One of the most famous post-war American painters, a prominent figure among the New York School artists, Mark Rothko attempted to make space visible through color, and without reference to external reality. Although rejected any labeling, he moved through many artistic styles from figurative to abstract, until his experiments led him to the Color Field and Abstract Expressionism. Heavily influenced by Greek mythology, Nietzsche’s philosophy and his Russian-Jewish heritage, he claimed that his art was filled with content, using the colors to convey a sense of spirituality. His “abstract icons” with their veiled appearance that recedes from the inquisitive eye, that conceals more than it reveals, are counter-images to reality, the result of “transcendental experiences”. Passionate in his revolutionary thoughts and the need for self-expression, Rothko discussed his views in numerous writings and critical reviews. Intermittently bright and gloomy, his paintings are characterized by unconventional grade of the constant concentration of pure pictorial elements, as color, surface, proportion, and scale followed by the theories that they could reveal the presence of the philosophical thoughts. Visual essentials such as luminosity, darkness, space and the contrasts were related to deep and serious themes like tragedy, ecstasy, and sublime. Still, avoiding describing the content of his work, Rothko accepted the abstract image as the exponent of the “human drama”.
Born in 1903, in Dvinsk, Russia (today Latvia) as Marcus Rothkovich, he was a fourth child in the Jewish family of intellectuals. His father was a pharmacist and despite the modest incomes, his children were well educated. Afraid of the possibility that his sons serve in the Imperial Russian Army, the family emigrated to the United States in 1913. They settled in Portland, Oregon, but a few months later, his father died, leaving the wife and children without financial support. Rothko graduated early from Lincoln High School, and, awarded a scholarship to Yale University, he initially had an attention to become an engineer or an attorney. Soon he found the environment at Yale racist and elitist and with his friend Aaron Director started a satirical magazine The Yale Saturday Evening Pest that was focused on the bourgeois tone of the school. He decided to leave, but after forty-six years the Yale University awarded him with an honorary degree. Rothko moved to New York where he took different jobs and at the same time took classes at the Parsons School of Design under the Arshile Gorky. Two artists never found a common language and Rothko shifted his practice to the Art Students League where his teacher was a Cubist painter, Max Weber, also a Russian Jew.
During this early period, his paintings were mostly portraits, nudes, and urban scenes, under the influence of his instructor. In the late 1920s, he was introduced to the modernist painter Milton Avery, who had a decisive influence on the young artist. Avery’s simplified and vivid images of domestic subjects left a mark on his development, particularly treatment of paint and color. His house was a meeting place for drawing sessions and art discussions of prominent artists, such as Adolph Gottlieb, Barnett Newman, John Graham, Louis Schanker and Joseph Solman. That was the place where Bernard Karfiol, an instructor at the Art Students League noticed Rothko’s talent, offering him to exhibit at the Opportunity Gallery along with Lou Harris and Milton Avery. His paintings with dark interiors and gloomy feelings were the reflections of influences of German Expressionist’s art, Paul Klee and Georges Rouault. Well accepted among the critics and peers, this first acceptance announced his later great success. Still in an unstable financial situation, in 1929 he began teaching children painting and clay sculpture at the Center Academy of the Brooklyn Jewish Center which remained his favorite profession until 1952. Admiring children’s art, he adopted their naïve deformations and rough application of paint, rejecting usual conventions of representation. During summer 1932, Rothko met a jewelry designer Edith Sachar who became his wife couple of months later. They divorced in 1945, and he married for the second time. Alice Beistel was his great love and mother of his two children.
In 1933, Portland Art Museum organized his first solo show that consisted mostly of drawings and aquarelles. Everyone was surprised when he, along his works, displayed paintings done by his children students from the Center Academy. This occasion was followed by his first one-man introducing in front of the East Coast audience at the Contemporary Arts Gallery in New York. The use of rich fields of colors that moved his art beyond Avery’s influence, his oil paintings announced further development that led him to the co-founding group The Ten, with Ilya Bolotowsky, Ben-Zion, Adolph Gottlieb, Lou Harris, Ralph Rosenborg, Louis Schanker, and Joseph Solman, aiming to liberate American painting from literal content and established equality. Followed by the atmosphere of the Great Depression and comprehensive concern because of mass unemployment, he attended meetings of the leftist Artist Union and worked on the government’s project of the Works Progress Administration where he met many other artists. Rothko’s latest works already directed his new path but despite beginnings of the exploration of color, he stuck in a period of surrealist paintings inspired by mythological themes and symbols. His claustrophobic, urban scenes influenced by Expressionism were replaced with more abstract imagery linked to archaic symbols. In 1939, he even quit painting for a short period, devoting to reading philosophy, particularly impressed by Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy. The philosopher’s theories that Greek tragedy served to relieve people from the horrors of mortal life helped Rothko to focus on the aim of liberating modern man’s spiritual emptiness. He thought that his art could free unconscious energies creating the pieces that opposed barbaric scenes of violence with civilized inaction using the imagery from the Greek mythology. The names of his paintings also referred to their sources, as Leda, Altar of Orpheus, Antigone, etc. Later, he changed his mind, believing that titles limited the deeper, transcendent meaning of his paintings, restricting them to the numbers only.
Processing the themes of myth, prophecy, archaic ritual and the unconscious mind, his work was based on biomorphic style stimulated by the Surrealistic imagery of the famous artist who immigrated to the United States because of the war, as Max Ernst, Joan Miro, and Salvador Dali. Rothko, Newman, and Gottlieb met and discussed the new ideas of the European avant-garde. Due to the negative critic reaction on their latest show at Macy’s department store in New York, in 1942 Rothko and Gottlieb wrote the manifesto as a response: "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 the truth." Since 1946 begins his transitional period of “multiform” paintings. The term, applied by the art critics referred to the works characterized by the domination of the multiple soft-edged blocks of colors floating in space. Deprived of the human figure, his aim was to remove any obstacle between the painting and the viewer, using the shimmering color to prepossess the one’s visual field. During the time, he radically reduced the number of forms simultaneously enlarging their proportions. For the next seven years, large canvases painted in oil became his signature style. Firstly, he engaged vibrant colors, mostly reds and yellows as an expression of energy and ecstasy, but eventually he started to use dark blues and greens tones, probably as a growing dissatisfaction with his personal life. His creative process was based on application of the thin layer of binder mixed with pigment directly onto the clean canvas. Then he put oils on it, creating a dense mixture of overlapping colors and shapes. Fast and light brushstrokes were the method that he practiced for the rest of his life. Secretly using some original techniques, such as egg as glue or acrylic resins, phenol formaldehyde, and modified alkyd, Rothko tried to make the paints dry quickly. The forms, consisted of the color only, establish depth that complements the vertical strivings of the composition. He believed that the “tragic experience” was the only source of art. In contrast to Newman, he did not assert the flat field to transfer the space-evoking effects of color but used rectangular bands of blocks, blurred at the edges making them seemingly floating in an indeterminate space.
His financial situation began to improve due to the numerous purchases and the growing interest in his work. Still, his discontent was still present and he started to feel misunderstanding fearing that people like his paintings only for fashion, neglecting their true purpose. Trying to move them beyond pure abstraction, he believed in their potential for metaphysical or symbolic meaning. In 1958, he accepted the first of two major mural commissions that reflected his dramatic palette change. The Four Seasons, new luxury restaurant in the Seagram Building in New York designed by architects Mies van der Rohe and Philip Johnson, hired him to paint their walls. Producing a number of studies and two of them including in the space, the artist withdrew from the project, estimating the restaurant as an inappropriate environment for his work. Over the three months, he made forty paintings, three series that show the change of motif from a closed to an open form and use of dark red, brown and black paint. The second commission, work on the Rothko Chapel paintings, for the University of St. Thomas in Huston, occupied him from 1964 to 1967. It represents the culmination of his ideas initiated during the past decade. Fourteen large paintings reflect his growing concern for transcendent and, related to the spiritual nature of the chapel, they encourage the viewer to approach the limits of experience to the awareness of the existence. On a central wall was installed monochrome tryptic, followed with the two other triptychs on the left and the right side. Between them are four individual paintings and one additional that face the central triptych from the opposite wall. Surrounded by this massive installation, the viewer is confronted with the visions of darkness with the obvious basis in the Christian symbolism. The Chapel’s opening happened in 1971 and Rothko didn’t have a chance to see completed work. When he was at the height of his fame, the art world began to turn toward new attraction, Pop Art and the work of Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, and James Rosenquist, slowly forgetting abstract expressionists. Rothko was disappointed and viewing Jasper Johns’ flags stated: ”We worked for years to get rid of all that.” He was very hard to accept to be replaced by the artist he found absurd.
Diagnosed with a mild aortic aneurysm, he refused to obey doctor’s orders, continuing to drink and smoke, often becoming nervous and restless. Still, the only medical advice he did follow was not to paint large canvases, so he turned his attention to the smaller, less physically demanding works. Besides problems with health, Rothko separated from his wife on the New Year’s Day 1969 and moved to his studio. Two months later, on February 25, 1970, his assistant Oliver Steindecker found the artist on the floor covered in blood. The autopsy showed that he had also taken a high dose of anti-depressants before sliced arms with a razor. His friends were not surprised, claiming that, during the last few years he lost the passion and inspiration. Shortly before the death, Rothko created a foundation with the aim to support research and education and his best friends, Bernard Reis, Theodore Stamos and Morton Levine were appointed trustees of his estate. They misused their powers and sold paintings to the Marlborough Gallery at reduced values, splitting the profits from the later sales. The artist’s children took them to court and their lawsuit, known as the Rothko Case continued more than 10 years. The defendants were found guilty and required to pay 9.2 million dollars’ damages judgment to the estate, a negligible amount with respect to the true value of his artworks. His oeuvre consists of 836 paintings on canvas. In 2005, his 1954 work named Homage to Matisse was sold for 22.5 million dollars, breaking the record for any postwar painting at a public auction, but in 2012, his painting Orange, Red, Yellow (1961) reached a staggering 86.9 million and broke his own previous record. During the display of one of the paintings from the series made for the Four Season restaurant at Tate Modern in 2012, a man named Wlodzimierz Umaniec scribbled in black ink over the canvas causing the damage that restoration could not completely repair. Inspired by Nietzsche’s philosophy, mythology, Jewish origins, and revolutionary thought, Mark Rothko’s works represent variations on the theme of infinity. His paintings mentally continued beyond the edges of the canvas are “abstract icons”, a counter-images to reality, the result of his “transcendental experiences”.
Featured image: Mark Rothko - Artist portrait (detail), Image via orartswatch.org