Mark Rothko (1903-1970):
“The brain should put a stop to self-destruction, because self-destruction doesn’t make sense. but the brain plays along, allows it, agrees, gives the final orders, which tells us something about the brain.”
Like most American artists of his generation, Rothko’s early career was marked by struggle and lack of recognition. He is often grouped with that very American brand of painting known as Abstract Expressionism, along with Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Robert Motherwell and Helen Frankenthaler. They produced art that was not just abstract, it made little reference to the material world, yet it was highly expressive, conveying strong emotional content.
By the end of his life, when Rothko’s monumental canvases, where simple rectangles of glowing color seem to float on the canvas, were famous, his work was purchased by important collectors around the world and exhibited at major museums. Rothko’s significance was noted when he was given a retrospective exhibition of his works in 1961 at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), which in that era, only gave such shows to living painters with a worldwide reputation.
Rothko’s quiet, sublime, contemplative paintings are a strong contrast to the turbulent imagery of most Abstract Expressionist works of his contemporaries. Rothko’s art was described as ”empty” by conservative critics; those who loved his work admired his paintings other‐worldly calm.
”A picture lives by companionship, expanding and quickening in the eyes of the sensitive observer. It dies by the same token. It is therefore a risky act to send it out into the world. How often it must be permanently impaired by the eyes of the unfeeling and the cruelty of the impotent who would extend their affliction universally.”
His temperament was Russian and melancholic, even when his career was going well. He was consumed with the idea that the people who were influenced by him, and his fans, were rejecting him. He loved and found solace in music.
Rothko was born Marcus Rothkovich in Dvinsk, Russia. His father was a pharmacist who brought his family to America in 1913, and settled in my city, Portland, Oregon. As a young man, Rothko was preoccupied with politics and social justice, and he wanted to be a labor leader.
He began studies at Yale University in 1921 but left after two years to ”wander around, bum about, starve a bit”. He settled in New York City in 1925 and enrolled in classes at the Art Students League. This was his only formal training. Rothko always considered himself as self‐taught.
Starting out as a realist, he was part of a group show in 1929. Later, when most artists became actual starving artists during the Great Depression, he worked on the Federal Arts Project. In 1933, Rothko had his first solo exhibitions at the Portland Museum of Art (PAM). During the 1930s, Rothko exhibited his work with a group of modern artists who called themselves “The Ten”, and they made money doing projects for the Works Progress Administration (WPA).
By the 1940s; his work, which in the previous decade took on urban themes, began to absorb the surrealist influences of artists that he admired, such as Joan Miró and Max Ernst. In his first important one‐man show at Peggy Guggenheim‘s Art Of This Century gallery, the surrealistic direction of his work was already noticeable.
He joined the Betty Parsons Gallery in 1946, and the surrealist iconography gave way to completely abstract forms. In 1951, a reviewer for the failing New York Times wrote of the paintings at the Betty Parsons Gallery:
”They are given no titles, and, in the accepted sense of the word, they represent nothing. They are expressions of pure and elementary color‐form relationships.”
That same year, Rothko showed for the first time at MoMa. It was a now famous exhibition called Abstract Painting and Sculpture in America. He was represented in the museum’s shows that traveled to Europe, giving Europeans their first exposure to his work.
In 1958, with Mark Tobey, Rothko was chosen to represent the USA at the 29th Venice Biennale.
Rothko also had a teaching career. From 1929 to 1952, he taught children at the Center Academy in Brooklyn and at the Brooklyn Jewish Center. During the summers of 1947 and 1949 he taught at the California School of Fine Arts in San Francisco.
He was co‐founder and teacher in 1948 of the influential school called Subjects of the Artists, a discussion center for the New York School painters. Rothko told in The New York Times:
”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.”
After World War II, he turned to themes of death and survival, and to concepts taken from ancient myths and religions. Rather than depicting the everyday world, he began to paint forms that suggested otherworldly plants and creatures.
By the 1950s, Rothko’s art was completely abstract. He even preferred to number his canvases, rather than giving them titles. He had arrived at his signature style: working on a large, vertical canvas, he painted several colored rectangles of color floating against a colored background. Within this formula he found endless variations of color and proportion, resulting in different moods and effects.
His use of broad, simplified areas of color, rather than splashes and drips of paint, brought his style the name “Colorfield Painting”. He painted in thin, layered washes of color that seemed to glow from within, and his large-scale canvases were meant to be seen at close range, so that the viewer would feel engulfed by them.
In the 1960s, Rothko began to paint in darker colors, especially maroon, brown and black. He received several commissions for large-scale public works. One was a group of murals for the Four Seasons restaurant in Manhattan’s Seagram Building. Rothko never completed the murals and he withdrew from the project; but he did another series of extraordinary paintings for a non-denominational chapel in Houston, now called The Rothko Chapel.
Rothko consulted with the chapel’s architects and he became considerably involved in the layout of the building, insisting that it feature a central cupola. Architect Philip Johnson, unable to compromise with Rothko’s vision about the kind of light he wanted in the space, left the project in 1967 and was replaced with Howard Barnstone and Eugene Aubry. It is the ideal space for contemplating his stark, immersive canvases. The Chapel houses fourteen large paintings with dark, nearly impenetrable surfaces, perfect for contemplation. The Chapel took six years of Rothko’s life. It finally opened in 1971, but Rothko never saw the completed Chapel, did not install his paintings.
When Hurricane Harvey hit Houston hard in 2017, I called the Rothko Chapel inquiring as to their well-being. The nicest woman with the sassiest accent (her voice was like human BBQ sauce) assured me that the chapel was dry.
Rothko suffered from major depression. He took his own life at his studio in February 1970. His nearly 800 unsold paintings were the center of a protracted legal battle between his family and the executors of the will. The remaining work was eventually divided between the two Rothko children and major museums around the world.
The Husband and I saw a career retrospect of Rothko’s work, taking up four floors of the old Whitney Museum, in October 1998. Even for a fan like me, it was overwhelming, and I was in tears several times.
The Portland Art Museum, where Rothko had his first show, has controversial plans for a $50 million glass-walled Rothko Pavilion that includes an open breezeway to allow pedestrians to walk through the expansion which addressed some of the objections. It includes a 20-year partnership with the children of Rothko, that involves the loan to the Museum of major Rothko pieces from their private collection. The paintings will be loaned individually in rotation over the next two decades.
In 2010, The Husband and I saw a production of Red, a terrific play by yesterday’s #BornThisDay honoree, openly gay writer John Logan. It starred Alfred Molina as Rothko and Eddie Redmayne as his fictional assistant, and centers on the work of the Four Seasons mural. Redmayne won a Tony Award for his performance. It’s a tight, dramatic, economical play. I am just cray about it.
“The fact that people break down and cry when confronted with my pictures shows that I can communicate those basic human emotions. And if you say you are moved only by their color relationships then you miss the point.”