Mark Rothko came to the United States at the age of ten, in 1913 with his parents, who were from Latvia. He was born in 1903 and named Marcus Rothkovich, and his father was a Russian-Jewish pharmacist. The family settled in Portland, Oregon. He never recalled ever wanting to be a painter, but his one ambition as a young man was to become a labor leader.
In 1921, Rothko entered Yale University for a liberal arts education. He left Yale in 1923, having little interest in formal education and wanting more to wander than study. He finally settled in New York City in 1925, where he studied at the Art Students League. This experience was the full extent of his art training and is why Rothko has always considered himself a self-taught painter. His early works were Oregon landscapes, cityscapes, portraits, and nudes.
Rothko was impressed by many of the Surrealist artists who came to the United States during World War II. During his early career, he was interested in Greek mythology, philosophy, Jungian psychology, and primitive art.
In 1946, Rothko's paintings took on a fluid, dimensionless space, and were divided into horizontal zones of color, a format for which he became famous in later years. By 1950, his paintings were totally abstract, with floating rectangles of color. In these paintings, he wanted the direct communication of his emotions, in terms of paint and canvas.
Rothko's paintings during the 1950's were seen as objects of contemplation but his works of the 1960's became larger and dark in color. Browns, violets, and blacks replaced the bright oranges, reds, and yellows of the 1950's. This color change seemed to reflect a growing despondency that overtook the artist. It is thought that his paintings were an expression of the peace and serenity that he so desperately sought in life but could only find in paint and canvas.
His paintings were painted with very thin layers of transparent paint, with the colors of the under painting showing through the top surface. Because of this technique, many of his paintings seem to have an inner glow, which adds to the spiritual nature of the work. By eliminating thick paint and the corresponding painterly brushwork, Rothko began a reductive tradition in contemporary art, which influenced Helen Frankenthaler, who in turn influenced the group of artists who later were involved in Post-painterly Abstraction and Minimal Art.
Rothko committed suicide by slashing his wrists at the age of 66, in 1970 at the very peak of his career. Some things that may have led to the artist's death were: his long, hard struggle as an artist, the break-up of his marriage, and the deterioration of his health. He had been troubled with paranoia for most of his life and by the time of his death he had alienated most of his friends and family. He hated Pop Art, which was becoming a dominant art form in the 1960's, because he saw it as a betrayal of the spiritual values the Abstract Expressionists held dear, and he wondered whether his work was really understood.
Rothko's last major commission was for a church in Houston. He painted fourteen large paintings in somber dark hues. The Rothko Chapel contains only his paintings, wood benches, and candelabra. It opened a year after his death, and is considered by many to be a masterpiece of 20th century art.
Page author: C.A.