The youngest of four children, Mark Rothko was born in Dvinsk, Russia on September 25, 1903 to Jacob and Anna Goldin Rothkowitz. In 1910, his father, a pharmacist, emigrated alone to Portland, Oregon and worked for his brother, Samuel Weinstein, in the clothing business. After Jacob had established himself, he sent for his two older sons, Albert and Moise, in 1912, and for the rest of the family, his wife, his son Marcus, and his daughter, Sonia, in 1913. Seven months later, Jacob died and the children went to work to help support the family; Marcus, who was commonly known as Marc, delivered groceries and sold newspapers after school.
A precocious student in high school, he completed his studies in three years, excelled in many subjects, and expressed a love for music and literature in particular. One of his Yale classmates also from Portland, Max Naimark, recalled that Rothko sketched a good deal in college but noted that he had many other interests as well. It was not until he moved to New York, Rothko later recalled, that he “happened to wander into an art class, to meet a friend”; deeply impressed by the school, the experience provoked his determination to become an artist.
In January 1924, Rothko enrolled at the Art Students League and began taking anatomy courses with George Bridgman. Later that year, he interrupted his studies to visit his family in Portland. During his brief stay, Rothko joined an acting company run by Josephine Dillon, the first wife of Clark Gable, and although his career in the theater was short-lived, his interest continued. During his early years in Portland, he had taken a drama course at Lincoln High School, and after his acting experience with Dillon’s company he tried (but failed) to win a scholarship to the American Laboratory Theater in New York.
Rothko’s love of the theater informed his works throughout his life; he painted theatrical scenes, admired many playwrights, and referred to his paintings as “drama”, and his forms as “performers”. His experience painting stage sets in Portland may well have influenced the murals he designed years later for the Four Seasons restaurant in the Seagram Building in 1958 and for Harvard University in 1961, and those commissioned by Dominique and John de Menil for a chapel in Houston in 1964.
Early in 1925, Rothko returned to New York and took one class from Arshile Gorky at the short-lived New School of Design, located on Broadway near fifty-second Street. In the fall of that year, he reenrolled at the Art Students League, a stronghold of American realist trading during the 1920s and 1930s. Among his faculty the League counted such prominent realist painters as Thomas Hart Benton, George Luks, and John Sloan, although its fame as an art school, Sloan pointed out, derived from the fact that its teaching ranged from “the conservative to the ultra-modern”. Rothko studied with Max Weber during the fall semester of 1925 and again in the spring of 1926. Weber, a dedicated Modernist, conveyed to Rothko and his other students the passion he felt for the work of Paul Cezanne, the Fauve, and the Cubists. He had studied in Paris from 1905 to 1908, first at the Academie Julian and then with Henri Matisse. Like many progressive Americans of his time, he was disappointed in academic French art and in the closed society of conservative American artist who had banded together in Paris. Weber became part of the bohemian life of the avant-garde, frequenting artist’s studios and cafe, attending exhibitions and salons. He discovered Cezanne‘s work at the home of Gertrude, met Pablo Picasso, Marc Chagall, among others, and became close friend of Henri Rousseau. Upon returning to New York, Weber began to paint in a style that reflected the influence of many of these artists. He experimented with Fauvism, Cubism, and Futurism and formulated his own unique Cubo-Futurist style, and in the 1920s he turned to Expressionism. Like many other modernists, Weber was an avid student of the classic works of European art. The teacher’s appreciation of European art manifested itself despite the dominance of American realism at the Art Students League, at the galleries, and at the Whitney Studio Club. He also collected African sculpture, pre-Columbian works, and totems of Northwestern Native American tribes. Weber eviently shared his firsthand encounters of the Moderns and his love of European masters like El Greco, Goya with his students, because such influences are readily apparent in Rothko’s early work.
By the onset of the Depression in October 1929, the first wave of American Modernism, largely centered around the well-known photographer Alfred Stieglitz and his pioneering art galleries had ebbed. It was replaced by a group of artists for whom the traditions of American realism were more cogent mean of expression than the European Modernism exemplified by the School of Paris. The political and economic crisis in America during the late 1920s and early 1930s gave rise to an increase in nationalism and a renewed interest in social and political narrative in art, as it did in Europe. Conspicuously American themes – the squalid life of the rural poor, the plight of the urban worker, and other genre subjects conveying the sense of hopelessness that followed in the wake of the Depression – dominated art everywhere.
During the late 1920s, Rothko supported himself by doing odd jobs, which included toiling in New York’s garment center and working as a bookkeeper for a relative, Samuel Nichtberger, an accountant and tax attorney. In 1929, he took a part-time job teaching children at the Center Academy of the Brooklyn Jewish Center, a position he retained until 1952. Rothko often maintained that teaching children enabled him to understand their ability to communicate their perceptions of reality in terms of simple visual images. He believed in this gift so deeply that he looked to children as a basis for his own search for truth. Teaching at the center, along with stints at Brooklyn College from 1951 through 1954 and other institutions, became his primary means of support until he achieved independence as an artist in the late 1950s.
In July 1932, Rothko met Edith Sachar, and they married in November of that year, living first in Rothko’s West Seventy-fifth Street apartment and the4n moving frequently, to 313 East Sixth Street and to other flats in Manhattan and Brooklyn. The made a precarious living from Mark’s salary as a teacher and Edith’s earnings from various jobs and later from her jewelry designs. Their apartments served both as his studio and her shop.
Despite Weber’s impact on his early development, Rothko was later to state that was largely self-taught and had “leaned painting from his contemporaries in their studios.” At the outbreak of World War II, Rothko was virtually unknown as a painter although he had exhibited his work for over a decade. His financial situation was still difficult, but he kept himself going through black humor and an absolute belief in himself as a painter. Despite these hardships, the late 1930s and early 1940s were years of tremendous significance for Rothko, and his art underwent a dramatic evolution. Earlier, he had struggled with the figure, unwilling to abandon it yet unable to find a new form to express the ideas that he had already begun to formulate in his writings. The intellectual turmoil in which he was now engaged led him to reject the figure in favor of a mythological imagery that dominated his work from 1938 to the mid-1940s. Rothko himself later admitted, “It was with the utmost reluctance that I found the figure could not serve my purpose… But a time coma when none of us could use the figure without mutilating it.”
According to Rothko’s friends, his marriage to Edith began to fall apart when she became frustrated by his lack of success and started to pressure him to join her in her business. The photographer Aaron Siskin introduced Rothko to Mary Alice Beistle in 1944, and Rothko divorced Edith shortly before he married Biestle in the spring of 1945. This was a significant year, because in January Rothko had his most important solo show todate, at Art of This Century, where he exhibited a number of important paintings that, as the exhibition brochure indicated, occupied the “middle ground between abstraction and surrealism.” Among the canvases on view were Slow Swirl by the Edge of the Sea, a symbolic self-portrait with Beistle the artist painted during their courtship. In this and related works fo the mid-1940s, Rothko created a series of animated revolving forms vaguely suggestive of plants or animals, whereas the flat and heraldic images in other paintings suggest sources in primitive and archaic art. Rothko’s Surrealist-inspired imagery and his use of automatism is evident here, as is his awareness of the work of other Surrealist-inspired contemporaries.
Rothko’s interest in luminosity impelled him to paint in watercolor, and in the mid-1940s he produced some extraordinary works using a palette of grays and earth tones, colors he would later use in a powerful series of works executed in the last years of his life. Untitled No. 10; Baptismal Scene, Untitled N. 16; entombment I; and Magic are a few examples from a prolific body of watercolors. In some of these works, Rothko added tempera, gouache, or pen and ink, or left portions of the paper untouched, and, although his palette is subdued, there are occasional hits of color, including subtle tints of red, yellow, and blue. The overriding effect of these fanciful, curvilinear forms is that of a newly found freedom of expression, which stands in striking contrast to the dramatic but ponderous mythological personae that characterize the works of the late 1930s and early 1940s. Rothko’s 1940s experiments with Surrealist automatism freed him from the more rigid hieratic order that dominate his work of the previous decade. Although he continued to make use of that period’s zones or registers, the images are no longer confined to separate compartments but move freely within the surrounding space. The element of play, which is missing from his earlier mythological subjects, and the graceful movement of his forms suggest comparisons with his European contemporaries Masson and Matta, both of whom had a pronounced influence on their American colleagues, particularly through their presence in New York.
By the winter of 1949-50, Rothko had arrived at his mature style, one in which two or three luminous color rectangles arranged one above another appeared to float within a radiant color field. The residual biomorphic forms, cursory automatic gestures, and flickering strokes of color that characterize such otherwise disparate paintings as Untitled (No. 17); Number 24; Untitled (No. 22) are all that remain of his mythical and Surrealist vocabulary of the mid-to-late 1940s. Indeed, Number 22 may be seen as marking the end of one era and the beginning of another. The linear elements that dominate the midsection of the canvas are all that remain of the concept of automatism so central to the Surrealist ethic, and which played such a prominent role in the work of so many artists of the New York School. The painting is equally notable for its ungainly size and its use of horizontal bands of color set against a yellow ground. On the other hand, such magnificent paintings as Untitled (No. 26), and Magenta, Black, Green on Orange offer hits at the direction that Rothko’s painting would take. These canvases are notable for their stunning array of brilliant horizontal color bands set within a rectangular field, and, although certain marks in each canvas suggest a kind of abstract shorthand for Surrealist calligraphy, they are divorced from any of Surrealism’s references. By 1950, this format of rectangles of color within a larger color field had become one of the most important features of Rothko’s work.
To achieve the effect of light emanating from the very core of his paintings, Rothko began to stain pigments into his canvas by applying numerous thin layers of color one over the other, often allowing portions of these layers to appear through the top coat of paint. This enabled him to re-create, in a contemporary manner, the resonant light of Rembrandt, whom he very much admired. Rothko could also make color statements rivaling those of Henri Matisse, arguably the single greatest influence on his work of this period. Like Matisse, Rothko often enhanced one intense color by placing it next to another equally brilliant, as in Untitled (Violet, Black, Orange, Yellow on White and Red), luminous touches of white paint surround the central rectangles of violet, orange and yellow; the painting reveals one of Rothko’s greatest accomplishments: his ability to contain a vast array of colors of differing hues in differing proportions on the same plane. Although the violet form is indeed the largest of the group and dominates the yellow and orange, it is held in check by two vertical red bars at either side and by a narrow band of black adjacent to its bottom edge. In addition, the soft yellow and white field surrounding the central forms anchors the floating rectangles to the canvas support.
Many of Rothko’s canvases were monumental in size in the late 1950s and early 1960s. He was quoted as saying that he wanted to express “basic human emotions – tragedy, ecstasy, doom…The people who weep before my pictures are having the same religious experience I had when I painted them.” Rothko’s desire to create this exalted experience, which he shared with contemporaries like Jackson Pollock, de Kooning, for whom the process of painting was an event and the canvas a reflection of that act. Collectively, they were beginning to supersede the likes of Edward Hopper and the earlier Franz Marc. Rothko’s approach to painting was less physical, less engaged in the relationship between painter, act, and event. Indeed, he often spent hours sitting near a blank canvas in quiet contemplation before proceeding to paint.
In 1958, Rothko was invited to paint four murals for the Four Seasons restaurant by Philip Johnson, eminent architect and art collect, who had already been a vital force in the New York art world for several decades. Johnson was director of the architecture department at the Museum of Modern Art from 1930 to 1936, and again from 1946 to 1954.
Rothko was naturally excited at that was to be his first commission, and his canvases of the late 1950s bear a striking resemblance to the murals he designed for Johnson. In the summer of 1958, he rented a former YMCA gymnasium at 22 Bowery and began to work on them. that same year, he was represented in the XXIX Biennale in Venice. In the fall, he gave a talk at Pratt Institute, and in the spring of 1959 he left for Europe with Mell and his daughter Kathy Lynn, who had been born in 1950. Among the many ancient sites and monuments he saw in Italy, Paestum and Pompeii affected him the most, partly because of his frequent visit to the Metropolitan Museum, where he had been deeply moved by the wall paintings of Boscoreals, as had so many of his New York School colleagues. In Florence, he was particularly impressed by Michelangelo‘s Medici Library at the cloister of San Lorenzo; he also felt an instant connection with Fra Angelico’s frescoes for the Convent of San Marco. Then, he returned to New York to continue his work for Johnson.
He labored for nearly two years on the project before he was satisfied. He completed three sets of murals, each them progressively darker, ranging in color from orange and brown to maroon and black. For these works, he created a new series of forms, substituting open rectangles resembling doorways for the closed rectangles he used in his paintings. Rothko place these vertical configurations within a horizontal format and restricted his palette to two colors for each panel.
Rothko’s mural are imbued with a new sense of majesty and mystery that undoubtedly resulted from his experience at the Italian sites. For the first time, his work is brooding, forbidding, tragic, and as he completed the task it became clear to him that the murals did not belong in a commercial setting, so he rejected the commission and returned the money he had been paid. Panels from the first set of murals were sold individually. the second series was probably abandoned and never sold, and the third, completed in 1959, was given to the Tate Gallery in London in 1969. Because Rothko’s intensely meditative paintings speak to the nature of human emotion and concern, they were totally incompatible with the setting for which they were intended. As attracted as he must have been by the idea of his first commission, Rothko would allow nothing to interfere with his concern for moral and ethical issues in art. His actions no doubt stemmed from deep-seated attitudes derived from his youth, which were reinforced as he grew older. But his need to purge his art of all but the “essence of the essential” was a costly one, because every step he took to fulfil a successful career as an artist only put him at odds with his own inner beliefs. Friends have testified that Rothko’s success brought him at least as much torment as comfort. He was able to travel extensively with his family (in 1963 his son Christopher was born) and visit the cities and monuments he yearned to see. Yet as his fame grew, so did his uneasiness, and he became increasingly depressed as the years passed. Despite his acclaim as a leader of the New York School, Rothko still felt misunderstood and isolated from an art world he came increasingly to disdain. He spoke of feeling trapped and feared that his work had reached a dead end.
In 1961, Rothko was given his first important solo museum exhibition by the Museum of Modern Art, for which he insisted on eliminating everything executed before 1945. He installed the work in dense clusters and decided on low lighting for all of the paintings, even those he had shown earlier under more intense light. The installation probably reflected the new direction his work had taken at the time of the Seagram murals, because the work that follows bears a decided shift in emphasis from his paintings of the early and mid-1950s. The exhibition, which took place in the winter, received generally enthusiastic review, and then traveled extensively in Europe. Perhaps its most notable aspect was the fact that it was the museum’s first solo exhibition devoted to an artist of his generation from the New York School. It also validated Rothko’s decades-long struggle to find acceptance as a mainstream New York artist. Although he had long criticized the museum’s failure to accord contemporary art a place in its program, he quickly accepted its proposal.
The recognition he then received led to other offers, including one from Professor Wassily Leontief, head of the Society of Fellows of Harvard University, to create a group of murals for the penthouse of Holyoke Center, designed by Josep Lluis Sert. The murals, finished in 1962, were eventually placed on permanent view in the faculty dining room at the center. The series consisted of five monumental panels intended to be hung in two distinct but interrelated groups. Before they were sent to Harvard, they were installed at the Guggenheim Museum in late spring 1963. For that installation, Rothko created a triptych from one large panel surrounded by two narrower ones. The two remaining panels, one wide, one narrow, were hung on separate walls adjoining the triptych wall. In the paintings, Rothko employed a post and lintel structure linked at top and bottom by narrow bands and by discrete rectangles. In contrast to the colors he chose for the Seagram mural, he used a dark plum/purple field against which he positioned his black and deep alizarin-crimson shapes and creamy yellow pillars. The somber colors and massive shapes reinforced the architecture for which they were designed and created an oasis of silent but powerful forms.
In 1964, Rothko received his most important commission, from Dominique and John de Menil, to execute murals for a chapel in Houston. The building was originally intended to be Roman Catholic and part of the University of St. Thomas, but it was finally realized as an interdenominational chapel. The original plan was designed by Johnson; the final design was executed under the supervision of Howard Barnstone and Eugene Aubrey. Rothko accepted the project with great enthusiasm and began to work on the murals shortly after he moved into his last studio, a converted carriage house on East Sixty-ninth Street. The commission gave him the opportunity to fulfill one of his life’s ambitions, to create a monument that could stand in the great tradition of Western religious art. Rothko designed three triptychs, five single panels, and four alternatives for the chapel. Two triptychs and one single panel consisted of black hard-edged rectangles on maroon field; one triptych and four single panels were entirely black, veiled with a wash of maroon. Variations in the thickness of paint produced nuances of color. For the chapel, Rothko created his most reductive forms and used only two colors, red and black. Both form and color seem disembodied, vehicles for an expression of transcendental existence. Even more tan the Four Seasons or Harvard murals, the Houston paintings created a total environment, a unified atmosphere of all-encompassing poetry and light. Rothko began the panels in the winter of 1964 and continued to work on them until 1967, however, he returned to them from time to time to make major changes. Tragically, he did not live to see the project realized. The chapel was dedicated almost a year to the day after Rothko committed suicide.
By 1968, Rothko was in poor health. He was a heavy drinker and had suffered from an aneurysm of the aorta. His physical condition was further complicated by family problems, yet in the last two years of his life he produced an astonishing body of work. To visitors he explained that because of his heart condition he was not allowed to lift heavy canvases, and thus he had resorted to working on paper. He had, of course, worked on paper in the 1940s, and in 1958 he had executed small-scale paper versions of his oils on canvas. Rothko described his process as follows: he had an assistant roll out a length of paper on the floor while he watched; once he had decided on the size he wanted, he had a series of ten to fifteen sheets cut to approximately the same dimensions; then he tacked the papers on the wall in a row and worked on them one by one.
The late paintings and the paper pieces are the essence of simplicity. In some, like Untitled (no. 42); Untitled (no. 44); and Untitled (no. 45), the format resembles that of earlier paintings, although the colors are more subdued. In others, such as Untitled (Brown and Gray) and Untitled (Black and Gray), the surfaces are cut in two and surrounded by a narrow white border. The imagery and colors – mostly brown or black with gray – are different from anything the artist had previously attempted; the works are somber but full of clarity. In these late creations, Rothko conveyed all of his meaning through reductive form, minimal color, painterly gesture, and the way the darker, heavier mass of brown or black meets the lighter, usually smaller area of gray below. While these are the most distinctive works of the period, others retained the brighter colors – such as red, orange, and purple – of Rothko’s earlier works. In contrast to his preference for horizontal rectangles placed within a vertical or horizontal format, Rothko chose to compare and contrast two horizontal planes stacked one on top of the other. The two planes vary from work to work; they are separated only by the thinnest of borders, whhich in some of the works appear to emit a flicker of light. Unlike his earlier rectangles, which often appear to hover on or near the surface of the support, these planes are implacable flat and their opaque surfaces are occasionally enlivened with series of brushstrokes handled in a very different manner from his norm. Often, especially in the paper pieces, the subtle luminosity of the works recalls the Romantic landscape paintings that had inspired his earlier work.
Certain critics have referred to these works as landscapes of the mind, whereas several of Rothko’s colleagues have said that he was very impressed by the explorations of the moon he saw on television. In reaction to his death, perhaps, others have commented on the darkness of many of these paintings and ascribed to them the melancholic mood of their creator. It must be said, however, that they seem perfectly in keeping with the mission that Rothko had set for himself, of finding in art the visual equivalent of a moral and ethical order. the are images swept bare of all but the most fundamental color and form, and if they are meant to represent anything, they represent a voyage into the unknown. “the abstract idea is incarnated in the image,” said the brochure to Rothko’s solo exhibition at Art of This Century in 1945. “But this is not to say that the images created by Rothko are the thin evocations of the speculative intellect; they are rather the concrete, the tactual expression of the intuitions of an artist to whom the subconscious represents not the farther, but the nearer shore of art.” By the end of his life, Rothko had moved beyond the concept of the subconscious art the “nearer shore of art.” He had purified his art of everything pertaining to the realm of the physical and the intellectual and entered the world of the spirit.