Mark Rothko


Mark Rotko (September 25, 1903, Dvinsk, Vitebsk Province, now Daugavpils, Latvia – February 25, 1970, New York) – American artist, a leading representative of Abstract Expressionism, one of the creators of the color field painting.

Origins and Childhood (1903-1912)

He was born on September 25, 1903 in Dvinsk into a Jewish family of three children. Both Yiddish and Russian were spoken at home. The head of the family, Yakov (Yankel Benedet Ioselovich) Rotkovich (1859-1914), a native of Michaliszek in Vilna province, worked as a pharmacy assistant first in Vilna, then in Dvinsk where he opened a pharmacy, but despite a modest income, devoted much attention to educating his children. His mother, Chaya Morduhovna Rotkovich (1870-1948), was a housewife. Jacob Rotkovitch had Marxist views and was irreligious, so his older children received a secular education, but then he returned to orthodox Judaism and decided to give his youngest son a religious education. At the age of five, Marcus entered a cheder, where he studied the Pentateuch and the Hebrew language.

Emigration and Study in the United States (1913-1923)

The head of the family, fearing that his children would be taken away to serve in the Czarist army and following the example of many Jewish families who had fled the pogroms in the United States, decided in 1910 to emigrate from the country. Two of his brothers had already left for America and settled in Portland, Oregon, where they took up clothing manufacturing. The family split up: Marcus with his mother and older sister Sonia (1890-1985) stayed in Russia for the time being, while Jacob and his two children, Moishe and Abel (later Albert), emigrated in the same year of 1910.

On August 5, 1913, the steamship Tsar left Libava and arrived in New York City on August 17. Among the second-class passengers was Marcus with his sister Sonia and mother. They lived with relatives (the Weinsteins) in New Haven for the first ten days, later making their way to Portland by train. Seven months later, Marcus”s father died of colorectal cancer and the family was left destitute. The children had to get a job. Sonja, who had trained as a dentist in Russia, became an accountant, and Moishe and Albert helped in the Weinstein family business until they learned enough English to pass the pharmacy exam. During this time Marcus helped his brothers by working as a courier and selling newspapers.

In 1913 Marcus entered the third grade of public school, after which he was transferred directly to the fifth, and at seventeen he graduated with honors from Lincoln High School. Having mastered English (his fourth language), he was active in the local Jewish community, especially in political discussions. Portland was one of the centers of revolutionary activity in the United States at the time, and Mark attended meetings of the city”s particularly strong revolutionary-syndicalist union, the Industrial Workers of the World, where he organized discussions about the 1917 revolution in Russia. He intended to become a union activist, dedicating his life to the labor movement.

In September 1921, in the tradition of the Weinstein family, Marcus enrolled at Yale University, where he studied for the first year on a grant for excellent grades and later worked in a laundry to pay for his studies. At one time, making great strides in mathematics, he seriously considered a career in engineering. At university, Marcus, along with his comrades Aaron Director and Simon Whitney, published a satirical magazine aimed at exposing the vices of the WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant) university society, including elitism and racism.

Either because of financial difficulties or because he found the classes boring, Marcus left the university in 1923. He reappeared only forty-six years later, on the eve of his death, only to receive an honorary doctorate.

Early work

Without a definite idea of what he wanted to do, Marcus moved to New York, rented a room at No. 19 on West 102nd Street, and immediately plunged into the turbulent atmosphere of big-city art life. In the fall of 1923, Rothko, visiting a friend at an art school in New York, saw artists painting a model. As Rothko himself later said, at that moment he was “born as an artist. He began taking lessons from George Bridgeman at the Art Students League of New York. Some time later he enrolled at the New School of Design in New York, where one of the founders of “abstract surrealism,” Arshile Gorky, was among his teachers. Although Rothko studied very little with the artist Max Weber in courses at the Art Students League of New York – from October to December 1925 and from March to May 1926 – he was very influential on Rothko”s early work. It was from then on that he began to see art as an instrument of emotional and religious expression. At that time, the young artist was impressed by the surrealist works of Paul Klee and the painting of Georges Rouault.

In 1928, Rothko and a group of young artists first exhibited their work at Opportunity gallery. His darkly expressive paintings of interiors and urban sketches were well received by critics and colleagues. Despite this modest success, Rothko was still unable to devote himself entirely to his art – he needed to work.

In the late 1920s, Rothko moonlighted, drawing maps for biblical history books by writer Lewis Brown. He moved to 231 East 25th Street and in 1929 became a part-time lecturer in painting and sculpture at the Central Academy of the Brooklyn Jewish Center. There he worked until 1952.

In the early 1930s, Rothko met the artist Adolph Gottlieb, who, along with Barnett Newman, Joseph Solman, Louis Shanker and John Graham, was part of a group of young artists surrounding the artist Milton Avery. According to Hélène de Kooning, it was Avery who “gave Rothko the idea of what was possible.” Avery”s abstract paintings, which employed a profound knowledge of form and color, had a profound influence on Rothko. Rothko”s paintings soon acquired a similar subject matter and color to those of Avery, as seen in “The Bather” or “The Beach Scene, 1933-1934.”

Rothko, Gottlieb, Newman, Solman, Graham, and their mentor Avery spent considerable time together, vacationing in Lake George and Gloucester. They painted during the day and discussed art in the evenings. At Lake George in 1932 Rothko met Edith Sahar, a jewelry designer, whom he married later that year. The following summer he had his first solo exhibition at the Portland Art Museum, featuring drawings and watercolors. Along with his own works, Rothko displayed the work of his teenage students from the Brooklyn Jewish Center Academy.

The artist”s family was against his decision to devote himself to art. During the Great Depression, the Rotkoviches lost a lot; they were surprised by Marcus” indifference and his unwillingness to take a more “promising” and “profitable” job to help his mother.

First solo exhibition in New York

Returning to New York, Rothko held his first solo exhibition on the East Coast at the Gallery of Modern Art (November 21-December 9, 1933). He showed fifteen oil paintings, mostly portraits, as well as some watercolors and drawings. His painting particularly attracted the attention of art critics. Rothko”s use of color fields was already then devoid of Avery”s influence.

Group of ten

In late 1935 Rothko joined Ilya Bolotovsky, Ben-Zion, Adolph Gotlieb, Lou Harris, Ralph Rosenborg, Louis Shanker and Joseph Solman to form the Whitney Ten Dissenters. According to the gallery”s exhibition catalog, the group”s mission was “to protest the identification of American painting as literal.”

Back in 1950 they were considered radicals, and a conservative jury would not accept their paintings for an important exhibition of contemporary art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. They responded with a group photo of the Angry, all with stern faces and not the shadow of a smile. Mark Rothko was especially angry. Rothko”s style had already changed, he was approaching the famous works of his mature period, but despite his interest in exploring color, the artist concentrated on another formal and stylistic innovation, working on surrealistic depictions of mythological stories and symbols. Organic, semi-abstract forms born of his fantasies and dreams were called biomorphic. At this time, Rothko”s authority was growing, especially among the Artists” Union. Founded in 1937, this union, which also included Gottlieb and Solman, aimed to create a municipal art gallery where independent group exhibitions could be held. In 1936 the Artists” Union group held its own exhibition at the Galerie Bonaparte in France.

In 1938, another exhibition was held at the Mercury Gallery. During that period, Rothko, like many artists of the time, began to work for a government organization created to deal with the aftermath of the Great Depression. Artists and architects were hired to restore and renovate public buildings. Many famous artists worked in the service of the state in those days, including Avery, De Kooning, Pollock, Raynard, David Smith, Louis Nevelson, eight artists from the Whitney Dissenting Ten, and Rothko”s teacher Arshile Gorky.

Your own style

In 1936, Rothko began to write a book, which was never finished, about the similar principles of children”s drawing and the work of contemporary artists. According to Rothko, “the fact that artistic work begins with drawing is already an academic approach. We start with color,” the artist wrote, assessing the influence of primitive cultures on the modernists and their mimicry of children”s art. Rothko believed that the modernist, as a child or a person of primitive culture, should in his work perfectly express his inner sense of form without the interference of reason. It should be a physical and emotional experience, but not an intellectual one. Rothko began to use fields of color in his watercolors and urban landscapes, and it was then that the subject and form in his work began to lose meaning. Rothko consciously sought to imitate children”s drawings.

By the early 1950s, he further simplified the structure of his paintings, creating a series of “multiforms” – paintings consisting of several color planes. The artist himself formulated his task as “a simple expression of a complex thought. The works that had already made him famous at that time are large rectangular canvases with the color planes of the “color field” painting floating in space.

At the same time he said: “One should not think of my paintings as abstract. I have no intention of creating or accentuating a formal relationship between color and place. I abandon the natural image only in order to strengthen the expression of the theme contained in the title. But most of his abstract paintings had no title.

Critics consider Rothko”s most significant work to be his cycle of 14 paintings for the ecumenical church chapel in Houston, Texas.

In mid-1937 Mark quarreled with his wife Edith, and although they reconciled a few months later, their relationship remained strained.

In early 1938, Rothko applied for American citizenship, received it on February 21, and calmed down: he had fears that the growing Nazi influence in Europe might provoke a sudden deportation of Jews without American citizenship. For the same reason, and because of concerns about rising anti-Semitism in Europe and America, he shortened his name to “Mark Rothko” in 1940. The name “Roth” was still identifiably Jewish, so he settled on “Rothko.” Since then, all of his works have been signed with this creative pseudonym.

Finding inspiration in mythology

Believing that contemporary American painting had reached a conceptual dead end, Rothko set out to explore themes other than urban and natural landscapes. He was looking for something that could complement his growing interest in form, space and color. The World Wars gave this search a sense of urgency. Rothko insisted that the new subject matter be socially conditioned, but also able to transcend existing political symbols and values. In his 1949 essay, “Subtle Romance,” Rothko argued that “the archaic artist … found it necessary to create a group of intermediaries, monsters, hybrids, gods and demigods” almost as modern man found intermediaries in fascism and the Communist Party. For Rothko, “without monsters and gods, art cannot be dramatic.

Rothko”s use of mythology as a commentary on modern history was not new. Rothko, Gottlieb, and Newman had read and discussed the works of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung. In particular, they were interested in psychoanalytic theories concerning dreams and the archetypes of the collective unconscious. They understood mythological symbols as images operating in a space of human consciousness that transcends specific history and culture. Rothko later said that his artistic approach was “transformed” as a result of his study of the “dramatic themes of myth. He even temporarily stopped painting in 1940 in order to immerse himself fully in the study of mythology: James Frazer”s Golden Bough and Freud”s Interpretations of Dreams.

Nietzsche”s Influence

With his new vision, Rothko tried to satisfy the spiritual and creative needs of modern man in the myth. The most important philosophical influence on Rothko during this period was Friedrich Nietzsche”s book, The Birth of Tragedy. Nietzsche argued that Greek tragedy saved man from the horrors of earthly life. Exploring new themes in contemporary art was no longer Rothko”s goal. From this time on, his art sought to revive the spiritual emptiness of modern man. He believed that this emptiness arose in part because of a lack of mythology, because according to Nietzsche, “the images of myth must be unnoticed by the omnipresent demonic guardians under whose care the young soul grows and matures and whose signs help man interpret his life and struggles. Rothko believed that his art could release the unconscious energy previously released by mythological images, symbols and rituals. He considered himself a “creator of myths” and proclaimed that “the stirring experience of tragedy is the only source of art for me.

In many of his works from this period, in which he uses images drawn mainly from Aeschylus” Oresteia trilogy, barbaric scenes of violence are contrasted with civilized passivity. Rothko”s paintings of the period reflect his fascination with mythology: Antigone, Oedipus, The Sacrifice of Iphigenia, Leda, The Furies, and The Altar of Orpheus. Rothko uses Judeo-Christian imagery in “Gethsemane,” “The Last Supper” and “The Rites of Lilith.” He also refers to Egyptian (“The Room at Karnak”) and Syrian (“The Syrian Bull”) myths. Shortly after World War II, Rothko stopped naming his paintings, designating them only with numbers, as he felt that the title of the work limited the transcendent purpose of his paintings.

“Mythomorphic” Abstractionism

Rothko and Gottlieb”s conception of archaic forms and symbols interpreting modernity can be seen as influenced by Surrealism, Cubism and Abstractism. In 1936 Rothko attended two exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art: “Cubism and Abstract Art” and “Fantastic Art, Dadaism and Surrealism.

In 1942, following the success of exhibitions by Ernst, Miró, Wolfgang Paalen, Tanguy and Salvador Dali, artists who had immigrated to the United States because of the war, Surrealism began to gain popularity in New York. Rothko and his peers, Gottlieb and Newman, discussed the art and ideas of these European surrealist pioneers, as well as those of Mondrian, and concluded that they themselves were heirs to the European avant-garde.

The new paintings were presented at the 1942 exhibition at Macy”s Department Store in New York City. In response to a negative review by The New York Times, Rothko and Gottlieb issued a manifesto, written mainly by Rothko. Addressing the Times critic”s “perplexity” about the new work, they stated, “We stand for the simple expression of complex thought. We are for the big image because it has an unambiguous effect. We want to reassert the flatness of the picture. We are in favor of flat forms because they destroy illusions and reveal truth.” In harsher terms, they criticized those who wanted to live in an environment of art that was not challenging, noting that their work necessarily “must offend anyone who is spiritually attuned to the setting.”

Rothko saw myth as a resource for replenishing an era of spiritual emptiness. This belief originated decades earlier through the work of Carl Jung, T. S. Eliot, James Joyce, and Thomas Mann.

A departure from surrealism

On June 13, 1943, Rothko and Sahar separated again. After the divorce, Rothko suffered a long depression. Thinking that a change of scenery might help him, he returned to Portland and from there went to Berkeley, where he met and befriended the abstractionist painter Clifford Still. Still”s deeply abstract paintings are thought to have had a significant influence on Rothko”s later work. In the fall of 1943 Rothko returned to New York. He met the famous collector and art dealer Peggy Guggenheim, who at first was not ready to take his work. At the end of 1945, Rothko”s solo exhibition at the Guggenheim Gallery, The Art of this Century, was not very successful: small sales, with prices for paintings ranging from $150 to $750, and negative reviews from critics. During this period, Rothko, who was influenced by Still, moved away from Surrealism. Rothko”s experiments in interpreting the unconscious symbolism of everyday forms ended:

Rothko”s 1945 masterpiece, A Slow Swirl at the Edge of the Sea, illustrates his newfound penchant for abstraction. Some authors have interpreted the painting as an image of Marcus” courtship of his future second wife, Mary Ellen “Mell” Beistle, whom he had met in 1944 and then married in early 1945. Others noted echoes of Botticelli”s masterpiece, The Birth of Venus. The painting, in subtle gray and brown tones, shows two human figures in a whirling moving atmosphere of different shapes and colors. The stiff rectangular background foreshadows Rothko”s later experiments with pure color. It is no coincidence that the painting was completed in the year of the end of World War II.

Despite the rejection of his “mythomorphic abstractionism,” Rothko was still known primarily for his Surrealist works until the late 1940s. The Whitney Museum included them in its annual exhibition of contemporary art from 1943 to 1950.


1946 saw the creation of what art historians have called Rothko”s “multiform” paintings. Although Rothko himself never used such a term, he gives an accurate description of his paintings. But the artist himself described such paintings as having a more organic structure and as elements of human expression. For him, these blurred blocks of different colors, devoid of landscapes, human figures, much less symbols, possessed a life energy of their own. They contained a “breath of life” that he did not find in the figurative painting of that era. They were full of possibilities, whereas his experiments with mythological symbolism became a tiresome formula. “Multiformity” led Rothko to realize his mature signature style, which Rothko would adhere to for the rest of his life.

In the middle of this critical transitional period, Rothko was impressed by Clifford Still”s abstractions, which were influenced in part by the landscapes of Still”s native North Dakota. In 1947, during a summer semester at the California School of Fine Arts, Rothko and Still began to think through the idea of creating their own curriculum, which they realized the following year in New York, calling it “The Artists” School Subject. Among the artists they recruited were David Hare and Robert Motherwell. Although it ceased to exist the same year, the school nevertheless managed to become a center for contemporary art.

In addition to his teaching experience, Rothko began to publish articles in two new art magazines, Eye of the Tiger and Variants. Using these publications as an opportunity to comment on the current art scene, Rothko also discussed his own work as well as his philosophy of art at length in them. In his articles he expressed a desire to eliminate figurative elements from painting, taking a particular interest in the debate about art begun in Wolfgang Paalen”s Form and Meaning (1945). Rothko described his new method as “unknown adventures in an unknown space,” free from “a direct connection to any particular organism. Breslin interpreted this transition as “…now both personality and painting are fields of the possible…an effect conveyed <…> by the creation of a variety of all kinds of indeterminate forms.

In 1949, Rothko was fascinated by Henri Matisse”s The Red Room, acquired by the Museum of Modern Art that same year. He later cited this painting as one of the key sources of inspiration for his later abstract paintings.

Soon “multiforms” became a signature style. In early 1949, Rothko exhibited new works at the Betty Parsons Gallery. For the critic Harold Rosenberg, the paintings were nothing short of a revelation. After painting his first “multiform,” Rothko secluded himself in his home in East Hampton, Long Island. He invited only a select few, including Rosenberg, to see his new paintings. The discovery of his final form came at a difficult time in the artist”s life: in October 1948, his mother, Kate, died.

Rothko began to make extensive use of two (sometimes three) symmetrical rectangular blocks, contrasting but complementary colors, in which, for example, “rectangles sometimes seem to merge with the base, enhancing the concentration of their essence. The green stripe in the painting Purple, Black, Green on Orange seems to vibrate against the orange around it, creating an optical shimmer.” In addition, for the next seven years, Rothko painted in oil only on large, upright canvases. Large-scale projects were used to shock the viewer or, in Rothko”s words, to make the viewer feel “enveloped” by the painting. For some critics, the large size was an attempt to make up for the lack of substance.

The demise of

In the spring of 1968, Rothko was diagnosed with an arterial aneurysm. Ignoring his doctor”s recommendations, the artist continued to drink and smoke heavily and abandoned his diet, but he listened to advice not to take on larger canvases over a meter in height and began to work in more compact formats. His marriage to Mell Beistle was at this time in serious crisis, and the artist”s health problems only made matters worse. They divorced on New Year”s Day 1969, and Rothko moved to live in his studio.

On February 25, 1970, Rothko”s assistant Oliver Steindecker found the artist lying unconscious on the floor of his kitchen, his veins open, in a pool of blood; the razor he had used to cut himself was also lying there. Rothko was already dead when he was found. An autopsy revealed that he had taken a huge dose of antidepressants before his suicide.

Mark Rothko is one of the most famous and influential American artists of the second half of the twentieth century and a key figure of postwar abstract expressionism.

Rothko has long been among the most expensive artists. His painting “Orange, Red, Yellow” in 2012 became the most expensive work of postwar art ever sold at auction ($86.9 million).

Tampering with a Rothko painting in 2012

On October 7, 2012, an unknown man walked into one of the halls of the Tate Modern in London and wrote “Vladimir Umanets ”12, a potential piece of yellowism” in black ink in the corner of Rothko”s painting “Black on Maroon. Later it turned out that Vladimir (Volodzimierz) Umanets is a Russian citizen temporarily residing in Poland.

Exhibitions in Russia


  1. Ротко, Марк
  2. Mark Rothko
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