In this week’s edition of Art in a Minute, KAZoART will take you down the path of famous Abstract Expressionist, Mark Rothko. Known for his deeply philosophical approach to art, his style is one that changed over the years, growing more theoretical and infinitely darker. Let’s take a look at his life’s work and find out why he didn’t want people to think his art was beautiful.

Rothko-inspired work on KAZoART

Mark Rothko in his early years

Mark Rothko was…

…a Russian immigrant

Born Markus Yakovlevich Rothkowitz in 1903, Mark Rothko was born in what was part of the Russian Empire and what is now Latvia. His family was of Jewish descent and emigrated to America in 1913, settling in Portland, Oregon.

Though they were not wealthy, the entire Rothkowitz family was extremely well-read and highly articulate. By the age of seventeen, Rothko had already been granted a scholarship to Yale, learned four languages and become heavily involved in philosophical and political debate.

Mark Rothko, Street Scene, 1937. Image Courtesy of The National Gallery, Washington D.C.

…an ivy-league drop-out

At the end of his freshman year at Yale, his scholarship was not renewed. Unable to manage without it, Mark Rothko left Yale. Ironically enough, he was granted an honourary degree forty-six years later. In spite of this, honour, he did not look back on his time at the ivy league in a fond manner and disliked its stuffy nature.

After leaving Yale, Rothko then moved to New York to for a change of atmosphere. It was upon seeing design students sketching models that he decided to try his hand at art. He signed up for classes at the Parsons School of Design and became close to his professor, the Cubist artist, Max Weber.

Mark Rothko, Self Portait, 1936

It was here that Rothko learned that through the correct technique, art can be a vehicle for expressing emotion. His early work is almost unrecognisable when compared to his later work. He painted highly peculiar landscapes, still lifes and portraits. Receiving his first solo show in 1935, he became more popular among art enthusiasts from that point on. As his career developed, his style changed in major ways…

…a tragic artist

Rothko was influenced by Nietzsche’s work, The Birth of Tragedy. Seeking inspiration in ancient Greek mythology, he latched on to the belief that tragedy was essential to the human experience. Eventually coming to the conclusion that titling his art could potentially skew the viewer’s ability to interpret it, he started referring to each canvas as “Untitled”.

Mark Rothko, The Sacrifice of Iphigenia, 1942. Collection of Christopher Rothko

Tired of his abstract figures, Rothko began painting blocks of colour, void of figures or any obvious symbolism. Dubbed “multiforms”, their lack of figurative substance leaves them open for interpretation.

One of Mark Rothko’s earliest “Multiform” paintings Magenta, Black, Green on Orange,1949

For over twenty years Rothko would continue to paint in this style. A study of his works from 1946-1970 will reveal an increasingly darker streak that crept into his world. Employing shades of black and grey, his last works are reflective of the turmoil taking place in his life.

After a messy divorce in 1969 and being diagnosed with heart issues, he refused to change his unhealthy lifestyle. In February 1970, his assistant found him on the kitchen floor with a slit in his wrist and sedatives in his system.

His legacy lives on, however, in the 836 paintings he completed during his lifetime. In 1998, they were recorded in a book entitled Mark Rothko: The Works on Canvas which celebrates the artist’s unique approach to his art.

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

Did you know?

Rothko would not sell his work to someone who wished to use it for an aesthetic purpose. When exhibiting his art, he would gauge a potential buyer’s reaction. If he sensed that they wanted to use it as an accessory or part of a preexisting interior decorative scheme, he wouldn’t part with it. He needed for people to be emotionally moved by his work and to not regard it with an “aesthetic consideration,” rather to see it as having its own life force.

What he said

“I realize that historically the function of painting large pictures is painting something very grandiose and pompous. The reason I paint them. I want to be very intimate and human. To paint a small picture is to place yourself outside your experience, to look upon an experience as a stereopticon view or with a reducing glass. However you paint the larger picture, you are in it. It isn’t something you command!”

Mark Rothko

His greatest works

Mark Rothko, Untitled, 1947. Image Courtesy of the Gemeentemuseum den Haag
Mark Rothko, Untitled, 1955.Image Courtesy of the Gemeentemuseum den Haag
Mark Rothko, Untitled (Yellow and Blue), 1954. Private Collection.
Mark Rothko, Untitled (Green Divided by Blue), 1968. Phoenix Art Museum
Mark Rothko, Untitled (Black on Grey) 1970. National Gallery, Washington, D.C.