Mark Rothko, born Marcus Rothkowitz (September 25, 1903 – February 25, 1970), was a Latvian-born American painter. He is classified as an abstract expressionist, although he himself rejected this label, and even resisted classification as an “abstract painter”.
Mark Rothko (Marcus Rothkowitz, Mark Rotkovich) was born in Dvinsk, Vitebsk Province, Russian Empire (now Daugavpils, Latvia). His father, Jacob Rothkowitz, 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 Dvinsk had been spared from violent outbreaks of anti-Semitic pogroms. However, in an environment where Jews were often blamed for many of the evils that befell Russia, Rothko’s early childhood was plagued with fear.
Despite Jacob Rothkowitz’s modest income, the family was highly educated, and able to speak Russian, Yiddish and Hebrew. Rothko was forced to learn English and go to work when he was very young, resulting in a lingering sense of bitterness over his lost childhood. He graduated early from Lincoln High School, showing more interest in music than visual art. He was awarded a scholarship to Yale University, but soon found the environment at Yale conservative and exclusionary; he left without graduating in 1923.
After leaving Yale, Rothko made his way to New York City, as he put it, “to bum about and starve a bit.” Over the next few years, he took odd jobs while enrolled in Max Weber’s still life and figure drawing classes at the Art Students League, which constituted his only artistic training. Rothko’s early paintings were mostly portraits, nudes, and urban scenes. After a brief stint in the theater on a return visit to Portland, Rothko was chosen to participate in a 1928 group show with Lou Harris and Milton Avery at the Opportunity Gallery. This was a coup for a young immigrant who had dropped out of college and had only begun painting three years earlier.
His role as an art teacher, which he began in 1929, at Brooklyn’s Jewish Center, was highly significant in his life and artistic outlook. He enjoyed the children and their art, and believed that it was critical to study their uncensored creative process; the primacy of self-expression was solidified as one of his basic philosophical tenets. When given his first solo exhibition at The Portland Museum in 1933, Rothko exhibited watercolors and drawings alongside some of the children’s art from the Academy. The following year he had his first solo exhibition in New York at the Contemporary Arts Gallery.
By the mid-1930s, the effects of the Great Depression were being felt throughout American society, and Rothko had become concerned with the social and political implications of mass unemployment. This encouraged him to attend meetings of the leftist Artists’ Union. Here, amongst other issues, he and many other artists fought for a municipal gallery, which was eventually granted. Working in the Easel Division of the Works Progress Administration, Rothko met many other artists, yet he felt most at ease with a group that consisted mainly of other Russian Jewish painters. This group, which included such figures as Adolph Gottlieb, Joseph Solman and John Graham, showed together at Gallery Secession in 1934, and became known as “The Ten”. In 1936, The Ten: Whitney Dissenters showed at the Mercury Galleries, opening just three days after the Whitney show they were protesting.
His painting in the 1930s, influenced by Expressionism, was typified by claustrophobic, urban scenes rendered often in acidic colors (such as Entrance to Subway (1938)). However, in the 1940s, he began to be influenced by Surrealism, and abandoned Expressionism for more abstract imagery which spliced human, plant and animal forms. These he likened to archaic symbols, which he felt might transmit the emotions locked in ancient myths. Rothko came to see mankind as locked in a mythic struggle with his free will and nature. In 1939, he briefly stopped painting altogether to read mythology and philosophy, finding particular resonance in Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy. He ceased to be interested in representational likeness and became fascinated with the articulation of interior expression.
Throughout this time Rothko’s personal life was shadowed by his severe depression, and likely an undiagnosed bipolar disorder. In 1932, he married jewelery designer Edith Sachar, but divorced her in 1945 to marry Mary Alice Beistel, with whom he would have two children.
While Rothko tends to be grouped with Newman and Still as one of the three chief inspirers of color-field painting, Rothko’s works saw many abrupt and clearly defined stylistic shifts. The decisive shift came in the late 1940s, when he began creating the prototypes for his best-known works. They have since come to be called his “multi-forms”: figures are banished entirely, and the compositions are dominated by multiple soft-edged blocks of colors which seem to float in space. Rothko wanted to remove all obstacles between the painter, the painting and the viewer. The method he settled on used shimmering color to swamp the viewer’s visual field. His paintings were meant to entirely envelop the viewer and raise the viewer up and out of the mechanized, commercial society over which artists like Rothko despaired. In 1949, Rothko radically reduced the number of forms in his pictures, and grew them such that they filled out the canvas, hovering on fields of stained color that are only visible at their borders. These, his best known works, have come to be called his “sectionals”, and Rothko felt they better met his desire to create universal symbols of human yearning. His paintings were not self-expressions, he claimed, but statements about the condition of man.
Rothko would continue to work on the “sectionals” until the end of his life. They are considered to be rather enigmatic, as they are formally at odds with their intent. Rothko himself stated that his style changes were motivated by the growing clarification of his content. The all-over compositions, the blurred boundaries, the continuousness of color, and the wholeness of form were all elements of his development towards a transcendental experience of the sublime, Rothko’s goal. “The progression of a painter’s work, as it travels in time from point to point, will be toward clarity,” he stated, “toward the elimination of all obstacles between the painter and the idea, and between the idea and the observer.”
Rothko garnered many honors in the course of his career, including being invited to be one of the U.S. representatives at the Venice Biennale in 1958. Yet acclaim never seemed to sooth Rothko’s embattled spirit, and he came to be known as an abrasive and combative character. When he was given an award by the Guggenheim Foundation, he refused it as a protest against the idea that art should be competitive. He was always confident and forthright in his beliefs: “I am not an Abstractionist,” he once said. He distanced himself from the classification of his work as “non-objective color-filled painting.” Instead he stressed that his paintings were based on human emotions of “tragedy, ecstasy, doom.” He claimed that art was not about the perception of formal relationships, but was understandable in terms of human life. He also denied being a colorist – despite the fact that color was of primary importance to his paintings.
Rothko often stood up for his beliefs, even they cost him dearly. In what was surely a self-defeating act of retaliation, he refused a 1953 offer by the Whitney to purchase two of his paintings because of, “a deep sense of responsibility for the life my pictures will lead out in the world.” Another pivotal project which would end unhappily was the series of murals he completed for the Seagram Building in 1958. Initially, the idea of incorporating his work within an architectural environment appealed to him, since he had great admiration for the chapels of Michelangelo and Vasari. He spent two years making three series of paintings for this building, but was not pleased with the first two sets; then he became dissatisfied with the idea that his paintings were to be hung in the opulent Four Seasons restaurant. Characteristically, Rothko’s social ideals led him to quit the commission, as he could not reconcile his personal vision or his integrity as an artist with the ostentatious environment.
In 1964, Rothko received a large commission from major Houston art collectors and philanthropists, John and Dominique de Menil
. He was to create large wall murals for a non-denominational chapel they were sponsoring on the campus of St. Thomas Catholic University where Dominique was the head of the Art Department. He generated fourteen paintings while working closely with a series of architects to construct a meditative environment with a dark palette. The Rothko Chapel
has since been the setting for international meetings of some of the world’s great religious leaders, like the Dalai Lama.
In 1968, Rothko suffered an aortic aneurysm and spent three weeks in a hospital. This brush with death would shadow him for the rest of his life. He became resentful that his work was not being paid the proper respect and reverence he felt it deserved. He also began to worry that his art would have no major legacy, and this led him to work on his last major series, Black on Grays , which included twenty-five canvases and marked a clear deviation from his previous work.
However, work failed to buoy up his spirits, and at the age of 66, Rothko committed suicide by taking an overdose of anti-depressant and slashing his arms with a razor blade. On the morning of February 25, 1970, his assistant, Oliver Steindecker, arrived at the East 69th Street studio to find him on the floor of the bathroom, covered in blood. Many of his friends were not entirely surprised that he took his own life, saying that he had lost his passion and inspiration. Some suggested that like others who had died before of an internal struggle, such as Arshile Gorky, Rothko had submitted to the tortured artist’s ritual of self-annihilation.
In the aftermath of his death, three of his best friends were appointed trustees of his estate, and they secretly transferred control of some eight-hundred paintings to the Marlborough Gallery, which had been representing Rothko for several years, at a fraction of their market value. Rothko’s daughter, Kate, took the men and the gallery to court in what became a notoriously messy and protracted dispute. During the lengthy court battle, the sometimes illegal and unethical dealings of the art world were publicly exposed for the first time. Time critic Robert Hughes cited the “Rothko case” as what essentially brought about what he called the “death of Abstract Expressionism”. Ultimately, the Rothko children won the case and received half of the estate. The Rothko Foundation then donated the rest of the works to museums in the United States and abroad.
Painting consumed Rothko’s life, and although he did not receive the attention he felt his work deserved in his own lifetime, his fame has increased dramatically in the years following his death. At odds with the more formally rigorous artists among the Abstract Expressionists, Rothko nevertheless explored the compositional potential of color and form on the human psyche. To stand in front of a Rothko is to be in the presence of the pulsing vibrancy of his enormous canvases; it is to feel, if only momentarily, something of the sublime spirituality he relentlessly sought to evoke. Rigidly uncompromising, Rothko refused to bend to the more distasteful aspects of the art world, a position upheld by his children who did nothing less than alter the entire state of the art market in their fierce protection of his life and work.