Mark Rothko

Mark Rothko - Biography and Legacy

American Painter

Born: September 25, 1903 - Dvinsk, Russian Empire
Died: February 25, 1970 - New York, New York

Biography of Mark Rothko


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.

Early Training

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 color 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.

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 if it 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

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.

The Legacy of Mark Rothko

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.

Writings and Ideas


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.

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.

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

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."

Do more

Content compiled and written by The Art Story Contributors

Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors

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