Mark Rothko Life and Art Periods

"If you are only moved by color relationships, you are missing the point. I am interested in expressing the big emotions - tragedy, ecstasy, doom."

MARK ROTHKO SYNOPSIS

A prominent figure among the New York School painters, Mark Rothko moved through many artistic styles until reaching his signature 1950s motif of soft, rectangular forms floating on a stained field of color. Heavily influenced by mythology and philosophy, he was insistent that his art was filled with content, and brimming with ideas. A fierce champion of social revolutionary thought, and the right to self-expression, Rothko also expounded his views in numerous essays and critical reviews.

MARK ROTHKO KEY IDEAS

Highly informed by Nietzsche, Greek mythology, and his Russian-Jewish heritage, Rothko's art was profoundly imbued with emotional content that he articulated through a range of styles that evolved from figurative to abstract.
Rothko's early figurative work - including landscapes, still lifes, figure studies, and portraits - demonstrated an ability to blend Expressionism and Surrealism. His search for new forms of expression led to his Color Field paintings, which employed shimmering color to convey a sense of spirituality.
Rothko maintained the social revolutionary ideas of his youth throughout his life. In particular he supported artist's total freedom of expression, which he felt was compromised by the market. This belief often put him at odds with the art world establishment, leading him to publicly respond to critics, and occasionally refuse commissions, sales and exhibitions.
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MARK ROTHKO BIOGRAPHY

Childhood

Born in Dvinsk, Russia (in what is now Latvia), Marcus Rothkovich was the fourth child born to Jacob and Anna Rothkovich. As Russia was a hostile environment for Zionist Jews, Jacob immigrated to the United States with his two older sons in 1910, finally sending for the rest of his family in 1913. They settled in Portland, Oregon, though Jacob died only a few months after the family's arrival, requiring them to earn a living in their new country though they only spoke Hebrew and Russian. Rothko was forced to learn English and go to work when he was very young, resulting in a lingering sense of bitterness over his lost childhood. He graduated early from Lincoln High School, showing more interest in music than visual art. He was awarded a scholarship to Yale University, but soon found the environment at Yale conservative and exclusionary; he left without graduating in 1923.

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Early Training

Mark Rothko Biography

After leaving Yale, Rothko made his way to New York City, as he put it, "to bum about and starve a bit." Over the next few years, he took odd jobs while enrolled in Max Weber's still life and figure drawing classes at the Art Students League, which constituted his only artistic training. Rothko's early paintings were mostly portraits, nudes, and urban scenes. After a brief stint in the theatre on a return visit to Portland, Rothko was chosen to participate in a 1928 group show with Lou Harris and Milton Avery at the Opportunity Gallery. This was a coup for a young immigrant who had dropped out of college and had only begun painting three years earlier.

Mature period

By the mid-1930s, the effects of the Great Depression were being felt throughout American society, and Rothko had become concerned with the social and political implications of mass unemployment. This encouraged him to attend meetings of the leftist Artists' Union. Here, amongst other issues, he and many other artists fought for a municipal gallery, which was eventually granted. Working in the Easel Division of the Works Progress Administration, Rothko met many other artists, yet he felt most at ease with a group that consisted mainly of other Russian Jewish painters. This group, which included such figures as Adolph Gottlieb, Joseph Solman and John Graham, showed together at Gallery Secession in 1934, and became known as "The Ten". In 1936, The Ten: Whitney Dissenters showed at the Mercury Galleries, opening just three days after the Whitney show they were protesting.

His painting in the 1930s, influenced by Expressionism, was typified by claustrophobic, urban scenes rendered often in acidic colors (such as Entrance to Subway (1938)). However, in the 1940s, he began to be influenced by Surrealism, and abandoned Expressionism for more abstract imagery which spliced human, plant and animal forms. These he likened to archaic symbols, which he felt might transmit the emotions locked in ancient myths. Rothko came to see mankind as locked in a mythic struggle with his free will and nature. In 1939, he briefly stopped painting altogether to read mythology and philosophy, finding particular resonance in Nietzsche's Birth of Tragedy. He ceased to be interested in representational likeness and became fascinated with the articulation of interior expression.

Throughout this time Rothko's personal life was shadowed by his severe depression, and likely an undiagnosed bipolar disorder. In 1932, he married jewelery designer Edith Sachar, but divorced her in 1945 to marry Mary Alice Beistel, with whom he would have two children.

While Rothko tends to be grouped with Newman and Still as one of the three chief inspirers of Color Field painting, Rothko's works saw many abrupt and clearly defined stylistic shifts. The decisive shift came in the late 1940s, when he began creating the prototypes for his best-known works. They have since come to be called his "multi-forms": figures are banished entirely, and the compositions are dominated by multiple soft-edged blocks of colors which seem to float in space. Rothko wanted to remove all obstacles between the painter, the painting and the viewer. The method he settled on used shimmering color to swamp the viewer's visual field. His paintings were meant to entirely envelope the viewer and raise the viewer up and out of the mechanized, commercial society over which artists like Rothko despaired. In 1949, Rothko radically reduced the number of forms in his pictures, and grew them such that they filled out the canvas, hovering on fields of stained colour that are only visible at their borders. These, his best known works, have come to be called his "sectionals", and Rothko felt they better met his desire to create universal symbols of human yearning. His paintings were not self-expressions, he claimed, but statements about the condition of man.

Mark Rothko Painting

Rothko would continue to work on the "sectionals" until the end of his life. They are considered to be rather enigmatic, as they are formally at odds with their intent. Rothko himself stated that his style changes were motivated by the growing clarification of his content. The all-over compositions, the blurred boundaries, the continuousness of color, and the wholeness of form were all elements of his development towards a transcendental experience of the sublime, Rothko's goal. "The progression of a painter's work, as it travels in time from point to point, will be toward clarity," he stated, "toward the elimination of all obstacles between the painter and the idea, and between the idea and the observer."

Rothko garnered many honors in the course of his career, including being invited to be one of the U.S. representatives at the Venice Biennale in 1958. Yet acclaim never seemed to sooth Rothko's embattled spirit, and he came to be known as an abrasive and combative character. When he was given an award by the Guggenheim Foundation, he refused it as a protest against the idea that art should be competitive. He was always confident and forthright in his beliefs: "I am not an Abstractionist," he once said. He distanced himself from the classification of his work as "non-objective color-filled painting." Instead he stressed that his paintings were based on human emotions of "tragedy, ecstasy, doom." He claimed that art was not about the perception of formal relationships, but was understandable in terms of human life. He also denied being a colorist - despite the fact that color was of primary importance to his paintings.

Rothko often stood up for his beliefs, even they cost him dearly. In what was surely a self-defeating act of retaliation, he refused a 1953 offer by the Whitney to purchase two of his paintings because of, "a deep sense of responsibility for the life my pictures will lead out in the world." Another pivotal project which would end unhappily was the series of murals he completed for the Seagram Building in 1958. Initially, the idea of incorporating his work within an architectural environment appealed to him, since he had great admiration for the chapels of Michelangelo and Vasari. He spent two years making three series of paintings for this building, but was not pleased with the first two sets; then he became dissatisfied with the idea that his paintings were to be hung in the opulent Four Seasons restaurant. Characteristically, Rothko's social ideals led him to quit the commission, as he could not reconcile his personal vision or his integrity as an artist with the ostentatious environment.

Late period

Mark Rothko Portrait

In 1964, Rothko received a large commission from major Houston art collectors and philanthropists, John and Dominique de Menil. He was to create large wall murals for a non-denominational chapel they were sponsoring on the campus of St. Thomas Catholic University where Dominique was the head of the Art Department. He generated fourteen paintings while working closely with a series of architects to construct a meditative environment with a dark palette. The Rothko Chapel has since been the setting for international meetings of some of the world's great religious leaders, like the Dalai Lama.

In 1968, Rothko suffered an aortic aneurysm and spent three weeks in a hospital. This brush with death would shadow him for the rest of his life. He became resentful that his work was not being paid the proper respect and reverence he felt it deserved. He also began to worry that his art would have no major legacy, and this led him to work on his last major series, Black on Grays , which included twenty-five canvases and marked a clear deviation from his previous work.

However, work failed to buoy up his spirits, and at the age of 66, Rothko committed suicide by taking an overdose of anti-depressants and slashing his arms with a razor blade. On the morning of February 25, 1970, his assistant, Oliver Steindecker, arrived at the East 69th Street studio to find him on the floor of the bathroom, covered in blood. Many of his friends were not entirely surprised that he took his own life, saying that he had lost his passion and inspiration. Some suggested that like others who had died before of an internal struggle, such as Arshile Gorky, Rothko had submitted to the tortured artist's ritual of self-annihilation.

In the aftermath of his death, three of his best friends were appointed trustees of his estate, and they secretly transferred control of some eight-hundred paintings to the Marlborough Gallery, which had been representing Rothko for several years, at a fraction of their market value. Rothko's daughter, Kate, took the men and the gallery to court in what became a notoriously messy and protracted dispute. During the lengthy court battle, the sometimes illegal and unethical dealings of the art world were publicly exposed for the first time. Time critic Robert Hughes cited the "Rothko case" as what essentially brought about what he called the "death of Abstract Expressionism". Ultimately, the Rothko children won the case and received half of the estate. The Rothko Foundation then donated the rest of the works to museums in the United States and abroad.

MARK ROTHKO LEGACY

Mark Rothko Photo with Cigarette

Painting consumed Rothko's life, and although he did not receive the attention he felt his work deserved in his own lifetime, his fame has increased dramatically in the years following his death. At odds with the more formally rigorous artists among the Abstract Expressionists, Rothko nevertheless explored the compositional potential of color and form on the human psyche. To stand in front of a Rothko is to be in the presence of the pulsing vibrancy of his enormous canvases; it is to feel, if only momentarily, something of the sublime spirituality he relentlessly sought to evoke. Rigidly uncompromising, Rothko refused to bend to the more distasteful aspects of the art world, a position upheld by his children who did nothing less than alter the entire state of the art market in their fierce protection of his life and work.

Original content written by Ashley Remer
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WRITINGS AND IDEAS

Introduction

Nietzsche, myth, and Jewish and social revolutionary thought were all important influences on Rothko's life and art. He once wrote to The New York Times saying he would not defend his pictures, "because they defend themselves." Yet he was always a vocal advocate for artists, writing many reviews as well as essays on the complexities of the art world. Around 1941, probably during his yearlong hiatus from painting, Rothko wrote the manuscript for a book which was to be called The Artist's Reality. However, it was never published in his lifetime, being hidden away in a manila folder labeled "miscellaneous papers" for over fifty years. It was discovered by his children in a warehouse and has since been edited by his son, Christopher, and was published by Yale University Press in 2006. These writings discuss Rothko's ideas about Modern art, myth, beauty, the nature of American art, and the challenges of being an artist in his society. The book is most unique in that it never references Rothko's own work, but speaks from the point of view of the artist in general. While his political leanings were clearly Leftist, he maintained a highly subjective approach to theory.

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On Being an Artist

In The Artist's Reality, Rothko described the perception of artists in society and how they have fostered myths of creativity into reality based on their own personal fantasy lives. He discussed the ways in which authority in its various forms had made the rules that artists must live by and that the market was the latest dictator of these rules. At the time of this writing, WWII was beginning in Europe and anxieties over conformity and tyranny gave Rothko's writing a constant sense of disquiet.

Self-portrait, 1936

On Freedom

Above all, Rothko championed the freedom of the artist. The politics and poetics of Rothko's life were inseparable and his art constitutes the strongest evidence of this. As he declared in the year of his suicide, "I am still an anarchist!" Critic Dore Ashton wrote that Rothko did not sit easily with the world, that he was always searching for an escape. Viewed in the light of his suicide, many have read his paintings as windows through which Rothko sought to transcend a world in which he could not find comfort.

On Interpretation of his Work

Throughout his writings, Rothko insisted that his work was meant to be viewed closely and intimately, not observed from a safe, sterile distance. For those who find Rothko's paintings overwhelming, it is perhaps comforting to know that he intended to communicate with his audience, not to intimidate. "I realize that historically the function of painting large pictures is something very grandiose and pompous," he wrote in 1951. "The reason I paint them however. . . is precisely because I want to be intimate and human."

On Critics

Most critics interpreted Rothko's work in formalist terms, in direct opposition to the intention of the artist to convey grand spiritual drama. Consequently, perhaps, he had little patience for most professional writers on his work, saying, "I hate and distrust all art historians, experts and critics. They are all parasites, feeding on the body of art. Their work is not only useless but misleading. They can say nothing worth listening to about art or the artist."

Greenberg on Rothko

Clement Greenberg wrote little about Rothko's work. They met in 1943, and Greenberg was not greatly impressed by him. "We talked," Greenberg recalled, "and I found Rothko sympathetic, but I also found him very square. Later he got pompous. But he always stayed a little square." Greenberg's formalism encouraged him to talk of Rothko's work in terms of "the rectilinear," "dividing lines," and, above all, "color" (see his essay "'American-Type' Painting" (1955)).

Rosenberg on Rothko

Harold Rosenberg, whose criticism had been shaped more by Existentialism than Greenberg's formalism, was in rare agreement with his rival concerning Rothko. Writing in March 1978 in his column "The Art World," for the New Yorker, Rosenberg said, "Rothko had reduced painting to volume, tone, and color, with color as the vital element." The "three or four horizontal blocks of color" that Rothko sustained for twenty years comprised, he wrote, "the substance of his emotional life.. the exhilarated tragic experience.. the only source book of art."

Porter on Rothko

Harold Rosenberg, whose criticism had been shaped more by In his letter to the Parisian Review in 1955, artist and critic Fairfield Porter responded to Greenberg's assessment of Rothko in "'American-Type' Painting." Greenberg had asserted that Rothko's "opposition of pure color" was reminiscent of Matisse, but Porter disagreed, noting that Rothko's work was not as balanced as Matisse's in terms of proportion and composition, and that his use of symbolic color was not as sensitive.

Letter to the Editor by Rothko and Gottlieb

There are several drafts of this letter to the editor, published June 13, 1943, in which Rothko and Gottlieb respond to the Times art review by Edward Alden Jewell of their work at an exhibition at the Federation of Modern Painters and Sculptors. Significantly, in drafts five and six, they list their beliefs about modern art: "We believe our pictures demonstrate our aesthetic beliefs.. to us, art is an adventure into a world unknown, which can only be explored by those willing to take risks.. this world is fancy-free and violently opposed to common sense.. it is our function as artists to make the spectator see the world our way- not his way.. We favor the simple expression of complex thought.. We are for flat forms because they destroy illusion and reveal truth.. it is a widely accepted notion among painters that it does not matter what one paints as long as it is well painted.. There is no such thing as a good painting about nothing. We assert that subject is crucial and only that subject matter is valid if it is tragic and timeless."

Rothko and Gottlieb in Conversation

In 1943, Rothko and Adolph Gottlieb took part in a radio broadcast in which they answered questions put to them in a letter; their responses covered their ideas about portraiture, mythology, abstraction, and subject matter. During the discussion, Rothko also talked about his belief in a collective psychology, based in antiquity and mythology. Myths explored the fundamentals of human experience, he believed, "If [the] titles [of my paintings] recall the known myths of antiquity.. [I] have used them 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.. and modern psychology finds them persisting still in our dreams, our vernacular, and our art, for all the changes in the outward conditions of life."

comment to editor

MARK ROTHKO QUOTES

If you are only moved by color relationships [in my paintings], you are missing the point. I am interested in expressing the big emotions - tragedy, ecstasy, doom.

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.

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.

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.

Mark Rothko

Mark Rothko Influences

Interactive chart with Mark Rothko's main influencers, and the people and ideas that the artist influenced in turn.

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Pablo Picasso
Pablo Picasso
Picasso dominated European painting in the first half of the last century, and remains perhaps the century's most important, prolifically inventive, and versatile artist. Alongside Georges Braque, he pioneered Cubism. He also made significant contributions to Surrealist painting and media such as collage, welded sculpture, and ceramics.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Pablo Picasso
Paul Cézanne
Paul Cézanne
Paul Cézanne was an influential French Post-Impressionist painter whose depictions of the natural world, based on internal geometric planes, paved the way for Cubism and later modern art movements.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Paul Cézanne
Marc Chagall
Marc Chagall
Marc Chagall was a Russian-born, Jewish-French artist that reached great popularity during the twentieth century. Although his art is associated with several movements, Chagall is commonly grouped in with the German Expressionists. Much of his early work was credited with synthesizing visual elements of Cubism, Symbolism and Fauvism.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Marc Chagall
Joan Miró
Joan Miró
Active in Paris from the 1920s onward, and influenced by Surrealism, Miró developed a style of biomorphic abstraction which blended abstract figurative motifs, large fields of color, and primitivist symbols. This style would be an important inspiration for many Abstract Expressionists.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Joan Miró
Willem De Kooning
Willem De Kooning
Willem de Kooning, a Dutch immigrant to New York, was one of the foremost Abstract Expressionist painters. His abstract compositions drew on Surrealist and figurative traditions, and typified the expressionistic 'gestural' style of the New York School.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Willem De Kooning
Adolph Gottlieb
Adolph Gottlieb
Adolph Gottlieb was an Abstract Expressionist painter who commonly used grids, pictographs, and primitive symbols in his work.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Adolph Gottlieb
Joseph Solman
Joseph Solman
Painter Joseph Solman, known for his abstracted urban scenes, co-founded the artists group The Ten with Mark Rothko in the 1930s. He was influenced by European Expressionism as well as early American modernism and the Abstract Expressionism of mid-century.

Modern Art Information Joseph Solman
Impressionism
Impressionism
A movement in painting that first surfaced in France in the 1860s, it sought new ways to describe effects of light and movement, often using rich colors. The Impressionists were drawn to modern life and often painted the city, but they also captured landscapes and scenes of middle-class leisure-taking in the suburbs.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Impressionism
Fauvism
Fauvism
Fauvism was an early twentieth-century art movement founded by Henri Matisse and André Derain. Labeled as "wild beasts", Fauve artists favored vibrant colors and winding gestural strokes across the canvas.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Fauvism
Expressionism
Expressionism
Expressionism is a broad term for a host of movements in early twentieth-century Germany, from Die Brücke (1905) and Der Blaue Reiter (1911) to the early Neue Sachlichkeit painters in the 1920s and '30s. Many German Expressionists used vivid colors and abstracted forms to create spiritually or psychologically intense works, while others focused on depictions of war, alienation, and the modern city.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Expressionism
Cubism
Cubism
Cubism was developed by Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque between 1907-1911, and it continued to be highly influential long after its decline. This classic phase has two stages: 'Analytic', in which forms seem to be 'analyzed' and fragmented; and 'Synthetic', in which pre-existing materials such as newspaper and wood veneer are collaged to the surface of the canvas.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Cubism
Surrealism
Surrealism
Perhaps the most influential avant-garde movement of the century, Surrealism was founded in Paris in 1924 by a small group of writers and artists who sought to channel the unconscious as a means to unlock the power of the imagination. Much influenced by Freud, they believed that the conscious mind repressed the power of the imagination. Influenced also by Marx, they hoped that the psyche had the power to reveal the contradictions in the everyday world and spur on revolution.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Surrealism
Barnett Newman
Barnett Newman
Barnett Newman was an Abstract Expressonist painter in New York who painted large-scale fields of solid color, interrupted by vertical lines or "zips." His sometimes narrow or boxy canvases, part painting and part sculpture, were influential for Minimalism.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Barnett Newman
Clyfford Still
Clyfford Still
Clyfford Still was a leading first-generation Abstract Expressionist. His mature works are large-scale paintings with gaping chasms and stains of jagged color, often in dark earth tones.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Clyfford Still
Morris Louis
Morris Louis
Morris Louis was an American painter and an original member of the so-called Washington Color School. Along with Noland, Frankenthaler and others, Louis pioneered the color-field school of painting, using a technique of soaking heavy oil paints into unprimed canvases. Louis's paintings in part inspired his friend Clement Greenberg to dub the second-generation Abstract Expressionism artists Post-painterly abstraction.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Morris Louis
Dore Ashton
Dore Ashton
Dore Ashton is an American art critic, historian and professor. In her groundbreaking book The New York School, Ashton famously credited Jackson Pollock as the artist who "broke the ice" and first established New York City as the leading city for avant-garde art.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Dore Ashton
Michelangelo Antonioni
Michelangelo Antonioni
Michelangelo Antonioni was an Italian avant-garde filmmaker. He favored themes that focused on the alienation of man in the modern world, and used long, unedited takes in many of his films. His best known work is the 1966 film Blowup, starring David Hemmings and Vanessa Redgrave.

Modern Art Information Michelangelo Antonioni
Milton Avery
Milton Avery
Milton Avery was an American painter during the early-to-mid twentieth century. Never belonging to any particular school or artistic style, Avery painted colorful, quasi-Fauvist landscapes, causing many to dub him the "American Matisse." He was also close friends with abstractionists Adolph Gottlieb and Mark Rothko.

Modern Art Information Milton Avery
Abstract Expressionism
Abstract Expressionism
A tendency among New York painters of the late 1940s and '50s, all of whom were committed to an expressive art of profound emotion and universal themes. The movement embraced the gestural abstraction of Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock, and the color field painting of Mark Rothko and others. It blended elements of Surrealism and abstract art in an effort to create a new style fitted to the postwar mood of anxiety and trauma.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Abstract Expressionism
Color Field Painting
Color Field Painting
A tendency within Abstract Expressionism, distinct from gestural abstraction, color field painting was developed by Barnett Newman, Mark Rothko, and Clyfford Still in the late 1940s, and developed further by Helen Frankenthaler and others. It is characterized by large fields of color and an absence of any figurative motifs, and often expresses a yearning for transcendence and the infinite.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Color Field Painting
Friedrich Nietzsche
Friedrich Nietzsche
Friedrich Nietzsche was a nineteenth-century German philosopher and an early pioneer in the ideas of existentialism. Nietzsche examined the human condition through the lenses of culture, religion, science and morality. He is one the most celebrated thinkers of the modern era.

Modern Art Information Friedrich Nietzsche
Max Weber
Max Weber
Max Weber was an early twentieth century Polish-American painter. Taught in the tradition of the French modernists, such as Matisse, Rousseau and Picasso, Weber became a fairly well-known Cubist painter in pre-WWII America, arguably introducing the painterly style to the U.S. Weber's works were among the first acquisitions made by MoMA in 1929, and he was the subject of the museum's very first solo exhibition by an American artist.

Modern Art Information Max Weber
Art Students League of New York
Art Students League of New York
The League is an artist-founded institution that arose in the post-Civil War years, when many art students became dissatisfied with the lack of quality instruction in the basics of portraiture, sculpture and composition offered by New York art schools. During the Depression years, many young artists who would eventually define the Abstract Expressionist movement spent their formative years studying and teaching at the League.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Art Students League of New York
Works Progress Administration
Works Progress Administration
The government-funded Federal Art Project of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) hired hundreds of artists who collectively created more than 100,000 paintings and murals and over 18,000 sculptures. The Project was part of President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal during the Great Depression (1929-1943).
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Works Progress Administration
John Graham
John Graham
John Graham was a Russian-born American painter and a key figure in the development of Abstract Expressionism. Never adopting a singular style in his own art, Graham tutored many young abstract artists on the tenets of Cubism and Surrealism, of which he was an expert. Willem de Kooning credited Graham as the person who discovered Jackson Pollock.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information John Graham
Robert Hughes
Robert Hughes
The famous critic Robert Hughes has admittedly struggled with living in a new world where there is no longer a definitive hotbed of artists living in one city, making one great thing after another. Hughes' views on modern art are fairly traditional, valuing formal training over instinctual gift, and he can be highly critical of art that is ostentatious or seems to cater to the art market.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Robert Hughes
Clement Greenberg
Clement Greenberg
Clement Greenberg was one the leading American art critics during the twentieth century. Best known as the ideological counterpart to Harold Rosenberg, Greenberg was a formalist who coined the terms "American-type painting" and 'Post-painterly abstraction.' He was a staunch champion of pure abstraction, including the work of Jackson Pollock, Clyfford Still and Hans Hofmann.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Clement Greenberg
Formalism
Formalism
Formalism is an approach to interpreting art that emphasizes qualities of form - color, line, shape, texture and so forth. Formalists generally argue that these are at the heart of art's value. The belief that form can be detached from content, or subject matter, goes back to antiquity, but it has been particularly important in shaping accounts of modern and abstract art. In recent decades formalism has met with resistance, and a range of other approaches, including social and psychoanalytic, have gained popularity.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Formalism
Harold Rosenberg
Harold Rosenberg
Harold Rosenberg was a critic, art historian, and curator who published important works on modern art and culture. He was a leading exponent of Abstract Expressionism, and coined the term "Action Painting."
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Harold Rosenberg
Fairfield Porter
Fairfield Porter
Fairfield Porter was a twentieth-century American realist painter and noted art critic. Although friends with and staunch admirer of many abstractionists from The New York School, Porter was something of a black sheep, opting to paint figurative forms and landscapes, which are only now gaining significant recognition.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Fairfield Porter
Henri Matisse
Henri Matisse
Henri Matisse was a French painter and sculptor who helped forge modern art. From his early Fauvist works to his late cutouts, he emphasized expansive fields of color, the expressive potential of gesture, and the sensuality inherent in art-making.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Henri Matisse
Crucifixion
Crucifixion

Title: Crucifixion (1935)

Artwork Description & Analysis: Rothko was among several artists invited by Joseph Brummer to exhibit in Paris at the Galerie Bonaparte in November 1936; Crucifixion was one of the paintings included. French critic Waldemar George noted that Rothko's paintings revealed nostalgia for fourteenth century Italian art, and that they displayed "an authentic coloristic value." This painting has thematic ties to Renaissance religious painting, but it also carries references to Rembrandt's Lamentation of the Dead Christ (1637): the two crosses in the extreme foreground; the third isolated in the back; and the figure groupings, all echo Rembrandt's picture. This work is signed Rothkowitz, as he did not officially become Rothko until 1940.


Oil on Canvas - Location Unknown

Entrance to Subway
Entrance to Subway

Title: Entrance to Subway (1938)

Artwork Description & Analysis: This early figurative work demonstrates Rothko's interest in contemporary urban life. The architectural features of the station are sketchily recreated, including the turnstiles and the "N" on the wall. Although the mood of the pictures is softened somewhat by the influence of Impressionism, it reflects many of the artist's feelings towards the modern city. New York City was thought to be soulless and inhuman, and something of that is conveyed here in the anonymous, barely rendered features of the figures.


Oil on canvas - Kate Rothko Prizel Collection

Oedipus
Oedipus

Title: Oedipus (1944)

Artwork Description & Analysis: Greek mythology was an important theme of Rothko's work in the early 1940s. Oedipus, who is said to have solved of the riddle of the Sphinx, was his father's murderer and his mother's lover. His tale has inspired artists and psychologists alike. For Rothko, he embodied the victim of pride and passion, which the artist believed were at the center of man's destructive nature. As in other representational works of this time, Rothko has dismembered and then recombined his figures so intricately that they became a single mass of human conglomeration. In this way, Rothko sought to suggest how mankind is bound together by tragedy. The figures appear oddly huddled in the corner of a room with strange architecture. The blue and green zigzag pattern recurs in several of his mythological pictures. This painting was included along with several others bearing mythological motifs, in a 1942 group show at Macy's department store.


Oil on linen - Unknown

Slow Swirl at the Edge of the Sea
Slow Swirl at the Edge of the Sea

Title: Slow Swirl at the Edge of the Sea (1944)

Artwork Description & Analysis: Slow Swirl at the Edge of the Sea is a representative example of Rothko's Surrealist period. The influence of Miro is particularly apparent, specifically in Miro's The Family(1924). Rothko's all-over composition of muted colors, strange translucent figures, horizontal lines, angles, and swirls create a vibrant yet veiled picture of an obscure primeval landscape. Painted while courting Mary Beistel, who would become his second wife, this whimsical scene can also be interpreted as a romance within a mythical and magical world, where the figures are enjoying the ocean as a rose colored dawn is breaking on the horizon.


Oil on canvas - Museum of Modern Art, New York City

No. 9
No. 9

Title: No. 9 (1947)

Artwork Description & Analysis: Rothko showed eleven paintings at Betty Parsons Gallery in the spring of 1949; No. 9 was among them. Having left behind the figures and landscapes of his earlier work, the "multiforms", of which this is a typical example, featured blurred shapes created from layered washes of paint. The work anticipates Rothko's 1949 breakthrough to the so-called "sectionals". The warm reds, oranges and yellows of No. 9 are disrupted by the strange black mass coming in from the left as well as the brushy swirls of blue in the lower section. The blurred edges, separated color blocks, and beginnings of rectangular registers can be seen, as well as some experiment with size and scale. Far from being merely abstract forms, however, Rothko believed these motifs were objects imbued with his life force - "organisms..with the passion for self-expression."


Oil on canvas - Dr. and Mrs. Jerome Dersh Collection

Four Darks in Red
Four Darks in Red

Title: Four Darks in Red (1958)

Artwork Description & Analysis: In 1969, Rothko exhibited ten paintings at the Sidney Janis Gallery; Four Darks in Red were among those shown. With its dark, restricted palette, the picture exemplifies Rothko's late-period gravitation towards reds and browns. It established a prototype for the dark red/brown/black palette and horizontal composition that he would later use in the uninstalled Seagram Building paintings. Although the imagery of pictures like Four Darks in Red seems far distant from that of Slow Swirl at the Edge of the Sea (1944), Rothko believed that the rectangles merely offered a new way of representing the presences or spirits that he tried to capture in those earlier works. "It was not that the figure had been removed," he once said, "..but the symbols for the figures... These new shapes say.. what the figures said." In this way, Rothko imagined a kind of direct communion between himself and the viewer, one which might touch the viewer with a higher spirituality.


Oil on canvas - Whitney Museum of American Art

The Rothko Chapel
The Rothko Chapel

Title: The Rothko Chapel (1965)

Artwork Description & Analysis: Set on the campus of St. Thomas Catholic University, the Rothko chapel was funded by John and Dominique de Menil and contains fourteen Rothko mural paintings. There are three triptychs and five individual works. All of these paintings are in hues of dark purple, maroon and black and are of extremely large scale. Rothko worked closely with the architects, having almost complete control over the shape of the building and its meditative environment within. The darkness of the works can be seen as melancholic and expressive of Rothko's mood of his last years. He did not live to see the official opening of the Chapel.


Oil on canvas - Houston, TX

Untitled, Black on Gray
Untitled, Black on Gray

Title: Untitled, Black on Gray (1969)

Artwork Description & Analysis: Rothko invited many of the New York art world elite to his studio to view his latest, and what would be his last, series of paintings, the Black on Grays. While the event was mainly shrouded in silence, it was thought by some that these were premonitions of his death. Others thought that with the prevalence of lunar images in popular culture that they were interpretations of moon landscapes, while others thought they were paintings of photographs taken at night. In general, they were not taken very seriously, which was devastating to Rothko, but also affirming, as he often felt that the interior world of his paintings were comprehensible to him alone. The Black on Grays were painted directly on white canvas and lacked the usual underpainting which Rothko liked to "paint against." Working in two registers only, he severely restricted the colors and scaled down the canvas to a more approachable and intimate size. The extreme contrast of light and dark evokes a sadness that played out like a psychological drama, both mythic and tragic.


Acrylic on canvas - Estate of Mark Rothko

Bibliography
The books and articles below constitute a bibliography of the sources used in the writing this page. These also suggests some accessible resources for further research, especially ones that can be found and purchased via the internet.