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Mark Rothko  Light Red Over Black, 1957  Oil paint on canvas  90 3/4 x 60 inches  230.6 x 152.7 cm

Mark Rothko

American, born in Latvia

One of America’s best known Abstract Expressionists, Mark Rothko was the innovator of color field painting, developing monumental expanses of form and tone meant to be as ephemeral and emotionally evocative as music.


Born Marcus Rothkowitz in Dvinsk, Russia, Rothko’s family of Jewish immigrants moved to Portland, Oregon, in 1913. His father Jacob was a pharmacist of modest means who believed strongly in a secular and political education for his children. The youngest of four siblings, Rothko was the only one to study the Talmud in a family long affected by fear of their homeland’s anti-Semitism. Jacob passed away shortly after their immigration to the United States, leaving them without means for support. Only 10 years old at the time, Rothko continued his studies at school, but took jobs in his uncle’s warehouse to help his mother, Sonia, make ends meet. Among the workers, he became a passionate proponent of labor rights and revolutionary politics. The loss of his father also prompted him to sever ties for a time with Judaism.


A prodigious student, Rothko read voraciously and graduated from high school at 17 with honors. He accepted a scholarship to Yale University, intending to become a labor organizer, but found the school stuffy and bourgeois. He left as a sophomore and ended up in New York City. It was there that he encountered friends studying as young artists at the Art Students League. Intrigued, he enrolled at Parsons School of Design but later became a student of early American Cubist painter Max Weber at the League. A highly criticized figure in the art world, Weber was likewise a Russian Jew who taught the philosophies and methods of Modernism’s major movements. Rothko in particular admired the work of Expressionists Henri Matisse and Milton Avery, and his early paintings emulated their abstracted figurative styles with flat areas of color. It was under Weber that Rothko began to consider his art as a means of religious and emotional expression.


In the 1930s, Rothko continued to explore different styles and methods. His Subway series depicted the underground subway environments of New York City in a melancholy palette. Although realistic and immediately recognizable with figures throughout, the series emphasized the architectural spaces as abstract compositional arrangements, a key concept he would later develop in his mature work.


As World War II took hold of American life, Rothko changed his name, and his fellow artists began to depart from representational work in favor of the symbolism of Surrealism. He became a passionate advocate for the style, stating that, “A time came when none of us could use the figure without mutilating it.” These works attempted to blend Expressionism, Surrealism, and subjects of Greek myth that he extensively read. The biomorphic forms strongly evoke those of Pablo Picasso, Joan Miro, and Paul Klee, while he markedly expanded his palette from the drab colors of his early years.  His Sacrifice of Iphigenia (1943) was inspired by the writings of Aeschylus. A black cone with white stripes depicts Iphigenia's garment, and her moon-like face recoils from menacing hands that reach for her. A second figure symbolizes Clytemnestra, ripped open at the loss of her child. Critical to Rothko was the spirit of the myth rather than replicating the narrative, and this story presents the willful death of a beloved innocent to perpetuate more killing – a fitting reflection of the war.


By the mid-1940s, Rothko was incorporating large bands of color into his watercolors and oil paintings, at first serving as the backgrounds for his biomorphic symbols, as in the National Gallery of Art’s Untitled of 1945-46. These fields of color initially symbolized the human subconscious and took on a luminous, transparent quality from his repeatedly layering of diluted pigments. This led to the key turning point in his work. By 1947 the artist eliminated all figures and symbols from his paintings, as well as titles, focusing on large, completely nonobjective compositions of color. In his Untitled (1948) painting, also in the National Gallery collection, his glowing background and forms have merged, taking on the effect of soft shapes. Rothko referred to these as his “multiform” pieces, differentiating them from his even further distilled later works.


Encouraged by his experimentation with watercolor and gouache, Rothko began creating large, rectangular patches of intense color on his canvases, allowing layers of diluted paint to soak directly into the fabric. The technique left a soft halo effect around each form. These paintings conveyed a clarity of expression and immediate emotional impact on the viewer that Rothko celebrated. By 1949, he entered his mature phase of work, with fields and bands of stacked color floating on luminous backgrounds. He now resisted all explanation of his subject, saying instead that, “Silence is so accurate.” His work Four Darks in Red (1958) at the Whitney Museum of American Art embodies this phase.


For the next 20 years of his life, Rothko would work in this groundbreaking format, achieving an impressive range of emotion and mood with different color combinations and compositions – sometimes vibrant and at other times somber. The massive scale of the paintings intentionally envelops the viewer, creating a feeling of intimacy. Rothko hung the paintings close to the floor in groups, with low lighting, and required that no other art works be shown in proximity. The effect is quietly meditative, for many inviting spiritual contemplation. One of his foremost collectors, Dominque de Menil, summed up this late work by saying the paintings, “…evoke the tragic mystery of our perishable condition. The silence of God. The unbearable silence of God.” In 1968, the de Menils commissioned Rothko to develop a set of 14 murals for an octagonal chapel in Houston, which remains one of the great installations of modern art.


Haunted by poor health and depression, Rothko tragically committed suicide at the age of 66. He had in his possession nearly 800 paintings that were divided between his two children and the Mark Rothko Foundation after a long court case. In 1984, the foundation’s paintings were donated to 19 museums in the United States, Great Britain, the Netherlands, Denmark, and Israel. The largest and best portion of these went to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. A collection of murals originally commissioned for the Seagram Building in New York City is held by the Tate in London.


More information on Mark Rothko can be found in the National Gallery of Art

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