Name: Markus Yakolevich Rohtkowitz
Date of Birth: 25 September 1903
Place of Birth: Daugavpils, Latvia
Date of Death: 25 February 1970 (66 years old)
Place of Death: New York City, U.S.
Known for: Pioneering color field paintings in abstract art. While Mark Rothko didn’t subscribe to a movement, he is primarily associated with the abstract expressionists in America during the 1950s.
7 facts about Mark Rothko
“There is no such thing as good painting about nothing.” - Mark Rothko
Mark Rothko was an American painter associated with the abstract expressionist movement that developed in New York in the 1950s. You can easily recognize his work by its large rectangular planes of color. This style is known as color field painting.
In life, Mark Rothko believed his paintings could allow anyone to confront their innermost emotions.
He once said, “A painting is not about an experience. It is an experience.”
Looking at art doesn’t require any previous knowledge; sometimes all you need to do is feel the work, not analyze it. Art can simply be an act of self-reflection.
With that, let’s get into the life and works of the abstractionist mythmaker, Mark Rothko.
Born Markus Rothkowitz, he anglicized his name to avoid antisemitism
Markus Yakolevich Rothkowitz was born in 1903 in Dvinsk, Russia (now, Daugavpils, Latvia). His parents were Jewish left-leaning intellectual atheists and he was the youngest of four children. Rothko’s family was well educated. He even spoke four languages: Russian, Yiddish, Hebrew, and English.
To avoid anti-Semitism and being drafted into the Russian army, the Rothkowitz family migrated to the U.S. in 1913 and settled in Portland, Oregon.
It wasn’t until 1938 that Mark Rothko became a naturalized U.S. citizen. At that time, the threat of the Nazis loomed all over Europe. Fearing deportation and discrimination as a Jew and immigrant, Markus Rothkowitz changed his name to Mark Rothko.
Yale University granted Mark Rothko a scholarship, but he dropped out after his sophomore year
As with any immigrant story, Mark Rothko’s assimilation into American life was far from easy.
In 1922, he received a scholarship to Yale University and intended to become a lawyer or engineer. However, his scholarship wasn’t renewed after his first year. To afford his education, Rothko worked odd jobs in the service industry.
He began criticizing Yale’s elitist, traditional, and racist environment and even founded a satirical magazine, The Yale Saturday Evening Pest. After his second year, Rothko dropped out.
Almost 50 years later, at the height of his success, Yale awarded Rothko an honorary degree.
He took art classes under Arshile Gorky and Max Weber
Perhaps it was Rothko’s early exposure to the modernist movement that cemented his path as an abstract expressionist.
In 1923, Rothko’s artistry came to life. He took art classes at the Parsons School of Design under none other than abstract expressionist Arshile Gorky. Rothko also took classes at the Art Students League in New York under Cubist painter Max Weber.
These early mentors would form Rothko’s artistic philosophy, that art was meant for emotional expression.
Mark Rothko was inspired by mythology and psychoanalysis
“Art is an adventure into an unknown world, which can be explored only by those willing to take the risk.”
By the 1940s, we see Mark Rothko’s paintings maturing. Searching for meaning and impact in his work, Rothko drew inspiration from the work of psychoanalysts like Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung and their work regarding dreams, archetypes, and the human subconscious.
Rothko’s interest in space and color grew from his reading of Freud and Jung. He sought to represent the archaic, the drama of the mystical through “multiforms” that would later mature into his renowned color field paintings.
Rothko was most greatly influenced by Friedrich Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy. He believed himself to be a mythmaker. Like Nietzsche, Rothko believed art had the potential to unconsciously redeem humanity from its spiritual emptiness.
Mark Rothko’s signature style is called Color Field Painting
To a first-time onlooker, Rothko’s paintings look like blotches of color. But his technique was quite masterful.
Rothko often mixed his own paints and created his own canvases. Despite their seeming simplicity, Rothko’s technique explores the effects of luminosity and sheerness of oil paint. Like creating washes with watercolor, Rothko thinned his oil paint with turpentine and applied them onto the canvas in layers.
He uses color to create landscapes of emotion.
Every one of Rothko’s monolithic paintings was designed to spark different emotions. It’s all quite subjective. There’s no right or wrong way to interpret Rothko’s paintings. In that sense, Rothko found a way to tap into the transcendent, emotional power of color.
Art galleries received specific instructions on how to display Mark Rothko’s paintings
Mark Rothko was extremely protective of his artwork—especially against critics. He hated explaining himself or his work because it could ruin the viewers’ experience.
Often, he felt misunderstood. He hated being boxed in with the Abstract Expressionists. Rothko always felt like his work transcended labels, symbols, and modes of art.
So, to preserve the authenticity of his work, Rothko gave galleries explicit directions for displaying his paintings.
A Rothko painting is meant to hang closest to the floor and unobstructed. The walls in the gallery must be off-white and on the warm side—otherwise, too-white walls wash out the color of the painting. Even down to the lighting—not too strong, from a distance or indirect, and no spotlights.
Nor should the paintings be displayed with works of other artists. Rothko cared that much about viewers’ emotional responses and total immersion in his paintings.
For viewers, you should stand around 18 inches away from the piece to fully get to know the work.
All of this amounts to a meaningful and immersive experience.
Unfortunately, Mark Rothko died by suicide in 1970
In 1968, Mark Rothko suffered an aortic aneurysm and was told to stop painting due to his health.
By the time of his death, Rothko had divorced his wife and moved into his studio. He was severely depressed and continued to drink and smoke heavily.
On February 25, 1970, Mark Rothko was found dead in his kitchen. He had overdosed and cut a major artery in his arm. For someone so expressive and enigmatic, Rothko’s life ended in unexplained tragedy. There was no suicide note. That same day, his famous Seagram Murals arrived at the Tate Gallery in London.
7 famous works by Mark Rothko
Mark Rothko’s works are all about the drama of human emotions. He aspired to break art down into its purest, most existential, and essential form.
His paintings are simple, still, and symmetrical. They’re all meant to be proportional to the human body, that way viewers can place themselves inside the work. Because of their profound nature, Rothko’s paintings often become overwhelming sensory experiences for viewers.
That’s why you’re supposed to see a Mark Rothko painting up close and personal to best appreciate it. Here are some of his famous works and where to find and experience them.
Multiform (1948), National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
The year 1948 marks a significant shift in Mark Rothko’s work: the road to his matured color field abstractions. Rothko never used the word Multiform. Instead, it was coined by historians and critics to categorize this group of paintings.
As part of a group exhibit, he created a series of “multiform” paintings, demonstrating his mastery of abstract expressionism. The paintings in this series show free-form shapes of color that fade and blur into each other and the background. No figures, symbols, or landscapes here. The work was meant to simply express Rothko’s emotions.
White Center (Yellow, Pink, and Lavender on Rose) (1950)
In 1950, Rothko began simplifying his compositions. Here he divides the canvas horizontally, so this painting is best read from top to bottom. The colors seem to float rather than blend into one another. Notice how these complementary colors interact on the canvas. How does this painting make you feel?
This is an iconic work by Rothko. In 2007, this painting became the most expensive work of art sold at auction at the time. It sold for over $72 million US dollars. It’s now in the collection of the Qatar royal family.
No. 61 (Rust and Blue) (1953), Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles
A mere photo of this painting won’t do it justice, so if you’re in the Los Angeles area, we highly recommend seeing it for yourself. Mark Rothko described his abstract color field works as having an inner light or luminosity.
You’ll see this the closer you get to Rust and Blue. The technique he uses here has even been compared to Titian’s work, Noli me Tangere (1514).
They’re not just huge squares of blue. It’s a composition with a sophisticated approach to color.
Rothko painted multiple thin washes of oil paint to create deep and rich colors. You can even see the paint’s motion across the surface of the canvas because Rothko would paint on upside-down canvases and then change its orientation once finished.
Seagram Murals (1958) Tate Modern, London
Black on Maroon (1958), one of the paintings from the Seagram Mural series
In 1958, Mark Rothko received his first major commission from the Seagram distilleries for $35,000. This series of paintings was initially meant to hang in the Four Seasons restaurant in the just-built Seagram Building along Park Avenue, New York.
Rothko didn’t like that his works would be displayed somewhere only accessible to the elite. He didn’t want his art to be seen merely as decor. So for two years, he painted 30 canvases in protest. He intended for diners at the Four Seasons to feel trapped and claustrophobic.
He eventually canceled the commission, returning the money and taking back his work. It had gone against his beliefs. He even told his assistant, “Anybody who will eat that kind of food for those kinds of prices will never look at a painting of mine.”
In 1969, Mark Rothko bequeathed nine of these paintings to the Tate Gallery in London. A few hours after the canvases arrived at the Tate, Rothko was found dead in his studio.
No. 14 (1960), San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
Mark Rothko was not known to give titles to his works. Often, he would simply catalog and number them. He believed that using words to describe his work defeated their purpose.
“Silence is so accurate.” He famously said.
What’s interesting about Rothko’s work is that his color palette darkens into his later life. Here, we still see a vibrant orange but it’s juxtaposed with a dark blue. His paintings were intended to evoke “the sublime.” That is, to capture the most basic human emotions.
Rothko Chapel (1965), Houston, Texas
Some people have claimed that Rothko’s paintings change based on where you’re standing. Again, viewing a Mark Rothko painting is a spiritual experience. And if you’re up for it, make your way to the Rothko Chapel in Houston, Texas.
The chapel houses 14 paintings by Mark Rothko. It’s as solemn as any sacred space can get. It’s the culmination of Mark Rothko’s life and works and it represents his growing obsession with capturing the transcendent and metaphysical on canvas.
Rothko may not have been religious, but he understood what it meant to be deeply spiritual. You can find that solace and solitude, the quiet and tranquility Rothko always intended for his work—all in this nondenominational space.
The Rothko Chapel is a historic space and also a center for social justice and philosophical exchange.
Mark Rothko didn’t live to see his Chapel open in 1971.
Untitled (Black on Grey) (1970) Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York
If this one feels empty and sad to you, you’re not wrong. It’s one of the darkest paintings—literally and figuratively—by Mark Rothko.
According to Rothko, this painting was an allegory of death. He paints with acrylic here instead of oil. Rectangles rest on each other, two empty voids without substance or even emotion. It was painted before he died by suicide.