Thursday, November 4, 2010

Mark Rothko

In the beginning of Mark Rothko’s career, he was still known as Marcus Rothkowitz, the name he was given at birth. He changed his name in 1959; close friends have speculated that a dealer asked Mark to change his name to indicate a change in his artistic style. Another explanation is that due to increasing Nazi sympathy in the US, he anglicized his name to obscure his Jewish connection. However it is not known whether any of the explanations is true.

Marcus Rothkowitz was born 1903 to a well-to-do pharmacist family in Tsarist Russian Empire. Due to changing political climate, Marcus’ family decided to immigrate to the United States on August 5, 1913. The family settled in a Jewish community in Portland. Marcus attended Shattuck Grade School and Lincoln High School, where he excelled brilliantly as a student and was subsequently admitted to Yale University in 1921. During this time, he fostered interests in art, music, literature, debate, and radical causes. Above all, he did exceptionally well in mathematics and considered becoming an engineer. Marcus left Yale in 1923, partly due to financial difficulties. As Marcus wandered about, he reached the conclusion that art was the passion of his life and became entirely committed to art.

In the Thirties and early Forties, Rothko explored a variety of themes, including myths and subway scenes. During this time, he became very good friend with Adolph Gottlieb, with whom he shared many interests and exchanged thoughts constantly. Both artists are intensely interested in the primitiveness of myths. This is evidenced by common themes found in both Gottlieb’s and Rothko’s paintings between 1941 and 1942. In 1942, Rothko made the transition from daily subject matters such as Subway Scenes from 1938 to Antigone and The Omen of the Eagle.

"Subway Scene", 1938

"The Omen of the Eagle", 1942
"Antigone", 1941

Many found it very difficult to classify Rothko’s art. His art in the late WWII stood between surrealism and abstraction. In his 1945 masterpiece, Slow Swirl at the Edge of the Sea, he depicted anthropomorphic forms that suggest human figures. This transition symbolizes a break from his former stagnant expressions; he became less attached to mythical themes but more to abstract possibilities.

"Slow Swirl at the Edge of the Sea", 1944

By late 1940s, Rothko, along with the rest of the New York School, began to abandon Surrealism and create his own mature style. By 1947, he began to use large patches of color and increasingly simplified his paintings. During 1959-1950, he finally developed a unified, consistent, and mature vision. The first hint was shown in his multiform created in 1948. He then limited his number of colors in order to accentuate the expressive possibilities of his drawing.

"Untitled [multiform]", 1948

I chose to write about Mark Rothko because of a deeply personal experience. During my senior year in high school, I decided to take art, a subject that I had never touched prior to taking that class. I remember walking past the far corner of the art room and ran into a poster of Yellow, Red, on Orange, 1954.

" Yellow, Red, on Orange", 1954

I stood and gazed at it for minutes, and it brought me to tears. Up to that point, I never imagined that a piece of artwork could speak to me the way Rothko’s works did. The universal nature of Rothko’s paintings enabled me to see the world through his vision. Only because Rothko was able to break away from figures and forms and all that his education had taught him, his paintings are unconstrained by time, condition, or circumstances.


Rothko, Mark, and Diane Waldman. Mark Rothko, 1903-1970: a Retrospective. New York: H.Abrams, in Collaboration with the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, 1978. Print.

"107 Study Images for Art After 1945." College of Marin. Web. 04 Nov. 2010.

"Mark Rothko." Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Web. 04 Nov. 2010. .

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