A prominent figure among the New York School painters, Mark Rothko (September 25, 1903 – February 25, 1970) moved through many artistic styles until reaching his signature 1950s motif of soft, rectangular forms floating on a stained field of color. Heavily influenced by mythology and philosophy, he was insistent that his art was filled with content and brimming with ideas. A fierce champion of social revolutionary thought, and the right to self-expression, Rothko also expounded his views in numerous essays and critical reviews.
Highly informed by Nietzsche, Greek mythology, and his Russian-Jewish heritage, Rothko’s art was profoundly imbued with emotional content that he articulated through a range of styles that evolved from figurative to abstract.
Rothko maintained the social revolutionary ideas of his youth throughout his life. In particular, he supported artists’ total freedom of expression, which he felt was compromised by the market. This belief often put him at odds with the art world establishment, leading him to publicly respond to critics, and occasionally refuse commissions, sales, and exhibitions.
Born in Dvinsk, Russia (in what is now Latvia), Marcus Rothkovich was the fourth child born to Jacob and Anna Rothkovich. As Russia was a hostile environment for Zionist Jews, Jacob immigrated to the United States with his two older sons in 1910, finally sending for the rest of his family in 1913. They settled in Portland, Oregon, though Jacob died only a few months after the family’s arrival, requiring them to earn a living in their new country though they only spoke Hebrew and Russian. Rothko was forced to learn English and go to work when he was very young, resulting in a lingering sense of bitterness over his lost childhood. He graduated early from Lincoln High School, showing more interest in music than visual art. He was awarded a scholarship to Yale University, but soon found the environment at Yale conservative and exclusionary; he left without graduating in 1923.
After leaving Yale, Rothko made his way to New York City. Over the next few years, he took odd jobs while enrolled in Max Weber’s still life and figure drawing classes at the Art Students League, which constituted his only artistic training. Rothko’s early paintings were mostly portraits, nudes, and urban scenes. After a brief stint in the theatre on a return visit to Portland, Rothko was chosen to participate in a 1928 group show with Lou Harris and Milton Avery at the Opportunity Gallery. This was a coup for a young immigrant who had dropped out of college and had only begun painting three years earlier.
His painting in the 1930s, influenced by Expressionism, was typified by claustrophobic, urban scenes rendered often in acidic colors. However, in the 1940s, he began to be influenced by Surrealism and abandoned Expressionism for more abstract imagery which spliced human, plant and animal forms. These he likened to archaic symbols, which he felt might transmit the emotions locked in ancient myths. Rothko came to see mankind as locked in a mythic struggle with his free will and nature.
While Rothko tends to be grouped with Newman and Still as one of the three chief inspirers of Color Field painting, Rothko’s works saw many abrupt and clearly defined stylistic shifts. The decisive shift came in the late 1940s when he began creating the prototypes for his best-known works. They have since come to be called his “multi-forms”: figures are banished entirely, and the compositions are dominated by multiple soft-edged blocks of colors which seem to float in space. Rothko wanted to remove all obstacles between the painter, the painting and the viewer. The method he settled on used shimmering color to swamp the viewer’s visual field. His paintings were meant to entirely envelop the viewer and raise the viewer up and out of the mechanized, commercial society over which artists like Rothko despaired. In 1949, Rothko radically reduced the number of forms in his pictures and grew them such that they filled out the canvas, hovering on fields of stained color that are only visible at their borders. These, his best-known works, have come to be called his “sectionals”, and Rothko felt they better met his desire to create universal symbols of human yearning. His paintings were not self-expression, he claimed, but statements about the condition of man.
Rothko would continue to work on the “sectionals” until the end of his life. They are considered to be rather enigmatic, as they are formally at odds with their intent. Rothko himself stated that his style changes were motivated by the growing clarification of his content. The all-over compositions, the blurred boundaries, the continuousness of color, and the wholeness of form were all elements of his development towards a transcendental experience of the sublime, Rothko’s goal.
Painting consumed Rothko’s life, and although he did not receive the attention he felt his work deserved in his own lifetime, his fame has increased dramatically in the years following his death. At odds with the more formally rigorous artists among the Abstract Expressionists, Rothko nevertheless explored the compositional potential of color and form on the human psyche.