Nonetheless, he knew great fame and critical acclaim as a member of the first major American
artistic movement recognised by the art world, abstract expressionists. His fame and fortune,
however, sat heavily with him. A confirmed socialist, Rothko believed that art was truly an
expression of emotion and social circumstance and he had a deep distrust for money and material
His main concern was that people may want to buy his paintings because they were
fashionable, not because they were moved by them. In fact, he is said to have refused to sell
canvases to people who "did not react correctly" to the paintings in his gallery. Most famous for his
colourfield paintings or multi-forms as they were also known, today Rothko's paintings sell for tens
of millions of dollars and can be found in galleries and private collections all over the world. Mark
Rothko took his own life in his studio in New York on 25th February 1970. He was 66 years old.
Apart from a brief time studying with cubist Max Weber, Rothko's artistic abilities were essentially
self-taught. However, Weber's greatest influence on the young student was that he awakened in
him a profound desire to express emotion through painting and this was the driving force for Mark's
work throughout his life. During his formative years as an artist, Rothko gravitated to the works of
surrealist artists and expressionists who made wonderful use of colours, like Swiss-born Paul Klee
and French artist and fauvist, Georges Rouault. These early influences would remain with the artist
throughout his career and he would become a master of expression through colour.
Many of Rothko's influences were intellectual. Mark believed that there was little left to say,
artistically, about portraits and landscapes and there was a need to discover new ways to express
the important things in life; the strong feelings raised by what was happening in Nazi Germany and
the general fascist views around the world, not to mention the human condition in urban society
during the post-depression years in America. His work throughout the beginning of his career took
on a very childish form. Trying to express the simple and most basic feelings in life in the most
uncomplicated way possible led to his Scenes in the Subway series which depict the monotony of
life through rhythmic use of colour and shapes, and minimal details.
Additional intellectual influence came from the work of philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, specifically,
The Birth of Tragedy. Nietzsche's work basically outlines a theory that the lessons of Greek myth
are the building blocks for a meaningful life, and without the guidance of the tragedies, man is
doomed to live an ignorant and joyless existence. Armed with this clear mandate, Rothko began to
try to free man from his gaol of expressionless being. Through his art, Mark worked to reinstate a
spiritual and emotional framework for modern living. Most interestingly his interpretation of this
high intellectual ideal was light-filled colour in all its glorious forms.
Early Rothko - the Realist Works
The vast majority of Rothko's realist work came at the beginning of his career, even before he had
taken up art as full-time work, and it was largely surrealist in nature. Heavily influenced by the
psychologically intriguing ideas promoted by Surrealist artists such as Joan Miro's, Slow Swirl at the
Edge of the Sea (1944), showed Rothko's abilities at their absolute best. In this emotive work, Mark
tried to pare back his reality to express only the bare bones of experience.
The resulting painting
had a light-hearted quality to it, while at the same time providing a clear narrative of the joyful life
experience of being by the sea. Rothko's style very quickly morphed away from the realist themes
as he expanded his imagery to include mood inspiring colours of modern abstract artists such as
Mondrian, which all resulted in what he considered a purer expression of emotion; less realism but
more reality of emotion.
By the mid 1940's, Rothko's work was completely abstract. He had joined the vanguard of the new
American artist – abstract expressionist. This group of mostly American artists, including Jackson
Pollock, Barnett Newman and Willem de Kooning had, in fact, very little common ground and was
neither purely abstract, nor expressionist. What did unite them was a rebellious feeling of raw
emotion, the perception of immediacy of expression and the fact that each of them was an artistic
Born from an appreciation and subsequent rejection of the modern techniques of early
20th century Europe such as surrealism, cubism and Bauhaus, the term "abstract expressionism" was
first used in the late 1920's to describe the work of Russian painter Wassily Kandinsky. Subsequently
it was used to encapsulate any non-objective artistic style of the time which evoked emotion and
feeling using colour and movement.
Many of these artists, including Rothko, preferred not to name
their art for fear of influencing the viewer, instead they numbered their canvases and trusted that
they could speak for themselves. In Mark's case he wanted to inspire the viewer to greater feeling
and spiritual enlightenment without the guidance of labels.
Color Field Painting
By the 1950's Rothko had matured into his signature style; colourfield paintings. Unlike some of his
fellow abstract expressionist artists of the day, he had rejected the physical, sometimes violent
methods of paint application in favour of a more spiritual and contemplative form of colour
appreciation. These new paintings were composed of several large rectangular blocks of colour
place mostly horizontally on the canvas. Sometimes vivid and latterly quite subdued, these paintings
conveyed human emotion in all its splendour; from joy and ecstasy to grief and depression.
Rothko's friends initially thought that these works may be a step too far for critics and the general
public to accept and understand, they couldn’t have been more wrong. Rothko's works were so
much more than colour, they were luminescent and organic, and their soft, blurred edges exuded
life force in the emotions they described. This genius work had transcended the need for figures or
scenes of nature, it had moved through convention and struck right at the living heart of the viewer.
Mark had found his medium and he would continue to express himself through this method until his
death in 1970. Indeed, this completely abstract form of painting is synonymous with the name
Rothko and his colourfield canvases are the works which fetch exorbitant prices at auction today.
Most Important Works
Rothko's Color Field works are certainly the most recognisable of his canvases, but to truly
appreciate the evolution and skill of the artist it is important to examine his most influential
Firstly, a review of Rothko's most important works would be incomplete without the
aforementioned Scenes in the Subway series, which were his most accomplished realist paintings.
The series depicts faceless commuters traveling about their business in a very impressionistic way.
The details that are available to the viewer are rhythmic and repetitive all of which promotes the
sense of soulless monotony commonly perceived about life in New York City. Probably the most famous of the series is, Entrance to Subway (1938) and it is a great example of how, by using very limited details and bold colour in the perfect combination, the artist can still convey a clear narrative.
Perhaps some of the most infamous of Rothko's works are The Seagram's Murals. Commissioned
by the famous drinks manufacturer to provide murals for their new restaurant in New York, The
Four Seasons, Mark set about creating forty works in dark red and brown to adorn the walls on the
prestigious room. He had chosen to orientate his blocks of colour in an uncharacteristic vertical
plane for these murals, in an effort, he claimed, to make the dinners more uncomfortable as they
ate their over-priced meals.
However, before the opening he took a change of heart, and overcome
by his socialist sensibilities, he returned his advance and claimed he could not continue to work
where so many disgusting capitalists would be eating and spending money. He removed his works
and hid them away in his studio. Today the collection has been broken up, with some in London's
Tate Modern, some in Japan's Kawamura Memorial Museum, and others in The National Art
Gallery in Washington DC.
Finally, it is necessary to mention one of Rothko's last projects, The Rothko Chapel. Found on the
campus of St Thomas Catholic University in Houston, Texas, the Rothko Chapel is one of Mark's most
involved works as he was not only responsible for the paintings, but he was instrumental in the
actual design of the building that houses them. Comprising of fourteen murals, these huge works
are in purple, maroon and black and are widely considered to depict the melancholy that Mark was
experiencing at the end of his life. Sadly, Rothko did not live to see the chapel completed, but it
stands today as a testimony to his vision.
The Legacy of Rothko
Rothko had made specific provisions for his work after his death. He wanted to leave everything to
his foundation and have a school created to encourage new artists. However, the execution of his
will turned into a three-ring circus. The greed of his executors overtook them, and they began
selling off his paintings for their owns gain with impunity. Ultimately, his young daughter decided to
take the executors to court and after seven long years managed to have the rights transferred to her
and her brother.
The executors were charged with fraud and made to paid huge fines to the family.
Today the Rothko foundation is in the hands of his children and they have managed it to the letter of
their father's wishes. It would seem that even in death, Rothko made a stir. The artistic legacy to the world of modern art left by Rothko is profound. Never before, or since has
an artist so blatantly disregarded the rules of art with such fantastic results. His life and work have
emboldened young artists all over the world.
Not only was he a guiding light to his contemporaries,
but his courage has ensured that we have risk-takers today bringing forth their own brand of
rebellion for us to admire and enjoy. Today his work can be found in museums all over the world
and he has become the poster child for modern art and freedom of expression.