Friday, February 17, 2017

Mark Rothko by Brittany Halberstadt

Mark Rothko (1903- 1970)

Mark Rothko was born Marcus Rothkowitz in Dvinsk, Russia on September 25, 1903. When he was just ten years old, he and his family immigrated to the United States and settled in Portland, Oregon. After graduating Lincoln High School in Portland, Rothko attended Yale University. Dropping out after only two years, he moved to New York in 1925. While in New York, he studied under Max Weber at the Art Students League. Weber encouraged Rothko to create expressionist paintings of everyday subjects.

Mark Rothko’s forty-five year painting career can be divided into four distinct periods: the Realist period (1924-1940), the Surrealist period (1940-1946), the Transitional period (1946-1949), and the Classical period (1949-1970).

Mark Rothko, Street Scene, c. 1937, National Gallery of Art, Gift of The Mark Rothko Foundation, Inc., 1986.43.21 

In the 1930s, Rothko painted mostly street scenes and interiors. In the painting featured above, Street Scene, Rothko displayed an emotional approach to his subjects, an approach he admired in children’s art. Perhaps this image was inspired by the children that Rothko taught at the Center Academy of the Brooklyn Jewish Center. He was a teacher at the Brooklyn Jewish Center from 1929 to 1952. 

 Mark Rothko, sketchbook drawing, mid-1930s, National Gallery of Art, Gift of The Mark Rothko Foundation, Inc.

Although paint was Rothko’s primary medium, he always made sketches in advance of paintings. Above, he has mapped out the figures for a realist painting he completed in the mid 1930s.

Just before, and during, World War II, Rothko underwent a radical shift in his style and began to create surrealist drawings and paintings. During this time of turmoil and uncertainty, he developed a close partnership with Adolph Gottlieb. Rothko and Gottlieb collaborated on a series of pictures inspired by Greek myths between 1941 and 1942.

Mark Rothko, Untitled, 1944/1945, National Gallery of Art, Gift of The Mark Rothko Foundation, Inc., 1986.43.181

In the water color above, from 1944-45, Rothko explores the idea of “automatic writing”- letting the brush wander without conscious control. Through this technique, Rothko was releasing the creative forces of the unconscious. This method was inspired by the theory of the “collective unconscious,” proposed by psychoanalyst Carl Jung in the early 1900s. According to Jung, the “collective unconscious,” is the part of the unconscious mind that is derived from ancestral memory and experience and is common to all people. The painting above evokes a vision of primeval life.

Mark Rothko, Rites of Lilith,1945, Collection of Kate Rothko Prizel

The painting above, Rites of Lilith, was one of the first paintings for which Rothko used a large-scale canvas. Large-scale canvases became his primary painting surface as he began to create color field paintings in the 1950s.  

Mark Rothko, Untitled, 1961, location unknown

Rothko’s progression from surrealism to abstract expressionism was marked by a period in which he began to replace figures with shapes. His goal was to eliminate the obstacles between the painter and the idea and between the idea and the observer. In his own words, his final works were aimed at “expressing basic human emotions- tragedy, ecstasy, doom, and so on.” He went on to state that if people were “moved only by the color relationship, then [they] missed the point.”

Mark Rothko, Orange and Tan,1954, National Gallery of Art, Gift of Enid A. Haupt, 1977.47.13

In 1958, Rothko was commissioned to create large murals for the Four seasons restaurant in the Seagram’s building in New York City. Rothko created “sketches” for his large murals using oil paint on small canvases. Sketch for “Mural No. 4,” above, was created as a visual outline for one of these Four Seasons murals. Unlike the traditional graphite and charcoal used for sketches, Rothko used his sketches as a way to experiment with color.

Mark Rothko, Orange and Tan,1954, National Gallery of Art, Gift of Enid A. Haupt, 1977.47.13

 “Color field” painting, a type of abstract expressionism, became synonymous with Rothko’s name. The term abstract expressionism is a label used to describe artists who express their feelings through the act of painting, without fixating on the actual product (the artwork). Expressionism was never a unified movement, with some “action painters,” such as Jackson Pollock, dripping, splashing, and smearing paint across the canvas, while “color field painters,” such as Mark Rothko, explored the emotional force of pure color. 

Mark Rothko committed suicide on February 25, 1970, at the age of 66. At the time of his death, he had over 800 unsold works of art. 

Works Cited

1. "A Comprehensive Resource for Information about Mark Rothko Paintings, Prints, Biography and Quotes." Mark Rothko - Paintings, Prints, Biography and Mark Rothko Artwork. N.p., n.d. Web. 17 Feb. 2017. <>.

2. "ABSTRACT EXPRESSIONISM - LEARN MORE| Mark ROTHKO | Untitled." N.p., n.d. Web. 17 Feb. 2017. <>.

3. Baal-Teshuva, Jacob. Rothko. Kolin: Taschen, 2015. Print.

4. Campbell, Wendy. "Mark Rothko: 1903-1970 Abstract Art." Daily Art Fixx. N.p., 28 Sept. 2016. Web. 17 Feb. 2017. <>.

5. "Mark Rothko." National Gallery of Art. N.p., n.d. Web. 17 Feb. 2017. <>.

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