Mark Rothko

Mark Rothko

American Painter

Born: September 25, 1903 - Dvinsk, Russian Empire
Died: February 25, 1970 - New York, New York
"If you are only moved by color relationships, you are missing the point. I am interested in expressing the big emotions - tragedy, ecstasy, doom."
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Mark Rothko Signature
"I think of my pictures as dramas; the shapes in the pictures are the performers. They have been created from the need for a group of actors who are able to move dramatically without embarrassment and execute gestures without shame."
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Mark Rothko Signature
"Ideas and plans that existed in the mind at the start were simply the doorway through which one left the world in which they occur."
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Mark Rothko Signature
"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."
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Mark Rothko Signature
"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."
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Mark Rothko Signature
"The most important tool the artist fashions through constant practice is faith in his ability to produce miracles when they are needed. Pictures must be miraculous: The instant one is completed, the intimacy between the creation and the creator is ended. He is an outsider, the picture must be for him, as for anyone experiencing it later, a revelation, an unexpected and unprecedented resolution of an eternally familiar need."
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Mark Rothko Signature
"The progression of a painter's work, as it travels in time from point to point, will be toward clarity; toward the eliminiation of all obstacles between the painter and the idea, and between the idea and the observer."
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Mark Rothko Signature
"Art to me is an anecdote of the spirit, and the only means of making concrete the purpose of its varied quickness and stillness."
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Mark Rothko Signature
"I am not an abstractionist, I have never lost the sense of the need for concreteness. That is why I do not understand an aesthetic built on the perception of relationships. The image for me must always be concrete and indivisible and understandable in terms of real life"
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Mark Rothko Signature
"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."
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Mark Rothko and Adolph Gottlieb
"I do not believe that there was ever a question of being abstract or representational. It is really a matter of ending this silence and solitude, of breathing, and stretching one’s arms again transcendental experiences became possible."
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Mark Rothko Signature
"Like the Cubists before them, the abstractionists felt a beautiful thing in perceiving how the medium can, of its own accord, carry one into the unknown, that is to the discovery of new structures. What an inspiration the medium is.."
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Mark Rothko Signature
"While the authority of the doctor or plumber is never questioned, everyone deems himself a good judge and an adequate arbiter of what a work of art should be and how it should be done."
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Mark Rothko Signature
"In matters of art our society has substituted taste for truth, which she finds more amusing and less of a responsibility, and changes her tastes as frequently as she changes her hats and shoes."
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Mark Rothko Signature

Summary of Mark Rothko

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.

Accomplishments

  • 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 artists' 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.

Biography of Mark Rothko

Mark Rothko in Yorktown Heights (c. 1949)

“We start with color," Rothko famously stated in 1936 when he was writing a book comparing children’s art to modern paintings. He went on to employ that early sense of color with his inherent belief: “the exhilarated tragic experience is for me the only source of art,” as he created his Color Field paintings, celebrated for their spiritual and psychological presence.



Progression of Art

1935

Crucifixion

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 14th-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

1938

Entrance to Subway

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

1944

Oedipus

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. As Rothko said: "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.. …(they) express something real and existing in ourselves."

Oil on linen - Unknown

1944

Slow Swirl at the Edge of the Sea

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

1947

No. 9

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

1958

Four Darks in Red

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

1965

The Rothko Chapel

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

1969

Untitled, Black on Gray

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


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Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors

"Mark Rothko Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by The Art Story Contributors
Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
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First published on 01 Jul 2009. Updated and modified regularly
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