Born on September 25, 1903, Mark Rothko (Marcus Rothkowitz), was a major Abstract Expressionist artist and had an important influence on the development of colour field painting. Latvian by birth, Rothko emigrated with his mother and sister to the United States in 1913, joining his father and two brothers who had come a few years before. Growing up in Portland, Oregon, Rothko did well in school and upon completion was awarded a scholarship to Yale which he attend from 1921-1923. He found the Yale community to be elitist and racist and dropped out after two years of study.
Rothko moved to New York in 1923 where he worked in the garment district. He studied sporadically at the Arts Students League but was essentially a self-taught artist, educating himself by visiting exhibitions and the studios of other artists. In 1929, Rothko began teaching children at the Center Academy of the Brooklyn Jewish Center, a position he retained for more than twenty years.
Rothko’s first paintings were typically of Expressionist landscapes, still-lifes, and bathers. He was also commissioned to illustrate for Rabbi Lewis Browne’s The Graphic Bible (1928) which included maps, sphinxes, lions, serpents, and other symbols and scenes that reflected the book’s content.
Rothko’s paintings of the 1930s had an eerie mood and created a sense of mystery with tragic figures in apartments, on city streets and subway platforms. From 1935-1940 Rothko, along with other artists including Ilya Bolotowsky and Adolph Gottlieb, was a part of an independent group called “The Ten” that held exhibitions in New York and Paris.
In the early 1940s Rothko abandoned Expressionism and, under the influence of Surrealism and Jung’s ideas on the collective unconscious, began to use archaic symbols as archetypal images. The first of these paintings were based on mythic subjects and were composed of humans, animals and plants arranged in a manner similar to archaic friezes. By the mid-1940s Rothko was also painting organic forms that were close to abstraction. During this time, he also developed his technique of applying watercolour, gouache, and tempera to heavy paper. Rothko’s paintings during this time were well received and he exhibited at Peggy Guggenheim’s Art of This Century gallery, the Betty Parsons Gallery, and the San Francisco Museum of Art.
Between 1947 and 1949, Rothko sought to create an original approach of abstraction by replacing the figure with shapes. His large canvases with bold colour and form were intended to create the impression of constant movement. His goal was to express profound human emotions as directly as possible stating: “The progression of a painter’s work…will be toward clarity; toward the elimination of all obstacles between the painter and the idea, and between the idea and the observer.”
Beginning in 1958, in conjunction with three major commissions, Rothko darkened his colour palatte painting with maroon, black, and olive green. He believed his view of the tragic human condition would be conveyed more clearly than with his earlier brightly coloured works.
Despite his success, Rothko felt he was misunderstood as an artist and feared that people purchased his paintings out of fashion. He rejected the label of an abstractionist and colourist saying that his interest was “only in expressing basic human emotions — tragedy, ecstasy, doom, and so on. . . 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 relationship, then you miss the point.”
In 1968, as a result of chronic high blood pressure, Rothko suffered an aneurysm of the aorta. Despite his physicians advice, he continued to drink and smoke heavily, avoided exercise, and maintained an unhealthy diet. He did however focus his efforts on smaller format works that required less physical exertion. On February 25, 1970, Mark Rothko committed suicide. He was 66 years old.