One of the preeminent artists of his generation, Mark 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 new and impassioned form of abstract painting.
Rothko's work is characterized by rigorous attention to formal elements such as color, shape, balance, depth, composition, and scale; yet he refused to consider his paintings solely in these terms. He explained:
“It is a widely accepted notion among painters that it does not matter what one paints as long as it is well painted. This is the essence of academicism. There is no such thing as good painting about nothing.”
By 1949, Rothko had introduced a compositional format that he would continue to develop throughout his career. Comprised of several vertically-aligned rectangular forms set within a colored field, Rothko's “image” lent itself to a remarkable diversity of appearances.
In these works, large scale, open structure and thin layers of color combine to convey the impression of a shallow pictorial space. Color, for which Rothko's work is perhaps most celebrated, here attains an unprecedented luminosity.
His classic paintings of the 1950s are characterized by expanding dimensions and an increasingly simplified use of form, brilliant hues, and broad, thin washes of color. In his large floating rectangles of color, which seem to engulf the spectator, he explored with a rare mastery of nuance the expressive potential of color contrasts and modulations.
Alternately radiant and dark, Rothko's art is distinguished by a rare degree of sustained concentration on pure pictorial properties such as color, surface, proportion, and scale, accompanied by the conviction that those elements could disclose the presence of a high philosophical truth. Visual elements such as luminosity, darkness, broad space, and the contrast of colors have been linked, by the artist himself as well as other commentators, to profound themes such as tragedy, ecstasy, and the sublime. Rothko, however, generally avoided explaining the content of his work, believing that the abstract image could directly represent the fundamental nature of “human drama.”
Mark Rothko was born Marcus Rothkowitz in Dvinsk, Russia (today Daugavpils, Latvia) in 1903. He was the fourth child of Jacob Rothkowitz, a pharmacist (b. 1859), and Anna Goldin Rothkowitz (b. 1870), who had married in 1886. Rothko and his family immigrated to the United States when he was ten years old, and settled in Portland, Oregon.
Rothko attended Yale University in 1921, where he studied English, French, European history, elementary mathematics, physics, biology, economics, the history of philosophy, and general psychology. His initial intention was to become an engineer or an attorney. Rothko gave up his studies in the fall of 1923 and moved to New York City to, he said later, “wander around, bum about, and starve a bit.”
In New York, Rothko attended classes at the Art Students League, briefly studying under Max Weber, who encouraged him to work in a figurative style reminiscent of Cézanne.
In the late 1920s, he met the modernist painter Milton Avery, whose simplified and colorful depictions of domestic subjects had a profound influence on Rothko's early development, particularly his application of paint and treatment of color. Avery's home became a meeting place for artists, who attended weekly life drawing sessions there. Bernard Karfiol, an instructor at the Art Students League, included Avery and Rothko in Group Exhibition: Artists Selected by Bernard Karfiol,at the Opportunity Gallery in 1928.
In 1929, Rothko began teaching children at the Center Academy of the Brooklyn Jewish Center, a position he retained for more than twenty years. In the 1930s, Rothko painted mostly street scenes and interiors with figures. Rejecting conventional modes of representation, he stressed an emotional approach to the subject – an approach he admired in children's art – and adopted a style characterized by deliberate deformations and a crude application of paint.
Rothko was given his first one-person exhibition in 1933 at the Museum of Art in Portland, Oregon, and a few months later at the Contemporary Arts Gallery in New York. The latter exhibition included landscapes, nudes, portraits, and city scenes.
At the end of 1934, Rothko participated in an exhibition at the Gallery Secession, whose members included Louis Harris, Adolph Gottlieb, Ilya Bolotowsky, and Joseph Solman; several months later these artists formed their own group, the Ten, which exhibited together eight times between 1935 and 1939. Rothko's paintings in the Ten's exhibitions were expressionist in style. During this period he worked in the easel division of the WPA (Works Progress Administration), a federally-sponsored arts project.
He produced a number of haunting images of the New York subway, in which windows, portals, and walls serve as structural and expressive devices of confinement. Rothko shows the subway as a measured yet eccentric place, containing a dramatic contrast of perspectival extremes: walls and railings are represented as flat screens, while tracks recede sharply. Figures can be identified by anecdotal details of dress as commuters, shoppers, or schoolchildren, but they are largely attenuated, faceless, and flat.
Ultimately, Rothko's characters are remote ciphers that establish scale. As such, they possess a haunted air, as if existing solely to inhabit the border that separates real and pictorial space.
Rothko's street scenes and subway pictures of the 1930s have been compared to examples of Ashcan School and Depression-era realist painting, but this resemblance is likely based on the perception of a shared urban motif. Rather than providing a "realistic" portrayal of the city life, Rothko seems far more interested in conveying the perceptual experience of architectural space, using abstract compositional arrangements to explore the relationship between the painting and its viewer, an element that would play a critical role in the artist's later works.
During the 1940s, Rothko's imagery became increasingly symbolic. In the social climate of anxiety that dominated the late 1930s and the years of World War II, images from everyday life – however unnaturalistic – began to appear somewhat outmoded. If art were to express the tragedy of the human condition, Rothko felt, new subjects and a new idiom had to be found. He said, "It was with the utmost reluctance that I found the figure could not serve my purposes....But a time came when none of us could use the figure without mutilating it.”
In a 1943 letter to the New York Times, written with Adolph Gottlieband Barnett Newman, Rothko said, “It is a widely accepted notion among painters that it does not matter what one paints, as long as it is well-painted. 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 a spiritual kinship with primitive and archaic art.” Sacrifice of Iphigenia (1942) exemplifies Rothko's interest in classical literature. Describing another painting also inspired by the writings of Aeschylus, Rothko explained: “The picture deals not with the particular anecdote, but rather with the Spirit of Myth, which is generic to all myths at all times.”
The Old and New Testaments also became a rich source of inspiration, as seen in Gethsemane. The title refers to the garden near Jerusalem that was the scene of the agony and betrayal of Christ.
In a radio broadcast Rothko responded thoughtfully to the question:
“Are not these pictures really abstract paintings with literary titles? If our titles recall the known myths of antiquity, we have used them again because they are the eternal symbols upon which we must fall back to express basic psychological ideas. They are the symbols of man's primitive fears and motivations, no matter in which land or what time, changing only in detail but never in substance .. Our presentation of these myths, however, must be in our own terms which are at once more primitive and more modern than the myths themselves – more primitive because we seek the primeval and atavistic roots of the ideas rather than their graceful classical version; more modern than the myths themselves because we must redescribe their implications through our own experience .. The myth holds us, therefore, not through its romantic flavor, not the remembrance of beauty of some bygone age, not through the possibilities of fantasy, but because it expresses to us something real and existing in ourselves, as it was to those who first stumbled upon the symbols to give them life.”
Some works are composed in horizontal bands, which have been said to represent geological strata – possibly a metaphor for the unconscious.
Devoted to themes of myth, prophecy, archaic ritual, and the unconscious mind, Rothko's paintings of the mid-1940s are characterized by a biomorphic style stimulated by the example of the surrealists, several of whom had recently immigrated to New York from war-torn Europe.
Inspired by the surrealist technique of automatic writing – letting the brush meander without conscious control in an attempt to release the creative forces of the unconscious – Rothko loosened up his technique and developed a more abstract imagery. In remarkably free watercolors of the mid-1940s, related to the art of the surrealists Joan Miró, André Masson, as well as Arshile Gorky, Rothko explored the fluidity of the medium to evoke a vision of primeval life.
Biomorphic forms dance before a background of horizontal bands that resemble the layers of a submarine universe. Luminous and transparent, Rothko's watercolors of this period mark a turning point in his career.
The artist soon achieved similar effects in his oil paintings by diluting his pigments and applying paint in very thin, overlapping glazes.
The rectangular strata that serve as a backdrop for the amoeba-like shapes also anticipate the structural components and pictorial spaces of Rothko's later work.
In their manifesto in the New York Times Rothko and Gottlieb had written: “We favor 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.” By 1947, Rothko had virtually eliminated all elements of surrealism or mythic imagery from his works, and nonobjective compositions of indeterminate shapes emerged.
Figurative associations and references to the natural world disappeared from Rothko's paintings of the late 1940s. Linear elements were progressively eliminated as asymmetrically arranged patches of color became the basis of his compositions. The paintings of 1947-1949 are sometimes referred to as multiforms to distinguish them from the more distilled compositions that follow. Certain multiforms retain the play of figure, line, and ground that Rothko employed in his works on paper from 1944-1946, and various textural effects are directly related to his experiments in watercolor and gouache.
In these multiforms the liquid paint soaks the canvas, leaving soft, indistinct edges, while whitish outlines surround some of the shapes like haloes. Rothko now relied on these shapes, which replaced the earlier biomorphic motifs, to convey emotional states. Throughout this series the artist's work reveals a greater breadth of both composition and scale and a heightened attention to color. At this point Rothko began to paint the edges of his stretched canvases, which he displayed without confining frames.
For him, eschewing representation permitted greater clarity, “the elimination of all obstacles between the painter and the idea and between the idea and the observer.” As examples of such obstacles, Rothko gave “memory, history, or geometry, which are swamps of generalization from which one might pull out parodies of ideas (which are ghosts) but never an idea in itself. To achieve this clarity is, inevitably, to be understood.”
During the late 1940s, Rothko described the conception of a painting in which “shapes”– or “performers”– first emerge as “an unknown adventure in an unknown space.” In the journal Possibilities he explained that these “shapes have no direct association with any particular visible experience, but in them, one recognizes the principle and passion of organisms.” He later wrote: “.. art to me is an anecdote of the spirit, and the only means of making concrete the purpose of its varied quickness and stillness.”
Like many New York artists of his generation, Rothko struggled with categorical distinctions between abstraction and representation and his ambition to invest nonfigurative art with transcendent content that would rival the elemental role of myth and ritual in archaic culture. In this regard, “unknown” pictorial space describes a realm that somehow surpasses two dimensions while avoiding the illusive three-dimensional space of conventional representation.
Rothko largely abandoned conventional titles in 1947, sometimes resorting to numbers or colors in order to distinguish one work from another. The artist also now resisted explaining the meaning of his work. “Silence is so accurate,” he said, fearing that words would only paralyze the viewer's mind and imagination.
By 1950 Rothko had reduced the number of floating rectangles to two, three, or four and aligned them vertically against a colored ground, arriving at his signature style.
From that time on he would work almost invariably within this format, suggesting in numerous variations of color and tone an astonishing range of atmospheres and moods.
Now applied in thin washes (often composed of both oil and egg-based media), Rothko's color achieved a new luminosity. The artist's technique appears simple, but on close examination is richly varied in its range of effects. At times, paint can be seen running upward across the surface; this is because Rothko often inverted a picture while working on it, sometimes changing the final orientation at a late stage.
In these paintings, color and structure are inseparable: the forms themselves consist of color alone, and their translucency establishes a layered depth that complements and vastly enriches the vertical architecture of the composition. Variations in saturation and tone as well as hue evoke an elusive yet almost palpable realm of shallow space. Color, structure, and space combine to create a unique presence. In this respect, Rothko stated that the large scale of these canvases was intended to contain or envelop the viewer – not to be "grandiose," but "intimate and human.”
In 1954, Rothko asked that his largest pictures be installed “so that they must be first encountered at close quarters, so that the first experience is to be within the picture.” He said:
“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; and have been painted in a scale of normal living rather than an institutional scale. I have on occasion successfully dealt with this problem by tending to crowd the show rather than making it spare. By saturating the room with the feeling of the work, the walls are defeated and the poignancy of each single work .. become[s] more visible.
“I also hang the largest pictures so that they must be first encountered at close quarters, so that the first experience is to be within the picture. This may well give the key to the observer of the ideal relationship between himself and the rest of the pictures. I also hang the pictures low rather than high, and particularly in the case of the largest ones, often as close to the floor as is feasible, for that is the way they are painted. And last, it may be worthwhile trying to hang something beyond the partial wall because some of the pictures do very well in a confined space.”
Through his pursuit of a deeply original pictorial language, Rothko maintained a commitment to profound content. Although he rarely specified a precise interpretation for these works, he believed in their potential for metaphysical or symbolic meaning. In a lecture at the Pratt Institute, Rothko told the audience that “small pictures since the Renaissance are like novels; large pictures are like dramas in which one participates in a direct way.”
Rothko's work began to darken dramatically during the late 1950s. This development is related to his work on a mural commission for the Four Seasons restaurant, located in the Seagram Building in New York City. Here Rothko turned to a palette of red, maroon, brown, and black. The artist eventually withdrew from this project, due to misgivings about the restaurant as a proper setting for his work. He had, however, already produced a number of studies and finished canvases, two of which are included in the present installation. In the Seagram panels, Rothko changed his motif from a closed to an open form, suggesting a threshold or portal. This element may have been related to the architectural setting for which these works were intended.
With some exceptions, the darkened palette continued to dominate Rothko's work well into the 1960s. He developed a painstaking technique of overlaying colors until, in the words of art historian Dore Ashton, "his surfaces were velvety as poems of the night.”
His work on the Rothko Chapel paintings, originally commissioned by John and Dominique de Menil for the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas, occupied Rothko between 1964 and 1967. In turning away from the radiance of the previous decade, Rothko heightened the perceptual subtlety of his paintings, making distinctions between shape and ground more difficult to discern. He also transformed the impact his canvases have on the experience of space, which is now characterized by a sensation of enclosure. This quality, which lends itself to meditation, can be clearly related to the spiritual nature of a chapel.
Rothko's reading of Nietzsche, the 19th-century German philosopher, suggests that his work could represent the opposition between a rational or abstract element and an emotional, primal, or tragic one (referring to Nietzsche's discussion of the polarity between an Apollonian and a Dionysian principle). Certain qualities such as radiance or the duality of light and dark have a symbolic meaning in Western culture from which Rothko clearly drew. An impression of vast space is said to represent the historical concept of the "sublime," a quasi-religious experience of limitless immensity. The installation of these canvases also produces its own sacrosanct environment.
At different times during the 1950s and 1960s, Rothko produced a substantial quantity of small works on paper. It is not certain whether these are studies for larger paintings or simply smaller variations employing a similar dynamic of form and color. Rothko had many of them mounted on panel, canvas, or board in order to simulate the presence of unframed canvases. The smaller format especially suited Rothko in 1968, when his physical activity was dramatically curtailed by a heart ailment. Rothko continued to work predominantly on paper even after he returned to a relatively large format in 1969.
In a series of brown or black and gray paintings produced from 1969-1970, Rothko divided the composition horizontally and framed the image with a white margin (created by masking the edges of the paper or canvas with tape that was later removed to expose the bare support). The serene dark zone stands out against the turbulent brushwork of the gray section, an area further modulated by the addition of ochre or blue. The sharply defined edge establishes a complex interplay between the work and the viewer, who is drawn into the painting by its sensuous surface, yet kept at a distance by the stark framing device.
In another series from this period, Rothko used a softer range of pink and blue for compositions that sometimes recall smaller works from the mid-1940s. A certain ascetic quality suggests that Rothko had embarked on a new direction, one which may have been related to the reductive work of younger artists at that time. Unlike the minimalists, however, Rothko never abandoned his conviction in the ability of abstract art to be experienced in emotionally expressive terms.
Physically ill and suffering from depression, Rothko committed suicide in his Upper East Side studio on February 25, 1970. At the time of his death, he was widely recognized in Europe and America for his crucial role in the development of nonrepresentational art. His vibrant, disembodied veils of color asserted the power of nonobjective painting to convey strong emotional or spiritual content. With an unwavering commitment to a singular artistic vision, Rothko celebrated the near mythic power art holds over the creative imagination.
The National Gallery of Art, Washington DC