Abstract Expressionist Painter Mark Rothko (1903-1970) rejected the “Abstract Expressionist” label, even eschewing being called an Abstract painter, although of course he was. Rothko’s trademark artwork centered around blocks of luminescent color that seem to float from their canvases.
Rothko was one of the preeminent artists of his generation, considered to be part of the 1940s New York School, which brought a new collective voice to the fore. His artwork was characterized “by rigorous attention to formal elements such as color, shape, balance, depth, composition, and scale; yet, he refused to consider his paintings solely in these terms,” according to the National Gallery of Art.
Early years and influences
Mark Rothko (born Marcus Yakovlevich Rothkowitz) was from Dvinsk, Russia (today part of Latvia), and emigrated to the United States at age 10. The fourth child of a pharmacist and his wife, the family settled in Portland, Oregon, upon their arrival to the US. Rothko’s father made the decision to leave Russia, fearing his sons would be drafted into the Tsarist army, as well as fearful of the Cossack purges (like so many other Jewish families at the time).
Receiving an academic scholarship, Rothko attended Yale University in 1921 with the intention of becoming an engineer or attorney. However, he found the WASP-y atmosphere uncomfortable and ripe with anti-Semitism, and soon left for New York to seek his fame and fortune.
In New York City, he began studying under Ashile Gorky at the Grand Central School for Art and with Max Weber at the Art Students League, and in the 1930s painted as part of the WPA Federal Art Project. His first solo show was in Oregon in 1933 at the Portland Art Museum. He also had a solo show in New York that same year at the Contemporary Arts Gallery.
Moving toward abstraction
In New York, he befriended fellow artists such as Milton Avery, Barnett Newman, and Adolph Gottlieb, as well as becoming part of a group called “The Ten,” which rejected literal painting and favored abstraction. While his early years favored experimentation with mythology and symbolism and the artistic style of Surrealism, by the 1940s, his style had evolved, in his words, “toward clarity.”
A negative review in the “New York Times” in 1942 brought forth a manifesto from both Rothko and Gottlieb in which they expressed what they hoped to achieve with their art. It said, “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.”
During this time, Rothko was reading the philosophic tracts of Carl Jung, as well as authors such as TS Eliot, Thomas Mann, and James Joyce. These works had a profound intellectual impact on Rothko, whose own philosophy was turning the “tragic ideal into pure abstraction.” When called upon to explain his artwork and himself, Rothko noted simply, “Silence is so accurate.” (Mostly, Rothko believed that explaining things would “paralyze the viewer’s mind and imagination,” according to the National Gallery of Art.)
Late period of the artist
By the late 1940s, Rothko had begun teaching in San Francisco at the California School of Fine Art, where a fellow teacher was Clyfford Still. Together they created the short-lived Subject of the Artists School in NYC, where they added Robert Motherwell, William Baziotes, and David Hare to their ensemble.
By the 1950s, the artist’s work was becoming darker, and Rothko was increasingly taking on more important commissions (such as the Seagram Murals for the Four Seasons Restaurant in NY), but he was also questioning this rise to prominence. Other work, such as a solo show at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) and the creation of an interdenominational chapel in Houston were more agreeable.
Beset by problems with his health and in his marriage, in February of 1970, he committed suicide. Ironically, on that very day, the murals created for the Four Seasons (a job he eventually pulled out of) arrived at the Tate Gallery in London, where they remain to this day. Years later, a play entitled “Red” would recount their very creation.