Rothko Biography Wiki
Mark Rothko, born Marcus Rothkowitz (September 25, 1903 –
February 25, 1970), was a Latvian-born American painter. He is
classified as an abstract expressionist, although he
himself rejected this label, and even resisted the classification as an
Mark Rothko (Marcus Rothkowitz, Mark Rotkovich) was
born in Dvinsk, Vitebsk Province, Russian Empire (now Daugavpils,
His father, Jacob Rothkowitz, was a pharmacist
and an intellectual, who provided his children with a secular and
political, rather than religious, upbringing. Unlike Jews in most cities
of Czarist Russia, those in Dvinsk had
been spared from violent outbreaks of anti-Semitic pogroms. However, in an environment where Jews
were often blamed for many of the evils that befell Russia, Rothko’s
early childhood was plagued with fear.
Despite Jacob Rothkowitz's modest income, the family was highly
educated, and able to speak Russian, Yiddish and Hebrew. Following Jacob's return to Orthodox Judaism, he sent Marcus, his youngest son, to the cheder at
age 5, where he studied the Talmud
although his elder siblings had been educated in the public school
from Russia to the U.S.
Fearing that his sons were about to be drafted into the Czarist army,
Jacob Rothkowitz emigrated from Russia to the United States, following
the path of many other Jews who left Daugavpils in the wake of Cossack
purges. These émigrés included two of Jacob's brothers, who managed to
establish themselves as clothing manufacturers in Portland, Oregon, a common profession among Eastern European
immigrants. Marcus remained in Russia with his mother and elder sister
Sonia. They joined Jacob and the elder brothers later, arriving at Ellis
Island in the winter of 1913 after twelve days at sea. Jacob's death a
few months later left the family without economic support. One of
Marcus’ great aunts did unskilled labor, Sonia operated a cash register,
while Marcus worked in one of his uncle’s warehouses, selling
newspapers to employees.
Marcus started school in the United States in 1913, quickly
accelerating from third to fifth grade, and completed the secondary
level with honors at Lincoln High School
in Portland, in June 1921 at the age of seventeen. He learned his fourth
language, English, and became an active member of the Jewish community
center, where he proved adept at political discussions. Like his father,
Rothko was passionate about such issues as workers’ rights and women's
right to contraception.
He received a scholarship to Yale based on academic performance, but it has been
suggested that Yale only made this offer in order to lure Rothko’s
friend, Aaron Director, with a similar proposal.
After one year, the scholarship ran out and Rothko took menial jobs to
support his studies.
Rothko found the "WASP" Yale community to be elitist and racist. He and Aaron Director started a
satirical magazine, The Yale Saturday Evening Pest, which
lampooned the school’s stuffy, bourgeois attitude.
Following his second year, Rothko dropped out, and did not return until
he was awarded an honorary degree forty-six years later.
 Early career
In the autumn of 1923, Rothko found work in New York's garment
district and took up residence on the Upper West Side. While visiting a
friend at the Art Students League of New York,
he saw students sketching a model. According to Rothko, this was the
beginning of his life as an artist. Even his self-described "beginning"
at the Art Students League of New York
was not whole-hearted commitment; two months after he returned to
Portland to visit his family, he joined a theater group run by Clark
Gable’s wife, Josephine Dillon. Whatever his theatrical ability may have
been, he did not have the appearance typically associated with
successful commercial actors, and professional acting seemed an
Returning to New York, Rothko briefly enrolled in the New School of
Design, where one of his instructors was the artist Arshile
Gorky. This was probably his first encounter with a member of the
"avant-garde". That autumn, he took courses at the Art Students League of New York
taught by still-life artist Max Weber, who was also a Russian Jew. It was due to
Weber that Rothko began to see art as a tool of emotional and religious
expression, and Rothko’s paintings from this era portray a Weberian
 Rothko’s circle
Rothko’s move to New York established him in a fertile artistic
atmosphere. Modernist painters had shows in the New York galleries, and
the city’s museums were an invaluable resource to foster a budding
artist’s knowledge, experience and skills. Among those early influences
were the works of the German Expressionists, the surrealist work of Paul
Klee, and the paintings of Georges Rouault. In 1928, Rothko had his own showing with a
group of young artists at the appropriately named Opportunity
Gallery. His paintings included dark, moody, expressionist
interiors, as well as urban scenes, and were generally well accepted
among critics and peers. Despite modest success, Rothko still needed to
supplement his income, and in 1929 he began giving classes in painting
and clay sculpture at the Center Academy, where he remained as teacher
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. His own paintings, soon after meeting
Avery, began to use similar subject matter and color, as in Rothko’s
1933/34 Bathers, or Beach Scene.
Rothko, Gottlieb, Newman, Solman, Graham, and their mentor, Avery,
spent considerable time together, vacationing at Lake George and
Gloucester, Massachusetts, spending their days painting and their
evenings discussing art. During a 1932 visit to Lake George, Rothko met
Edith Sachar, a jewelry designer, who he married on November 12. The
following summer, Rothko’s first one-man show was held at the Portland Art Museum, consisting mostly of drawings and aquarelles, as well as the works of Rothko’s
pre-adolescent students from the Center Academy. His family was unable
to understand Rothko’s decision to be an artist, especially considering
the dire economic situation of the Depression.
Having suffered serious financial setbacks, the Rothkowitzes were
mystified by Rothko’s seeming indifference to financial necessity; they
felt he was doing his mother a disservice by not finding a more
lucrative and realistic career.
 First one-man
show in New York
Returning to New York, Rothko had his first East Coast one-man show
at the Contemporary Arts Gallery. He showed fifteen oil paintings,
mostly portraits, along with some aquarelles and drawings. It was the
oils that would capture the critics’ eye; Rothko’s use of rich fields of
colors showed a master’s touch, and moved beyond the influence of
Avery. In late 1935, Rothko joined with Ilya Bolotowsky, Ben-Zion, Adolph Gottlieb, Lou Harris,
Ralph Rosenborg, Louis Schanker and Joseph
Solman to form "The Ten" (Whitney Ten
Dissenters), whose mission (according to a catalog from a 1937 Mercury
Gallery show) was "to protest against the reputed equivalence of
American painting and literal painting." Rothko's style was already
evolving in the direction of his renowned later works, yet, despite this
newfound exploration of color, Rothko turned his attention to another
formal and stylistic innovation, inaugurating a period of surrealist
paintings influenced by mythological fables and symbols. He was earning a
growing reputation among his peers, particularly among the group who
formed the Artists' Union. Begun in 1937, and including Gottlieb and
Soloman, their plan was to create a municipal art gallery to show
self-organized group exhibitions. The Artists' Union was a cooperative
which brought together resources and talent of various artists to create
an atmosphere of mutual admiration and self-promotion. In 1936, the
group showed at the Galerie Bonaparte in France. Then, in 1938, a show
was held at the Mercury Gallery, in direct defiance of the Whitney
Museum, which the group regarded as having a provincial, regionalist
agenda. It was also during this period that Rothko, like many artists,
found employment with the Works Progress Administration, a labor relief
agency created under Roosevelt’s New Deal
in response to the economic crisis. As the Depression waned, Rothko
continued on in government service, working for TRAP, an agency that
employed artists, architects and laborers in the restoration and
renovation of public buildings. Many other important artists were also
employed by TRAP, including Avery, DeKooning, Pollock, Reinhardt, David Smith, Louise Nevelson,
eight of the "Ten" artists of the dissenter group, and Rothko’s old
teacher, Arshile Gorky.
 Development of style
In 1936, Rothko began writing a book, never completed, about
similarities in the art of children and the work of modern painters.
According to Rothko, the work of modernists, influenced by primitive
art, could be compared to that of children in that "child art transforms
itself into primitivism, which is only the child producing a mimicry of
himself." In this manuscript, he observed that "the fact that one
usually begins with drawing is already academic. We start with color."
The modernist artist, like the child and the primitive by whom he is
influenced, expresses an innate feeling for form that is, in the best
and most universal work, expressed without mental interference. It is a
physical and emotional, non-intellectual experience. Rothko was using
fields of color in his aquarelles and city scenes, and his subject
matter and form at this time had become non-intellectual.
Rothko's work matured from representation and mythological subjects
into rectangular fields of color and light, that later culminated – or
self-destructed – in his final works for the Rothko Chapel. However,
between the primitivist and playful urban scenes and aquarelles of the
early period, and the late, transcendent fields of color, was a period
of transition. It was a rich and complex milieu which included two
important events in Rothko’s life: the onset of World War II, and his
reading of Friedrich Nietzsche.
Rothko separated from his wife, Edith Sachar, in the summer of 1937,
following Edith’s increased success in the jewelry business. Rothko
helped with his wife's business, and did not enjoy it. At this time,
Rothko was, in comparison, a financial failure. He and Sachar reconciled
several months later, yet their relationship remained tense. 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.
In a related political development, following the Hitler-Stalin Pact
of 1939, Rothko, along with Avery, Gottlieb, and others, left the
American Artists’ Congress in order to dissociate themselves from the
Congress’ alignment with radical Communism. In June, Rothko and a number
of other artists formed the Federation of Modern Painters and
Sculptors. Their aim was to keep their art free from political
propaganda. A rise of Nazi sympathy in the United States heightened
Rothko's fears of anti-Semitism, and in January 1940, he abbreviated his
name from "Marcus Rothkowitz" to "Mark Rothko". The name "Roth," a
common abbreviation, had become, as a result of its commonality,
identifiably Jewish, therefore he settled upon "Rothko".
 Inspiration from
Fearing that modern American painting had reached a conceptual dead
end, Rothko was intent upon exploring subjects other than urban and
natural scenes. He sought subjects that would complement his growing
concern with form, space, and color. The world crisis of war lent this
search an immediacy, because he insisted that the new subject matter be
of social impact, yet able to transcend the confines of current
political symbols and values. In his essay, "The Romantics Were Prompted," published in 1949,
Rothko argued that the "archaic artist ... found it necessary to create a
group of intermediaries, monsters, hybrids, gods and demigods" in much
the same way that modern man found intermediaries in Fascism
and the Communist Party. For
Rothko, "without monsters and gods, art cannot enact a drama."
Rothko’s use of mythology as a commentary on current history was
not novel. Rothko, Gottlieb, and Newman read and discussed the works of Freud and Jung, in particular their theories concerning
dreams and the archetypes of the collective unconscious, and understood
mythological symbols as images that refer to themselves, operating in a
space of human consciousness that transcends specific history and
culture. Rothko later said his artistic approach was "reformed" by his
study of the "dramatic themes of myth." He apparently stopped painting
altogether for the length of 1940, and read Freud’s Interpretation of
Dreams and Frazer’s Golden Bough.
 Influence of Nietzsche
Rothko’s new vision would attempt to address modern man’s spiritual
and creative mythological requirements. The most crucial philosophical
influence on Rothko in this period was Friedrich Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy. Nietzsche claimed that
Greek tragedy had the function of the redemption of man from the terrors
of mortal life. The exploration of novel topics in modern art ceased to
be Rothko’s goal; from this point on, his art would bear the ultimate
aim of relieving modern man’s spiritual emptiness. He believed that this
"emptiness" was created partly by the lack of a mythology, which could,
as described by Nietzsche,"[address]... the growth of a child’s mind
and – to a mature man his life and struggles".
Rothko believed that his art could free the unconscious energies
previously liberated by mythological images, symbols, and rituals. He
considered himself a "mythmaker," and proclaimed "the exhilarated tragic
experience,is for me the only source of art."
Many of his paintings of this period contrast barbaric scenes of
violence with those of civilized passivity, with imagery drawn primarily
Oresteia trilogy. In his 1942
painting, The Omen of the Eagle, the archetypal images of, in
Rothko’s words, "man, bird, beast and tree ... merge into a single
tragic idea." The bird, an eagle, was not without contemporary
historical relevance, as both the United States and Germany (in its
claim to inheritance of the Holy Roman Empire) used the eagle as a national symbol.
Rothko’s cross-cultural, trans-historical reading of myth perfectly
addresses the psychological and emotional roots of the symbol, making it
universally available to anyone who might wish to see it. A list of the
titles of the paintings from this period is illustrative of Rothko’s
use of myth: Antigone, Oedipus,
The Sacrifice of Iphigenia, Leda, The Furies,
Altar of Orpheus. Judeo-Christian imagery is evoked: Gethsemane,
The Last Supper, Rites of Lilith,
as are Egyptian (Room in Karnak)
and Syrian (The Syrian Bull). Soon after the war, Rothko felt
his titles were limiting the larger, transcendent aims of his paintings,
and so removed them altogether.
At the root of Rothko and Gottlieb’s presentation of archaic forms
and symbols as subject matter illuminating modern existence had been the
influence of Surrealism, Cubism,
and abstract art. In 1936, Rothko attended two exhibitions at the
Museum of Modern Art, "Cubism and Abstract Art," and "Fantastic Art,
Dada and Surrealism," which greatly influenced his celebrated 1938 Subway
In 1942, following the success of shows by Ernst,
and Salvador Dalí, who had immigrated to the
United States because of the war, Surrealism
took New York by storm. Rothko and his peers, Gottlieb and Newman, met and discussed the art and ideas of these
European pioneers, especially those of Mondrian.
They began to regard themselves as heirs to the European avant-garde.
With mythic form as a catalyst, they would merge the two European
styles of Surrealism and abstraction. As a result, Rothko’s work became
increasingly abstract; perhaps ironically, Rothko himself described the
process as being one toward "clarity."
New paintings were unveiled at a 1942 show at Macy’s department store in New York City. In
response to a negative review by the New York Times, Rothko and Gottlieb
issued a manifesto (written mainly by Rothko) which stated, in response
to the Times critic’s self-professed "befuddlement" over the new
||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
Rothko's vision of myth as a replenishing resource for
an era of spiritual void had been set in motion decades before, by his
reading of Carl Jung, T. S. Eliot, James
Joyce and Thomas Mann, among others. Unlike his
predecessors, Rothko would, in his later period, develop his philosophy
of the tragic ideal into the realm of pure abstraction. He thereby
questioned the possibility for mankind to transform a cradle of imagery
into a new set of images, no longer dependent on tribal, archaic, and
religious mythologies – the very symbols Rothko had utilized and
struggled with during his middle period.
 Break with Surrealism
On June 13, 1943, Rothko and Sachar separated again. Rothko suffered a
long depression following their divorce. Thinking that a change of
scenery might help, Rothko returned to Portland. From there he traveled
to Berkeley, where he met artist Clyfford Still, and the two began a close friendship. Still’s
deeply abstract paintings would be of considerable influence on
Rothko’s later works. In the autumn of 1943, Rothko returned to New
York, where he met noted collector Peggy Guggenheim. Her assistant, Howard Putzel,
convinced Guggenheim to show Rothko in her The Art of This Century Gallery.
Rothko’s one-man show at Guggenheim's gallery, in late 1945, resulted
in few sales (prices ranging from $150 to $750), and in
less-than-favorable reviews. During this period, Rothko had been
stimulated by Still’s abstract landscapes of color, and his style
shifted away from surrealism. Rothko's experiments in interpreting the
unconscious symbolism of everyday forms had run their course. His future
lay with abstraction:
||I insist upon the equal
existence of the world engendered in the mind and the world engendered
by God outside of it. If I have faltered in the use of familiar objects,
it is because I refuse to mutilate their appearance for the sake of an
action which they are too old to serve, or for which perhaps they had
never been intended. I quarrel with surrealists and abstract art only as
one quarrels with his father and mother; recognizing the inevitability
and function of my roots, but insistent upon my dissent; I, being both
they, and an integral completely independent of them.
Rothko's 1945 masterpiece, "Slow Swirl at Edge of Sea" illustrates
his newfound propensity towards abstraction. Sometimes it is interpreted
as a meditation on Rothko’s courtship of his second wife, Mary Ellen
Beistle, who he met in 1944, and married in the spring of 1945. The
painting presents two humanlike forms embraced in a swirling, floating
atmosphere of shapes and colors, in subtle grays and browns. The rigid
rectangular background foreshadows Rothko’s later experiments in pure
color. The painting was completed, not coincidentally, in the year the Second World War ended.
Despite the abandonment of his "Mythomorphic Abstractionism" (as
described by ARTnews), Rothko would still be recognized by the
public primarily for his "Surrealist" works, for the remainder of the
1940s. The Whitney Museum included
them in their annual exhibit of Contemporary Art from 1943 to 1950.
The year 1946 saw the creation of Rothko’s transitional "multiform"
paintings. In viewing the catalogue raisonné, one can recognize the
gradual metamorphosis from surrealistic, myth-influenced paintings of
the early part of the decade to the highly abstract, Clyfford Still-influenced forms of pure color. The term
"multiform" has been applied by art critics; this word was never used by
Rothko himself, yet it is an accurate description of these paintings.
Several of them, including No. 18 (1948) and Untitled
(also 1948), are masterpieces in their own right. Rothko himself
described these paintings as possessing a more organic structure, and as
self-contained units of human expression. For Rothko, these blurred
blocks of various colors, devoid of landscape or human figure, let alone
myth and symbol, possessed their own life force. They contained a
"breath of life" he found lacking in most figurative painting of the
era. This new form seemed filled with possibility, whereas his
experimentation with mythological symbolism had become a tired formula,
in much the same way as he viewed his late 1930’s experiments in urban
settings. The "multiforms" brought Rothko to a realization of his
mature, signature style, and was the only style Rothko would never fully
abandon prior to his death.
Rothko, in the middle of a crucial period of transition, had been
impressed by Clyfford Still’s abstract fields of color, which were
influenced in part by the landscapes of Still’s native North Dakota. In
1947, during a summer semester teaching at the California School of Fine
Art, Rothko and Still flirted with the idea of founding their own
curriculum, and they realized the idea in New York in the following
year. Named "The Subjects of the Artists School," they employed David Hare and Robert Motherwell, among others. Though the group was
short-lived and separated later in the same year, the school was the
center of a flurry of activity in contemporary art. In addition to his
teaching experience, Rothko began to contribute articles to two new art
publications, "Tiger’s Eye" and "Possibilities". Using the forums as an
opportunity to assess the current art scene, Rothko also discussed in
detail his own artwork and philosophy of art. These articles reflect the
elimination of figurative elements from his work. He described his new
method as "unknown adventures in an unknown space," free from "direct
association with any particular, and the passion of organism."
In 1949, Rothko became fascinated by Matisse’s
Red Studio, acquired by the Museum of Modern Art that year. He
later credited it as a key source of inspiration for his later abstract
 Late period
No. 3/No. 13 (Magenta, Black, Green on Orange), 1949, 85 3/8" x
65" (216.5 x 164.8 cm), oil on canvas, Museum of Modern Art. An example of Rothko's late
Soon, the "multiforms" developed into the signature style; by early
1949 Rothko exhibited these new works at the Betty
Parsons Gallery. For critic Harold Rosenberg, the paintings were nothing short of a
revelation. Rothko had, after painting his first "multiform," secluded
himself to his home in East Hampton on Long
Island. He invited only a select few, including Rosenberg, to view
the new paintings. The discovery of his definitive form came at a period
of great distress to the artist; his mother Kate died in October 1948.
It was at some point during that winter that Rothko happened upon the
use of symmetrical rectangular blocks of two to three opposing or
contrasting, yet complementary, colors, in which, for example, "the
rectangles sometimes seem barely to coalesce out of the ground,
concentrations of its substance. The green bar in "Magenta, Black, Green
on Orange", on the other hand, appears to vibrate against the orange
around it, creating an optical flicker." 
Additionally, for the next seven years, Rothko painted in oil only on
large canvases with vertical formats. Very large-scale designs were used
in order to overwhelm the viewer, or, in Rothko’s words, to make the
viewer feel "enveloped within" the painting. For some critics, the large
size was an attempt to make up for a lack of substance. In retaliation,
||I realize that historically
the function of painting large pictures is painting something very
grandiose and pompous. The reason I paint them, however . . . is
precisely because I want to be very intimate and human. To paint a small
picture is to place yourself outside your experience, to look upon an
experience as a stereopticon view or with a reducing glass. However you
paint the larger picture, you are in it. It isn’t something you command!
He even went so far as to recommend that a viewer position themselves
as little as 18 inches away from the canvas
so that the viewer might experience a sense of intimacy, as well as
awe, a transcendence of the individual, and a sense of the unknown.
As Rothko achieved success, he became increasingly protective of his
works, turning down several potentially important sales and exhibition
||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 and
unfeeling act to send it out into the world. How often it must be
permanently impaired by the eyes of the vulgar and the cruelty of the
impotent who would extend the affliction universally!
Again, Rothko’s aims, in some critics’ and viewers’ estimation,
exceeded his methods. Many of the abstract
expressionists exhibited pretensions for something approximating a spiritual
experience, or at least an experience that exceeded the boundaries of
the purely aesthetic. In later years, Rothko emphasized the spiritual
aspect of his artwork, a sentiment that would culminate in the
construction of the Rothko Chapel.
Many of the "multiforms" and early signature paintings display an
affinity for bright, vibrant colors, particularly reds and yellows,
expressing energy and ecstasy. By the mid 1950’s however, close to a
decade after the completion of the first "multiforms," Rothko began to
employ dark blues and greens; for many critics of his work this shift in
colors was representative of a growing darkness within Rothko’s
The general method for these paintings was to apply a thin layer of
binder mixed with pigment directly onto uncoated and untreated canvas,
and to paint significantly thinned oils directly onto this layer,
creating a dense mixture of overlapping colors and shapes. His brush
strokes were fast and light, a method he would continue to use until his
death. His increasing adeptness at this method is apparent in the
paintings completed for the Chapel. With a total lack of figurative
representation, what drama there is to be found in a late Rothko is in
the contrast of colors, radiating, as it were, against one another. His
paintings can then be likened to a sort of fugal arrangement: each
variation counterpoised against one another, yet all existing within one
Rothko used several original techniques that he tried to keep secret
even from his assistants. Electron microscopy and ultraviolet
analysis conducted by the MOLAB showed that he employed natural
substances such as egg and glue, as well as artificial materials
including acrylic resins, phenol formaldehyde, modified alkyd, and
One of his objectives was to make the various layers of the painting
dry quickly, without mixing of colors, such that he could soon create
new layers on top of the earlier ones.
 European travels
Rothko and his wife visited Europe for five months in early 1950. The
last time he had been in Europe was during his childhood in Latvia, at
that time part of Russia. Yet he did not return to his motherland,
preferring to visit the important museums of England, France and Italy.
He much admired European art, and he visited the major museums of Paris.
Besides viewing many paintings, the architecture and the music of
Europe left a deep impression on Rothko. The frescoes
of Fra Angelico in the monastery of San
Marco at Florence most impressed him. Angelico’s intimately
bright tempera frescoes magnificently contrast with the grandeur and
monastic serenity of the surrounding architecture. Certainly the
spirituality and concentration on light appealed to Rothko’s
sensibilities, as did Angelico’s economic circumstances, which Rothko
saw as similar to his own, having always been forced to struggle to
exist as an artist.
Of Angelico, Rothko stated "As an artist you have to be a thief and
steal a place for yourself on the rich man’s wall." He felt he was still
struggling, despite some promising developments, including the sale of a
painting for one thousand dollars to Mrs. John D. Rockefeller III
and the purchase of "Number 10" (1950) for the Museum of Modern Art.
Rothko had one-man shows at the Betty
Parsons Gallery in 1950 and 1951, and at other galleries across the
world, including Japan, São
Paulo and Amsterdam. The 1952 "Fifteen Americans" show
curated by Dorothy Canning Miller at the Museum
of Modern Art formally heralded the abstract artists, including works
by Jackson Pollock and William Baziotes. It also created a dispute between Rothko
and Barnett Newman, after Newman accused Rothko of having attempted to
exclude him from the show. Growing success as a group led to infighting,
and claims to supremacy and leadership. When "Fortune" magazine named a
Rothko painting as a good investment, Newman and Still, out of
jealousy, branded him a sell-out, secretly possessing bourgeois
aspirations. Still wrote to Rothko to request the paintings he had given
Rothko over the years. Rothko was deeply depressed by his former
During the 1950 Europe trip, Rothko's wife became pregnant. On
December 30, when they were back in New York, she gave birth to a
daughter, Kathy Lynn, called "Kate" in honor of Rothko’s mother.
to his own increasing success
Shortly thereafter, due to the Fortune magazine plug and further
purchases by clients, Rothko’s financial situation began to improve. In
addition to sales of paintings, he also had money from his teaching
position at Brooklyn College. In 1954, he exhibited in a
solo show at the Art Institute of Chicago, where he met art
dealer Sidney Janis, who represented Pollock and Franz
Kline. Their relationship proved mutually beneficial.
Despite his fame, Rothko felt a growing personal seclusion, and a
sense of being misunderstood as an artist. He feared that people
purchased his paintings simply out of fashion, and that the true purpose
of his work was not being grasped by collectors, audiences or critics.
He wanted his paintings to move beyond abstraction, as well as beyond
classical art. For Rothko, the paintings were objects that possessed
their own form and potential, and therefore, must be encountered as
such. Sensing the futility of words in describing this decidedly
non-verbal aspect of his work, Rothko abandoned all attempts at
responding to those that might inquire after its meaning and purpose,
stating finally that silence is "so accurate." His paintings’ "surfaces
are expansive and push outward in all directions, or their surfaces
contract and rush inward in all directions. Between these two poles you
can find everything I want to say."
He began to insist that he was not an abstractionist, and that
such a description was as inaccurate as labeling him a great colorist.
His interest was:
||only in expressing basic
human emotions — tragedy, ecstasy, doom, and so on. And the fact that a
lot of 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 I painted them. And if you, as you say, are moved only by their
color relationship, then you miss the point.
For Rothko, color is "merely an instrument." The "multiforms" and the
signature paintings are, in essence, the same expression of "basic
human emotions," as his surrealistic mythological paintings, albeit in a
more pure form. What is common among these stylistic innovations is a
concern for "tragedy, ecstasy and doom." Rothko’s comment on viewers
breaking down in tears before his paintings that may have convinced the De Menils to construct the Rothko Chapel. Whatever
Rothko’s feeling about the audience or the critical establishment’s
interpretation of his work, it is apparent that, by 1958, the spiritual
expression he meant to portray on canvas was growing increasingly dark.
His bright reds, yellows and oranges were subtly transformed into dark
blues, greens, grays and blacks.
Murals / Four Seasons Restaurant artistic commission
In 1958, Rothko was awarded the first of two major mural commissions
that proved both rewarding and frustrating. The beverage company Joseph
Seagram and Sons had recently completed their new building on Park
Avenue, designed by architects Mies Van der Rohe and Philip Johnson. Rothko agreed to provide paintings for the
building’s new luxury restaurant, The Four Seasons.
For Rothko, this commission presented a new challenge for it was the
first time he was required not only to design a coordinated series of
paintings, but to produce an artwork space concept for a large, specific
interior. Over the following three months, Rothko completed forty
paintings, three full series in dark red and brown. He altered his
horizontal format to vertical to complement the restaurant’s vertical
features: columns, walls, doors and windows.
The following June, Rothko and his family again traveled to Europe.
While on the SS Independence he disclosed to John
Fischer, publisher of Harper's, that his true intention for the Seagram murals
was to paint "something that will ruin the appetite of every
son-of-a-bitch who ever eats in that room. If the restaurant would
refuse to put up my murals, that would be the ultimate compliment. But
they won’t. People can stand anything these days."
While in Europe, the Rothkos traveled to Rome, Florence,
In Florence, he visited the library at San Lorenzo, to see
first-hand the library’s Michelangelo
room, from which he drew further inspiration for the murals. He
remarked that the "room had exactly the feeling that I wanted [...] it
gives the visitor the feeling of being caught in a room with the doors
and windows walled-in shut." Following the trip to Italy, the Rothkos
voyaged to Paris, Brussels, Antwerp
before returning to the United States.
Once back in New York, Rothko and wife Mell visited the
near-completed Four Seasons restaurant. Upset with the restaurant’s
dining atmosphere, which he considered pretentious and inappropriate for
the display of his works, Rothko immediately refused to continue the
project, and returned the commission cash advance to the Seagram and
Sons Company. Seagram had intended to honor Rothko's emergence to
prominence through his selection, and his breach of contract and public
expression of outrage were unexpected. (According to John Lahr's article
"Escape Artist" [The New Yorker, April 12, 2010, p. 81], Rothko had
expected his paintings to be displayed in the lobby of the Seagram
Building, and discontinued the project when he learned they were to be
hung in the restaurant.)
Rothko kept the commissioned paintings in storage until 1968. Given
that Rothko had known in advance about the luxury decor of the
restaurant and the social class of its future patrons, the exact motives
for his abrupt repudiation remain mysterious. Rothko never fully
explained his conflicted emotions over the incident, which exemplified
his temperamental personality. The final series of Seagram Murals
was dispersed and now hangs in three locations: London’s Tate
Modern, Japan’s Kawamura
Memorial Museum and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.
prominence in the United States
Rothko’s first completed space was created in the Phillips Collection in Washington,
D.C., following the purchase of four paintings by collector Duncan Phillips. Rothko’s
fame and wealth had substantially increased; his paintings began to sell
to notable collectors, including the Rockefellers.
In January 1961, Rothko sat next to Joseph Kennedy at John F. Kennedy’s inaugural ball. Later that year, a
retrospective of his work was held at the Museum of Modern Art, to
considerable commercial and critical success. In spite of this newfound
notoriety, the art world had already turned its attention from the now
passé abstract expressionists to the "next big thing", Pop Art, particularly the work of Warhol,
Lichtenstein, and Rosenquist.
Rothko labeled Pop-Art artists "charlatans and young opportunists",
and wondered aloud during a 1962 exhibition of Pop Art, "are the young
artists plotting to kill us all?" On viewing Jasper
Johns' flags, Rothko said, "we worked for years to get rid of all
that." It was not that Rothko could not accept being replaced, so much
as an inability to accept what was replacing him. He found it valueless,
though it received much admiration as collectors sold off their
Rothkos, Newmans and Gottliebs and replaced them with Rauschenbergs, and staged retrospectives of
artists then in their mid-twenties.
Rothko received a second mural commission project, this time a wall
of paintings for the penthouse of Harvard University’s Holyoke Center.
He made twenty-two sketches, from which six murals were completed and
only five were installed. Harvard President Nathan Pusey, following an explanation of the
religious symbology of the Triptych,
had the paintings hung in January 1963, and later shown at the Guggenheim. During
installation, Rothko found the paintings to be compromised by the room’s
lighting. Despite the installation of fiberglass shades, the paintings
were removed in the late 1970s and, due to the fugitive nature of some
of the red pigments, were placed in dark storage and only displayed
On August 31, 1963, Mell gave birth to a second child, Christopher.
That autumn, Rothko signed with the Marlborough Gallery for sales of his
work outside the United States. Stateside, he continued to sell the
artwork directly from his studio. Bernard Reis,
Rothko’s financial advisor, was also, unbeknownst to the artist, the
Gallery’s accountant and, together with his co-workers, were later
responsible for one of art history’s largest scandals.
 The Rothko Chapel
The Rothko Chapel is located adjacent to the Menil Collection and The University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas. The building is small and
windowless. It is a geometric, "postmodern" structure, located in a
turn-of-the-century middle-class Houston neighborhood. The Chapel, the
Menil Collection, and the nearby Cy
Twombly gallery were funded by Texas oil millionaires John and Dominique de Menil.
In 1964, Rothko moved into his last New York studio at 157 East 69th
Street, equipping the studio with pulleys carrying large walls of canvas
material to regulate light from a central cupola, to simulate lighting
he planned for the Rothko Chapel. Despite warnings about the difference
in light between New York and Texas, Rothko persisted with the
experiment, setting to work on the canvases. Rothko told friends he
intended the Chapel to be his single most important artistic statement.
He became considerably involved in the layout of the building, insisting
that it feature a central cupola like that of his studio. Architect Philip Johnson, unable to compromise with Rothko’s vision,
left the project in 1967, and was replaced with Howard
Barnstone and Eugene Aubry.
The architects frequently flew to New York to consult, and on one
occasion brought with them a miniature of the building for Rothko's
For Rothko, the Chapel was to be a destination, a place of pilgrimage
far from the center of art (in this case, New York) where seekers of
Rothko’s newly "religious" artwork could journey. This implied an
already sympathetic audience in an increasingly indifferent
postmodernist art market. Initially, the Chapel, now non-denominational,
was to be specifically Roman Catholic, and during the first
three years of the project (1964–67) Rothko believed it would remain so.
Thus Rothko’s design of the building and the religious implications of
the paintings were inspired by Roman Catholic art and architecture. Its
octagonal shape is based on the Byzantine church of St. Maria
Assunta, and the format of the triptychs is based on paintings of
the Crucifixion. The De Menils believed the
universal "spiritual" aspect of Rothko’s work would complement the
elements of Roman Catholicism.
Rothko’s painting technique required considerable physical stamina
that the ailing artist was no longer able to muster. To create the
paintings he envisioned, Rothko was forced to hire two assistants to
apply the chestnut-brown paint in quick strokes of several layers:
"brick reds, deep reds, black mauves." On half of the works, Rothko
applied none of the paint himself, and was for the most part content to
supervise the slow, arduous process. He felt the completion of the
paintings to be "torment" and the inevitable result was to create
"something you don’t want to look at."
The Chapel is the culmination of six years of Rothko’s life and
represents his gradually growing concern for the transcendent. For some,
to witness these paintings is to submit one’s self to a spiritual
experience, which, through its transcendence of subject matter,
approximates that of consciousness itself. It forces one to approach the
limits of experience and awakens one to the awareness of one’s own
existence. For others, the Chapel houses 14 large paintings whose dark,
nearly impenetrable surfaces represent hermeticism and self-absorption.
The Chapel paintings consist of a monochrome triptych in soft brown
on the central wall (three 5-by-15-foot panels), and a pair of triptychs
on the left and right made of opaque black rectangles. Between the
triptychs are four individual paintings (11 by 15 feet each), and one
additional individual painting faces the central triptych from the
opposite wall. The effect is to surround the viewer with massive,
imposing visions of darkness. Despite its basis in religious symbolism
(the triptych) and less-than-subtle imagery (the crucifixion), the
paintings are difficult to attach specifically to traditional Christian
symbolism, and may act on the viewers subliminally. Active spiritual or
aesthetic inquiry may be elicited from the viewer in the same way as a
religious icon having specific symbolism. In this way, Rothko’s erasure
of symbols both removes and creates barriers to the work.
As it turned out, these works would be his final artistic statement
to the world. They were finally unveiled at the Chapel’s opening in
1971. Rothko never saw the completed Chapel and never installed the
paintings. On February 28, 1971, at the dedication, Dominique De Menil
said, "We are cluttered with images and only abstract art can bring us
to the threshold of the divine," noting Rothko’s courage in painting
what might be called "impenetrable fortresses" of color. The drama for
many critics of Rothko’s work is the uneasy position of the paintings
between, as Chase notes, "nothingness or vapidity" and "dignified ‘mute
icons’ offering ‘the only kind of beauty we find acceptable today’."
 Suicide and aftermath
In the spring of 1968, Rothko was diagnosed with a mild aortic
aneurysm (defect in the arterial wall, that gradually leads to
outpouching of the vessel and at times frank rupture). Ignoring doctor’s
orders, Rothko continued to drink and smoke heavily, avoided exercise,
and maintained an unhealthy diet. However, he did follow the medical
advice given not to paint pictures larger than a yard in height, and
turned his attention to smaller, less physically strenuous formats,
including acrylics on paper. Meanwhile, Rothko's marriage had become
increasingly troubled, and his poor health and impotence resulting from
the aneurysm compounded his feeling of estrangement in the relationship.
Rothko and his wife Mell separated on New Year’s Day 1969, and he moved
into his studio.
On February 25, 1970, Oliver Steindecker, Rothko’s assistant, found
the artist in his kitchen, lying dead on the floor in front of the sink,
covered in blood. He had sliced his arms with a razor found lying at
his side. During autopsy it was discovered he had also overdosed on
anti-depressants. He was 66 years old. The Seagram Murals on display at
the Tate Gallery arrived in London on the very day of his suicide.
Shortly before his death, Rothko and his financial advisor, Bernard Reis,
had created a foundation intended to fund "research and education" that
would receive the bulk of Rothko’s work following his death. Reis later
sold the paintings to the Marlborough
Gallery at substantially reduced values, and then split the
subsequent profits from sales to customers with Gallery representatives.
In 1971, Rothko’s children filed a lawsuit against Reis, Morton Levine,
and Theodore Stamos, the executors of his
estate, over the sham sales. The lawsuit continued for more than 10
years. In 1975, the defendants were found liable for negligence and
conflict of interest, were removed as executors of the Rothko estate by
court order, and, along with Marlborough Gallery, were required to pay a
$9.2 million damages judgment to the estate. This amount represents
merely a very small fraction of the eventual vast financial value
achieved since then for collectors and exhibitors of the numerous Rothko
works produced in his lifetime.
Rothko's remains were first buried in East
Marion Cemetery on the North Fork of Long
Island, New York, in a plot belonging to Stamos, an artist who had
been a friend of Rothko. Beginning in 2006, Rothko's children, Dr. Kate
Rothko Prizel, and her brother, Christopher Rothko, sought to disinter
Rothko's remains and reinter them, together with his wife's remains, in Sharon Gardens in Kensico Cemetery in
Valhalla, New York. In April 2008, Justice Arthur G. Pitts of the New
York State Supreme Court agreed to permit the transfer of Rothko's
The plan was approved by Georgianna Savas, executor of the estate of
The settlement of his estate became the subject of the Rothko
In early November, 2005, Rothko's 1953 oil on canvas painting, Homage
to Matisse, broke the record selling price of any post-war painting
at a public auction, at US$ 22.5 million dollars.
In May 2007, Rothko's 1950 painting White Center
(Yellow, Pink and Lavender on Rose), broke this record again,
selling at US$ 72.8 million dollars at Sotheby's New York. The painting
was sold by philanthropist David Rockefeller, who attended the auction.
A previously unpublished manuscript by Rothko about his philosophies
on art, entitled The Artist's Reality, has been edited by his
son, Christopher Rothko, and was published by Yale University Press in 2006.
'Red', a play based on Rothko, written by John Logan, opened
at the Donmar Warehouse, London, on December 3, 2009. The play centers
around the period of development of the Seagram Murals. Alfred
Molina plays Rothko. It is directed by the Donmar's Artistic
Director Michael Grandage.
In March, 2010, 'Red' moved to the John Golden Theater  on Broadway in New
York City with the same stars (Alfred Molina, Eddie Redmayne) and
director. The run opened officially on April 1, 2010, and like the
original London production, has received generally favorable reviews.
On June 13, 2010, it received the Tony award for Best Play.
The Mark Rothko Estate has been represented by The Pace
Gallery, in New York, since 1978.
Stigler, Stephen M., "Aaron Director Remembered". 48 J. Law and Econ.
- ^ PORT
- ^ http://www.moma.org/collection/browse_results.php?object_id=79687
Mark Rothko by Weiss et al., p262, http://books.google.com/books?id=tkHi9AFiLcwC&pg=RA1-PA262&dq=stand+close+Rothko&ei=MG4OSNnZOojYyATQxNS1Ag&sig=dUdDgCWi-tgcmAl3H7sGPGBiL1M#PRA1-PA262,M1
Abstract Expressionism, by Barbara Hess, Taschen, 2005, pg 42
Jane Qiu. Nature 456, 447 (27 November 2008) | doi:10.1038/456447a;
Published online 26 November 2008, http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v456/n7221/full/456447a.html
- ^ Tate Modern, Rothko Murals
retrieved October 4 2008
- ^ 
(case cite 372 N.E.2d 291)
- ^ Rothko Kin Sue to Transfer His
- ^ 38 Years After Artist’s Suicide,
His Remains Are on the Move
- ^ Rothko's Remains to Be Moved,
ARTINFO, April 16, 2008, http://www.artinfo.com/news/story/27350/rothkos-remains-to-be-moved/, retrieved 2008-04-23
- ^ Huge bids smash modern art record
- ^ The Artist's Reality Yale
- ^ 
- ^ http://theater.nytimes.com/2010/04/02/theater/reviews/02red.html
- Chave, Anne. Mark Rothko, 1903–1970: A Retrospective. New
Haven: Yale University Press, 1989.
- Breslin, J.E.B. Mark Rothko – A Biography, Chicago, London,
University of Chicago Press, 1993.
- Rothko, Mark (1999). The Individual and the Social. In Harrison,
Charles & Paul Wood (Eds.), Art in Theory 1900–1990 An Anthology of
Changing Ideas (563–565). Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishers,
- Marika Herskovic, American Abstract Expressionism
of the 1950s An Illustrated Survey, (New York School Press,
2003.) ISBN 0-9677994-1-4
- Dore Ashton, About Rothko, Oxford University Press, 1983.
- John Gage, Barbara Novak & Brian O'Doherty, Eric Michaud,
Jeffrey Weiss, Rothko, Musee d'art moderne de la ville de Paris,
- Mark Rothko 1903–1970. Tate Gallery Publishing, 1987.
- David Anfam, Mark Rothko—The Works on Canvas: A Catalogue
Raisonne, Yale University Press, 1998.
- Mark Rothko, The Artist's reality, with Introduction by
Christopher Rothko, Yale University Press, 2004.
- Mordechai Omer and Christopher Rothko (eds.), Mark Rothko.
Tel Aviv Museum of Art, 2007.
 External links