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Art History

Mark Rothko

In honor of Mark Rothko’s birthday today, I thought it would be a good opportunity to share more about him and his work.  This artist may be most known for his large abstract paintings featuring gradations of color.  To be fully honest, his work hasn’t really spoken to me in the past.  However the more I learn about his life and influences, the more I want to explore his work more in person. 

Mark Rothko photo
Mark Rothko in his West 53rd Street studio, c. 1953, photograph by Henry Elkan, courtesy Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Rudi Blesh Papers

Mark Rothko was born Marcus Yakovlevich Rothkowitz on September 25, 1903 in Dvinsk, Russia (in the area known today as Daugavpils, Latvia).  Marcus was the youngest of four children.  When he was 10 years old he and his family immigrated to Portland, Oregon in the United States.  

With a fear of deportation due to growing anti-Semitism from global Nazi influence, Rothko became a United States citizen on February 21, 1938.  This is when he also abbreviated his name from Markus Rothkowitz to Mark Rothko. 

Art & Influences

Rothko attended Yale University in 1921 where he studied a little bit of everything with the intention of becoming an engineer or an attorney.  The fall of 1923, he discontinued his studies at Yale and moved to New York City where he attended classes at the Art Students League and the New School of Design Parsons.  He studied with artists such as Max Weber, Milton Avery, Bernard Karfiol and Arshile Gorky.

Rothko’s first solo exhibitions were in 1933 at the Museum of Art in Portland, Oregon and the Contemporary Arts Gallery in New York.  The show at the Contemporary Arts Gallery included landscapes, nudes, portraits, and city scenes.  

Beginning in 1929, Mark Rothko taught children at the Center Academy of the Brooklyn Jewish Center.  Rothko had been painting mostly street scenes and interiors with figures at this time.  Through 20 years of teaching, he began to adopt a style which emphasized an emotional approach to the subject – characterized by deliberate deformations and rudimentary application of paint – after qualities that he admired in children’s art. 

In the 1940’s, Rothko was inspired by the surrealist technique of automatic writing.  The technique let the brush wander without conscious control letting the creativity flow from the unconscious.  Rothko’s watercolors of this time explored the fluidity of the medium while portraying a primeval stream of consciousness inspired by the psychoanalytic theories of Carl Jung. 

During the late 1940’s, the signature style of Mark Rothko emerged – works became large scale blurred blocks of colors which were created with thin washes of brilliant color in simplified forms.  His style of art has been referred to as Color Fields or Muliforms, and falls into the Chromatic Abstraction subset of Abstract Expressionism.  


Mark Rothko painting Number 10. Color block painting of white, yellow and blue
No. 10 by Mark Rothko, taken July 2012 MOMA

Rothko began to display his large works with the edges of the canvas painted and not confined by frames.  He abandoned conventional titles for his works, saying that he feared that words would limit the viewer’s mind and imagination.  As the 1950’s and 1960’s progressed, his works began to show an increasingly darkening color palette. 


On February 25, 1970 Mark Rothko was found dead by his assistant, having committed suicide after a long struggle with depression and physical illness.  On the day of his death, his work the Seagram Murals arrived in London at the Tate Gallery for display.  

Mark Rothko leaves a legacy of being one of the influential developers of nonrepresentational art.  He had a career that spanned five decades.  The largest public collection of Mark Rothko’s work can be found at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.  Many of his works can also be found in the Tate Gallery in London, the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, NY, and the Museum of Modern Art in NYC. 

Rothko says of his work:
“I am not an abstractionist… I am not interested in the relationships of color or form or anything else… 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 show that I communicate those basic human emotions… The people who weep before my pictures are having the same religious experience I had when I painted them. And if you, as you say, are moved only by their color relationships, then you miss the point!”

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