Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Mark Rothko: The Colour of Myth

Great Artists

Silence is so accurate.
Mark Rothko

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.

Mark Rothko

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.
Mark Rothko

Mark Rothko [1903-1970]: Visiting the Scotts (see William Scott) at Hallatrow, in 1959.  Rothko's philosophy of art can be summed up by the following quotation: "I’m not an abstractionist. I’m not interested in the relationship of color or form or anything else. I’m interested only in expressing basic human emotions: tragedy, ecstasy, doom, and so on."
Photo Credit: © James Scott 2009. Courtesy of the William Scott Foundation
Source: Wikipedia

Although Mark Rothko rejected the label, as he eventually rejected all such descriptions and descriptive labels about him or his work, Rothko was considered one of the finest artists of abstract expressionism of the twentieth century. Much of his works, imbued with liberal use of vibrant colours and a sense of myth, were initially representational in form, then became more abstract and darker, even brooding in sentiment, as he aged and matured as an artist.

This transition likely reflected his fluid and ever-changing emotional state. There is a progression, a change, from one state to another. Few people, particularly those in artistic vocations, remain static. Experiences all come together, notably those encountered during the formative years of childhood and youth, and in the best artists are transported to their works. Rothko often said his art was a medium to reveal religious and emotional experience, much of it transcendent in nature.

His major works include Entrance to Subway (1938),  a view of the modern city, in this case New York City;  Slow Swirl at the Edge of the Sea (1944), a surrealist period painting showing influences of Miro; and Four Darks in Red (1958), in which Rothko said the rectangles represented a new way of viewing spirits, thereby touching the viewer with a higher spirituality.

Rothko drew upon a number of written sources, including Sigmund Freud's Interpretation of Dreams, Friedrich Nietzsche's Birth of Tragedy and Carl Jung's theories concerning dreams and the archetypes of the collective unconscious. Rothko's work matured from representation and mythological subjects into rectangular fields of color and light, that later culminated in his final works for the Rothko Chapel, a sanctuary in Houston, Texas, for people of all faiths to meditate, worship and pray. The chapel opened in 1971, a year after Rothko's death.

It's not surprising that Rothko's desire was a public space, far removed from New York City, where ordinary people could make a pilgrimage of sorts to art. Art was a medium of religions and mystical communication. For Rothko, his paintings were not merely about playing around with forms or colours, but more about communicating the human emotion and the religious experience:
The fact that people break down and cry when confronted with my pictures shows that I can communicate those basic human emotions.. the people who weep before my pictures are having the same religious experience I had when painting them. And if you say you are moved only by their color relationships then you miss the point.

Rothko: Untitled: Oil on canvas, 66 1/2 x 52 3/4 in. (169 x 134 cm), 1953. Rothko abolished the use of frames, and eventually abandoned giving his works titles. The reasons centred on his desire, so it seems, for viewers to impose their own interpretation on his work. It was his understanding of purity.

The Formative Years

Mark Rothko was born Marcus Rothkowitz in Dvinsk, Russia (today Daugavpils, Latvia), on September 25, 1903, the fourth and youngest child by eight years, of Jacob Rothkowitz, a pharmacist and Kate Goldin Rothkowitz, who had married in 1886. The family was highly educated and spoke Russian, Yiddish and Hebrew. Dvinsk then was a town of 75,000, half the inhabitants were Jewish. It was part of the Russian Pale, to where Jews were confined by government decree.

Unlike many other places in Czarist Russia, Dvinsk had been somewhat spared from violent outbreaks of anti-Semitic pogroms. But there were pogroms and other violent activities directed at Jews nearby. This hostile environment was little comfort for the family in a nation where Jews were often blamed for many of the evils that befell Russi. As such, Rothko’s early childhood was plagued with fear, and perhaps more important, placed in his mind the thought that he was an outsider. Such a feeling was easy to understand, and hard to uproot, once instilled and reinforced at a young age.

After the father returned to Orthodox Judaism when Mark was five, he was sent to a Jewish cheder, a school for young boys to learn the basics of Talmud and Judaism.

When Jacob Rothkowitz feared that his sons would be drafted into the Czarist army, not an uncommon or a pleasant occurrence, Rothko and his family immigrated to the United States. They arrived at Ellis Island in New York in 1913 when Mark was ten years old. The family settled in Portland, Oregon, where two of Jacob's brothers had established a clothing manufacturing business. 

Tragedy hit the family a few months after arriving in the United States, when Mark's father died. The family had to find ways to survive and support themselves as immigrants in a new country: Mark's sister, Sonia, worked for a store as a cashier, and young Mark sold newspapers. He graduated from Lincoln High School in Portland in June 1921, aged seventeen.

From 1921 to 1923 Rothko attended Yale University on a full scholarship, but dropped out after two years, finding the university too racist and overly imbued with a WASP culture. He then moved to New York City. In 1924 he enrolled in the Art Students League, studying with George Bridgman and Max Weber, whose influence was seen in his earlier works, It was due to Weber that Rothko began to see art as a tool of emotional and religious expression. This was Rothko’s only formal artistic training.

New York's Fertile Ground

New York City's burgeoning art scene proved to be the place where Rothko thrived under a fertile artistic environment. He also kept up a long relationship with teaching art to children. In 1929 Rothko began teaching children at the Center Academy of the Brooklyn Jewish Center, a position he retained until 1952.

During this time, he met Adolph Gottlieb, who, along with Barnett Newman, Joseph Solman, Louis Schanker, and John Graham, was part of a group of young artists surrounding the painter Milton Avery, fifteen years Rothko’s senior. Avery’s stylized, natural scenes, utilizing a rich knowledge of form and color, would be a tremendous influence on Rothko.

This group of painters along with their mentor, Avery, spent a lot of time together, vacationing at Lake George, New York, and at Gloucester, Massachusetts. They spent their days painting and their evenings discussing art. It was during one of these vacations in Lake George that Rothko met Edith Sachar, a jewelry designer, whom he married on November 12, 1932.  This was at the height of the Great Depression, and Rothko's family were worried about him, notably why he would consider such an unstable career like an artist.

While her career as a designer flourished, his career moved glacially slow. He and Edith Sachar separated on June 13, 1943, divorcing soon after.

His first solo show took place at the Portland Art Museum in 1933. A few months later, he exhibited at the Contemporary Arts Gallery in New York. Rising fears of anti-Semitism in the United States prompted Rothko to do two things: On February 21, 1938, Rothko finally became a citizen of the United States, prompted by fears that the growing Nazi influence in Europe might provoke sudden deportation of American Jews; and in January 1940, he abbreviated his name from Marcus Rothkowitz to Mark Rothko.

From 1935 to 1940  Rothko was associated with The Ten, a group of American Expressionists including Adolph Gottlieb who exhibited together in New York and Paris. (The National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., has a good time-line on Rothko's life and work.)

Rothko said he cared deeply and intimately about what he painted, notably in his early period when he focused on myths. Such is borne out in the National Gallery, Washington, website, which says:
In a 1943 letter to the New York Times, written with Adolph Gottlieb and 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."
 Why is that?  In the early 1940s Rothko worked closely with Gottlieb, developing a painting style with mythological content, simple flat shapes, and imagery inspired by primitive art. By mid-decade his work incorporated Surrealist techniques and images. Peggy Guggenheim gave Rothko a solo show at Art of This Century in New York in 1945.

The winter and spring of 1945 were personal highs for the painter. Rothko, who met Mary Ellen ("Mell") Beistle in 1944, married her in Linden, New Jersey, on March 31, 1945. They would have two children together: Kathy Lynn, or Kate, born on December 30, 1950, named after Rothko's mother; and a son, Christopher, born on August 31, 1963.

Rectangles as Religious Communication

By then, he had left representational forms altogether, and moved toward art that expressed transcendence. In 1949, he arrived at his signature style of large rectangular fields of color stacked one above another and would work within this format for the rest of his career.

Rothko and his wife, Mary Ellen, travelled to Europe for five months in early 1950, which Rothko hadn't seen since his childhood. He visited the museums of England, France and Italy, much admiring European art.It was said that he was deeply taken by the frescoes in the monastery of San Marco at Florence done by Fra Angelico ("Beato"), the fifteenth century Italian Renaissance painter.

Rothko: “A picture lives by companionship. It dies by the same token. It is therefore risky to send it out into the world. How often it must be impaired by the eyes of the unfeeling.”

His return to New York was met with good fortune. After a favorable article in Fortune magazine, clients began to purchase his paintings. Although Rothko’s financial situation began to improve, he was conflicted as an artist. He didn’t want people to purchase his work as a fashionable commodity. Although he had a few private commissions, he seemed to find fault with the process, and they were never completely happy endings. Such was his temperament, formed in youth and by life’s often bitter experience.

Chiefly, he grew less enamored by critics and the academic exercise of describing art in a certain language preferred by certain segments of high society. Rothko did not want his art to have labels attached to them, thus he rejected the idea of  giving titles to his works.  His idea was that works spoke for themselves, conveying a religious experience.

From 1968 on, he worked in acrylic on canvas and paper, reducing his palette to brown, gray,deep red and black. These are not the vibrant oranges and blues of before. This change possibly coincided with bad news regarding his health. In the spring of 1968, Rothko was diagnosed with a mild aortic aneurysm. Rothko ignored the doctor's advice, and continued to drink and smoke heavily, avoided exercise, and maintained an unhealthy diet.

He continued painting, but avoided the larger forms that he was used to, and painted much smaller, less demanding works. Things took a further turn for the worse, when Rothko and his wife separated on January 1,1969, and he moved into his studio in Manhattan. Physically ill and suffering from depression, Mark Rothko committed suicide in his Manhattan studio on February 25, 1970. He had overdosed on anti-depressants. Rothko was 66.

Rothko's was buried in East Marion Cemetery on the North Fork of Long Island, New York. After his two children petitioned the court, Rothko's remains were re-interred with his wife's remains in 2006 at Sharon Gardens in Kensico Cemetery in Valhalla, New York.

If Rothko's work didn't fetch high prices when alive, it did so decades after death. In early November, 2005, Rothko's 1953 oil on canvas painting, Homage to Matisse, broke the record selling price of any post-war painting at a public auction, fetching $22.5 million (US). And in May 2007, Rothko's 1950 painting White Center (Yellow, Pink and Lavender on Rose), broke this record again, selling for $72.8 million (US) at Sotheby's New York. The painting was sold by philanthropist David Rockefeller, who attended the auction.


  1. i've been in rothkos corner for years. great artistic mind and poor shmuck.i did a drawing of elain interviewing rothko awhile ago just for love.cowfy

  2. Thank you for your comment. Mark Rothko was unappreciated in his lifetime.

  3. I would really like to visit Sharon Gardens and pay my respects to my favorite artist, Mr. Mark Rothko. Have you visited the cemetery? I’m wondering how I can find his grave. Have been looking on the internet for information. I guess I’ll try calling Sharon Gardens.

    1. Calling Sharon Gardens sounds like the best way to find Rothko's grave. No, I have never visited his gravesite.


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