Mark Rothko

Mark Rothko

A Russian born painter and a muralist, Mark Rothko pioneered the so-called Abstract Expressionism in the United States of America, though he never labeled himself as such. He referred to be classified as an artist of color, whose intention was to tug into the negative human emotions (e.g. tragedy, hate, doom, etc.) through painting. His career began to blossom after the Second World War together with his fellow abstractionists Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock.

In the beginning, Mark Rothko had never thought of becoming an independent artist for he wanted a job that would lift up his family from their financial problems. His family was an immigrant in the US after escaping WWII, particularly to avoid being enlisted into the Russian military. Shortly after the Rothko’s arrived in the US, the patriarch died and left all of them with no income. The young Mark had to commit to a working-student status to be able to support his own education. Only when he saw some members of the Art Students League of New York in 1923 did he wanted to become an artist.

And thus, Rothko pursued a career with a promising talent and potential. At first his styles may have varied because of absorbing different style influences from various artists he was introduced to in New York and during his travels around Europe. He started painting small-scale paintings, shifted to large-scale ones as required by his commissioners, and then went back to painting smaller works of art as he was limited by his aorta aneurism.

After experimenting with different styles, Rothko was finally able to find his artist voice, something he can call his own in the 1950’s. His motif is made of rectangles with soft edges and he used two dimensional field of depth on a stained coloring. In most cases, his subjects were either derived from philosophy or mythology as he was a fan of political discussions and social revolution. He advocated every person’s right to self-expression conveyed through his critical papers and essays besides his paintings. Examples of Mark Rothko’s most relevant art works are as follows:

  • No.3/No.13 – Magenta, Black, Green on Orange (1949)
  • Rust and Blue (1953)
  • Four Darks in Red (1958)
  • Seagram Murals for Four Seasons Restaurant (1958)
  • Black on Grey (1970)

Early Life

Mark Rothko was born Marcus Takovlevich Rothkowitz in September 25, 1903 in Dvinski, Vitebsk Governorate of the Russian Empire. This town is also known today as Daugavpils in Latvia, where the artist had a memorial erected to honor his artistic contributions to the world. He was born to a well-off family of intellectuals, in which his father Jacob Rothkowitz was a pharmacist.

The Rothkowitz was of Russian-Jewish origin, and growing up in an anti-Jew environment such as Russia had exposed the young painter to the significant political and social issues of his time. However, as a child back then, he could not do anything but feel fear for his life and of his family. Despite having these kinds of threat, Mark was still able to attend school where he learned how to speak and write in multiple languages such as Hebrew, Russian and Yiddish. His father decided to re-commit himself to Orthodox Judaism which forced his son to be subjected under the tutelage of the cheder. There he learned of Talmud while his other siblings remained attending a public school.

Arriving in the US

Just as when the Imperial Russian Army started recruiting servicemen to enlist into the troop, Jacob Rothkowitz fled to the US and left Mark with his sister Sonia and mother in their home town. They then joined their father who was staying in Portland, OR in 1913. However, Jacob died just a couple of months after which resulted to the family suffering from an impoverished state.

Mark Rothko worked as a newspaper delivery boy to the employees of his uncle’s business. He then enrolled at Lincoln High School in 1913, from which he graduated with flying colors. In this school he acquired a strong command of the English language and joined the Jewish community center, becoming one of its active members. His participation in the community helped him become adept at political debates with issues revolving around women’s rights to have access to contraception and employees’ rights.

Early Training

After High School, Mark Rothko qualified for a scholarship at Yale University. But after his first year his failed to secure his scholarship which obliged him to work as a waiter to continue his education. After a while he discovered how elitist and racist Yale had been to him and to other people. As a result, he founded The Yale Saturday Evening Pest together with Aaron Director with a goal to express their satirical take on the Yale campus life and community.

A few months later at Yale, Rothko dropped out of the second semester and transferred to the New York School of Design. Around 1923, Arshile Gorky became one of his art instructors, who had a reputation for always taking a dominant role in his job and strict. Despite this, the instructor became Rothko’s central figure of influence on his early works. And then, autumn of the same year, Max Weber became his mentor.

Rothko found a kindred spirit in Weber for the mentor was a fellow Russian, French avant-garde and Jew. The avant-garde artist taught him about modern art and how to use art as a vehicle for self-expression whether it may be secular or emotional. And little did Weber know that his former student would become one of the most famous painters in the US, for whom he attended an art show years later.

Early Career

As Mark Rothko study in New York, he also took chance at finding employment opportunities with a number of museums and galleries, in which he exhibited his earlier works. This helped him build his fundamental skills and knowledge on art, particularly German Expressionism. His sources of influences at the time included Georges Rouault and Paul Klee. Therefore, several of his early works were characterized by their dark and gloomy expressions of interior and urban scenes.

In 1929, Rothko was employed by the Center Academy to teach clay sculpture and easel painting to art students. He was absorbed by a group of artists which involved John Graham, Adolph Gottlieb, Milton Avery, and Barnett Newman. It was Avery who convinced the emerging painter that becoming a full-time artist is a plausible means to earning a considerable amount of income aside from the creative satisfaction that an artist could get from doing it.

Thereafter, Rothko produced a number of paintings with subjects similar to Avery’s Beach Scene and Bathers. He became good friends with his contemporaries and altogether spent the summers at Gloucester, Massachusetts and Lake George. While on vacation they discussed about art and painting. In 1932 he met Edith Sachar in Lake George and the two felt romantic interest for each other upon meeting. Sachar was a jewelry designer, so she was an established business woman herself, and they got married in the fall of that same year.

Development of Mark Rothko’s Abstract Art

Throughout the 1930’s, Rothko had been touring New York to present his art shows. His reputation started to grow significantly and he was recognized by the Artists’ Union was a promising artist of his generation. In 1937 he participated in a group show together with Soloman and Gottlieb. The shows were organized by the Artists’ Union, most of which went successful. In a remark made by one critic said that Rothko’s paintings “display(ed) authentic coloristic values”.

In 1936, Mark Rothko became interested in writing his own book which was supposed to compare and contrast the art of modern painters and children. However, the book was never finished. The premise was that modernists tend to derive their artistic inspirations from primitive art while children, when doing art, helps them transform themselves into primitivism. Rothko then adds “the art of children produces a mimicry of himself”.

This belief has transformed Rothko’s style from representation of mythology and religion to the fields of stained color and light, which was usually painted with rectangular forms. For many critics, it is a form of abstraction which was the result of how anxious and dark life had become for many people who survived the Great Depression and WWII. It is also said that the pessimism of Friedrich Nietzsche may have an influence on Rothko since he had been reading a lot of the philosopher’s work during his younger and adult years.

In 1946, Mark Rothko developed multiform paintings, which he would become well-known for in the next decades to come. The style is viewed as the combination of Abstract Art and Surrealism. It is characterized by its rectangular forms, splashes of color, and with the absences of any human figure in the painting. Come 1950’s this style had developed into Rothko’s signature abstract expressionism or also known as “color field painting”. He used oils as a tool to work on large-scale canvases because he wanted his audience to feel connected with the painting by being a part of it.

Rothko created a series of multiform paintings which included the most famous Untitled and No. 18 of 1948. These works represent how art can be its own life force despite not having any human form in it or landscape. They are supposed to contain different kinds of human emotions represented by colors that give life to it. At some point in the 1950’s, he met Clyfford Still and found his abstract art far more interesting than the others. He particularly liked Still’s landscapes depicting the views of North Dakota.

In 1947, the Russian born painter accepted a teaching job at the California School of Fine Art, for which he wanted to write its own curriculum. The idea was fully realized in New York, though, naming it The Subjects of the Artists School. The said school became an activity center for all things contemporary art while Rothko continued writing critical papers such as Possibilities and Tiger’s Eye. This shaped his own philosophy on art which points out the possibility of eliminating figurative elements from painting. He also discussed his take on the argument presented by Wolfgang Paalen via his Form and Sense (1945) publication.

Later Years

Soon after Mark Rothko’s multiform art became an established style in the early 1950’s, he held his own art exhibition for it at the Betty Parsons Gallery. The paintings were a culmination of the artist’s years of isolation in his home in East Hampton just to develop his signature style. The painting session had been very private to a few persons only which included Rosenberg.

Art historians believe that the conception of multiform art was inspired by the death of Rothko’s mother in 1948. The rectangular forms and the colors used were supposed to mean the emotions he felt over her death. The paintings consisted of rectangular blocks painted in two to three contrasting yet complementary colors. His color palette seemed vibrant and luminescent, especially every time he uses yellows and reds. In 1957, he shifted to using darker color palette such as blue, gray, brown, and black. The application of paint became layers of thin paint over one another which allowed the darker colors to glow through. As a result, this affects an increased level of drama and emotional vibrations.

During the 1960’s, Pop Art was increasingly becoming the dominating art movement which in effect made Abstract Expressionism out of fashion. Pop artists like Roy Lichtenstein and A. Warhol became the sought-after artists at the time, and Rothko couldn’t help but comment on their success as “charlatans and young opportunists”. However, in 1964, Rothko had managed to secure a secular commission. He was to decorate the chapel of the St. Thomas Catholic University – Houston, though he died just before the final paintings were to be installed.


Mark Rothko committed suicide on February 25, 1970 at the age of 66. His friend found him lying dead on his kitchen floor in New York. Before his death, he had been diagnosed with mild aortic aneurism but chose to ignore the complications of smoking and drinking heavily. Not only did his deteriorating health became a factor to him being unable to finish some of his remaining works but it had also affected his marriage with Mell. This eventually led to a separation on NYE of 1969 and the artist was left to live alone in his studio in NY.

One year later, Oliver Steindecker found Rothko dead on the floor covered in blood after cutting his arms with a razor. A post mortem analysis also suggests that the painter overdosed himself with anti-depressants. And on the day of his death, the complete Seagram Murals was made available on display at the Tate Gallery in London.