by David Fox
Mark Rothko was an academic. He skipped grades, spoke four languages, and received a scholarship to Yale. He was a self-taught, diligent creator, and his ability to learn drove him to become an artist.
His skills were intrinsic, as he had very little training in the discipline. Once he realized his art could be a tool of religious and emotional expression, he embraced it.
He wanted to bring you to tears. He would even withhold selling you a painting if you didn’t respond in a genuine way, and you were only purchasing from him to be fashionable.
Seeing an art student sketch a model while visiting a friend at the Art Students League of New York was what started it all for Rothko. Something inside him immediately responded and prompted him to find a way to express himself through art.
He created 863 pieces over his career, and some of them reside in New York, Madrid, and Daugavpils.
Tragically, he died by suicide in 1970 at 66 years old.
“I’m interested only in expressing basic human emotions—tragedy, ecstasy, doom, and so on, and the fact that a lot of people break down and cry when confronted with my pictures shows that I can communicate those basic human emotions….If you…are moved only by their color relationships, then you miss the point.”
The artists he worked with and looked up to most included Max Weber, Paul Klee, and Georges Rouault.
Much of Rothko’s work came from intellectual influences. His interpretation of the work of Friedrich Nietzsche heavily influenced him.
What was happening in Nazi Germany at the time, and the aftermath took a toll on him as well. He was a dedicated socialist, so many of his works had political themes and social circumstances littered throughout.
He also drew inspiration from mythology, stating the “archaic artist … found it necessary to create a group of intermediaries, monsters, hybrids, gods, and demigods…without monsters and gods, art cannot enact a drama.”
There were three main phases in Rothko’s style of art: Realist work, Abstract Expressionism, and Colour Field.
The Realist style he adapted was early on in his career before he was a full-time artist. Surrealism and artists like Joan Miro primarily influenced him.
The way that surrealism promoted psychologically compelling ideas inspired some of his best work. His style quickly moved in a more abstract direction.
His work was entirely abstract by the 1940s, and he was part of the abstract expressionist movement, along with Jackson Pollock, Barnett Newman, and Willem de Kooning.
While there weren’t many similarities between these artists, their goals of creating pieces that expressed raw emotion and their free spirits. They preferred to avoid the label “abstract expressionism,” because they wanted their work to speak for itself.
“I do not believe that there was ever a question of being abstract or representational. It is really a matter of ending this silence and solitude, of breathing, and stretching one’s arms again, transcendental experiences became possible.” – Mark Rothko
Ultimately becoming his signature style, his colour field pieces are his most well-known. He didn’t use aggressive techniques to portray his concepts but was more deliberate and contemplative in his application of the colours in his work.
Comprised of large blocks of colour, typically horizontal rectangles, he aimed to display the rawness of human emotion on the canvas.
His peers and friends weren’t sold on the methods of his work, and they expected the general public and critics to reject them, but that couldn’t be further from what really happened.
The underlying concepts were well-received because his techniques were organic, emotional, and luminescent.
His genius punctured the viewer right in their heart, and this would be the medium he would use to create his art until he passed.
“I would like to say to those who think of my pictures as serene, whether in friendship or mere observation, that I have imprisoned the most utter violence in every inch of their surface.” ― Mark Rothko
His most famous works are the Scenes in the Subway series, The Seagram’s Murals, and The Rothko Chapel.
Rothko’s final wishes were that his work would be left to his foundation. He wanted to have a school created as a place for new artists to learn and be inspired and encouraged.
Unfortunately, there was a lot of drama surrounding the provisions in his will, and greed came into play by his executors. Eventually, the rights were rightfully turned over to his son and daughter.
The impression he left on the world of art is a profound one.
He avidly worked against the “rules” of art and became a visionary. He continues to inspire up-and-coming artists from all over the world, and his impact is still lingering.
He was a risk-taker and was confident in his convictions, becoming a notable inspiration for generations to come. His work is still in museums across the globe today, and he is the face of modern art and walking your own path.
“When I was a younger man, art was a lonely thing. No galleries, no collectors, no critics, no money. Yet, it was a golden age, for we all had nothing to lose and a vision to gain.
He continues, “Today it is not quite the same. It is a time of tons of verbiage, activity, consumption. Which condition is better for the world at large I shall not venture to discuss.
But I do know that many of those who are driven to this life are desperately searching for those pockets of silence where we can root and grow. We must all hope we find them.” ― Mark Rothko
Rothko is featured in our article, “Who Are The Best Abstract Expressionist Painters?”
These are some of the best videos I could find about Mark Rothko which are worth a watch.
About David Fox
David Fox is an artist who created davidcharlesfox.com to talk about art and creativity. He loves to write, paint, and take pictures. David is also a big fan of spending time with his family and friends.