter Gabriel's 1992 song "Fourteen Black Paintings."

A song commemorating Mark Rothko was penned by Dar Williams for her album, The Honesty Room. It is appropriately titled "The Mark Rothko Song."


  • "I am not an abstract painter. 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."
  • "The role of the artist, of course, has always been that of image-maker. Different times require different images. Today when our aspirations have been reduced to a desperate attempt to escape from evil, and times are out of joint, our obsessive, subterranean and pictographic images are the expression of the neurosis which is our reality. To my mind certain so-called abstraction is not abstraction at all. On the contrary, it is the realism of our time. "
  • "Certain people always say we should go back to nature. I notice they never say we should go forward to nature."
  • "Pictures must be miraculous."
  • "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."
  • "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."
  • "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 colour relationships then you miss the point."
  • In the June 13, 1943 edition of the New York Times, Rothko, together with Adolph Gottlieb and Barnett Newman, published the following brief manifesto:
"1. To us art is an adventure into an unknown world, which can be explored only by those willing to take the risks.
"2. This world of imagination is fancy-free and violently opposed to common sense.
"3. It is our function as artists to make the spectator see the world our way not his way.
"4. We favour the simple expression of the complex thought. We are for the large shape because it has the impact of the unequivocal. We wish to reassert the picture plane. We are for flat forms because they destroy illusion and reveal truth.
"5. It is a widely accepted notion among painters that it does not matter what one paints as long as it is well painted."
[Rothko said "this is the essence of academicism".]
"There is no such thing as a good painting about nothing.
"We assert that the subject is crucial and only that subject matter is valid which is tragic and timeless. That is why we profess spiritual kinship with primitive and archaic art."
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