The Man with the Brush: Mark Rothko
By Jennifer Knight
“If you are only moved by color relationships, you are missing the point. I am interested in expressing the big emotions – tragedy, ecstasy, doom.” – Mark Rothko
Abstract Expressionist painter Mark Rothko (1903-1970), famous for his “multiform” paintings that feature broad fields of complementary colors and a spiritual energy, was explicitly a painter of ideas and intended his works to be distillations of human experience.
A prominent figure among the New York School painters, Rothko explored many artistic styles until reaching his signature motif: soft, rectangular forms floating on a field of color. These iconic paintings are among the most enduring and mysterious in modern art. His striking use of visual elements such as radiance, darkness, scale and the contrast of colors have been said to speak to profound themes such as tragedy, ecstasy and a high philosophical truth. Heavily influenced by Nietzsche, mythology, and Jewish and social revolutionary thought, Rothko was insistent that his art was brimming with ideas about the human condition.
The Early Years
Born in Dvinsk, Russia (in what is now Latvia), Marcus Rothkowitz was the fourth child of Jacob and Anna Rothkowitz. In 1913, the family immigrated to Portland, Oregon. A gifted academic, he entered Yale University on scholarship in 1921 with the intention of becoming an engineer or an attorney but soon found the environment at Yale conservative, exclusionary and in conflict with his anarchist ideals. Rothko gave up his studies in fall 1923 and moved to New York City, where he attended classes at the Art Students League and briefly studied under Max Weber.
His early figurative work – including landscapes, still lifes, figure studies, and portraits – demonstrated an ability to blend Expressionism and Surrealism. In 1935, Rothko and Adolph Gottlieb founded The Ten, a group of artists who sought to communicate human emotion and human drama through their paintings.
In 1940, he shortened his name to Rothko, and over the next few years Rothko’s imagery became increasingly symbolic, drawing upon Greek mythology, primitive art, and tragedy. In the anxious social climate that dominated the years of World War II, images from everyday life began to appear outmoded. Rothko felt a new idiom had to be found. He said, “It was with the utmost reluctance that I found the figure could not serve my purposes. ... But a time came when none of us could use the figure without mutilating it.”
In 1943, in response to a New York Times art review of their work, Rothko and Adolph Gottlieb penned a letter to the editor in which Rothko said, “Art is an adventure into a world unknown, which can only be explored by those willing to take risks. ... We are for flat forms because they destroy illusion and reveal truth. … There is no such thing as a good painting about nothing. … Only that subject matter is valid which is tragic and timeless.”
Rothko’s Classic Era
By 1947, Rothko had stopped exploring mythology and began to develop a distinctive style in which all “figurative associations and references to the natural world disappeared.” He started to talk about his art as actors performing drama, the notion of tragedy and the transcendental. His contrasts were carefully chosen to convey the breadth and depth of human emotion ranging from foreboding and despair to hope and rapture. What emerged were the beginnings of his iconic multi-forms in which asymmetrical patches of color became the focus. He began to paint the edges of his stretched canvases, which he displayed without frames, and he abandoned the titling of his work so that they would be unencumbered by interpretation and pure in the eyes of the viewer. “Silence is so accurate,” he said, fearing that conventional titles would only disable the viewer’s imagination.
By 1950, Rothko had reduced the number of floating rectangles to two, three or four and aligned them vertically against a colored ground, arriving at his signature large scale style. Color, structure, and space combined to create a unique presence. The artist recommended a viewing distance of 18 inches for his paintings, which put the edges of the painting beyond one’s peripheral vision and increased the luminosity of the paintings. In this respect, Rothko intended to contain or envelop the viewer in a way that was “intimate and human.”
The way his paintings were presented became increasingly important, and in 1954 Rothko asked that his largest pictures be installed “so that they must be first encountered at close quarters, so that the first experience is to be within the picture.” He said:
Since my pictures are large, colorful, and unframed, and since museum walls are usually immense and formidable, there is the danger that the pictures relate themselves as decorative areas to the walls. This would be a distortion of their meaning, since the pictures are intimate and intense, and are the opposite of what is decorative. … By saturating the room with the feeling of the work, the walls are defeated and the poignancy of each single work ... become[s] more visible.
The Seagram Mural Era and Beyond
Rothko’s work began to darken dramatically during the late 1950s and despite some exceptions, the darkened palette continued to dominate Rothko’s work well into the 1960s. He developed a painstaking technique of overlaying colors until, in the words of art historian Dore Ashton, “his surfaces were velvety as poems of the night.” This development may have been related to his work on a mural commission for the Four Seasons restaurant, in the Seagram Building in New York City. With these works Rothko turned to a palette of red, maroon, brown, and black and explored a new motif comprised of open forms suggesting a portal or a threshold. Ultimately, he withdrew from the project due to misgivings about the space and a feeling that the restaurant was too ostentatious a setting for his work.
In 1964, Rothko was commissioned to produce a series of paintings for a chapel that was still in the planning phase at Univ. of St. Thomas in Houston. These “Rothko Chapel” paintings were his primary focus from 1964 to 1967. The chapel was a way for Rothko to fulfill his perpetual desire to control the space where his art was exhibited. In turning away from the luminosity of the previous decade, Rothko worked on making distinctions between shape and ground more difficult to discern. His canvases are characterized by a sense of enclosure and an almost meditative, spiritual quality reminiscent of a chapel. These works, among his most impressive, were not to be seen until after his death when the Rothko Chapel was unveiled in 1971. When viewed in the tranquility of the building itself, the paintings achieve an almost transcendental quality.
The Artist’s Last Years
In 1968, Rothko had an aortic aneurysm and grappled with health problems. Concurrently, his work grew to its darkest and most somber. Physically debilitated and tormented by depression, Rothko committed suicide in New York his studio on February 25, 1970.
At the time of his death, Rothko was widely recognized in Europe and America. His vibrant, disembodied veils of color asserted the power of nonrepresentational painting to convey strong emotional content and his singular artistic vision celebrated art’s powerful hold over the creative imagination and championed the artist’s freedom. As he declared in the year of his suicide, “I am still an anarchist!” Viewed in the light of his suicide, many see his paintings as vibrant portals through which Rothko sought to transcend a world in which he could not find solace.
Jennifer Knight is a local actor and writer. She has been a literary volunteer for Arena Stage
since May 2010
Extras & Insights is funded, in part, by a grant from the National Endowment of the Humanities.