Mark Rothko (1903-1970), whose real name was Marcus Rothkowitz, was an American painter born in Latvia. Rothko’s career as a painter spanned five decades. His expansive body of work revolutionized the essence and design of abstract art and includes some of the most important pieces of the 20th century. One of the world’s leading online art galleries, Artalistic, brings you a brief yet thorough look at the life and paintings of Mark Rothko.
(Illustration: Mark Rothko, Saffron, 1957)

Abstract painting according to Mark Rothko

From Europe to America

Rothko was the youngest of a Latvian family of four children who emigrated to the United States in 1913. He attended Yale University and the Parsons New School for Design in New York. His first attempts in the art world were figurative and influenced by expressionism.

Mark Rothko embarked on a phase of experimental art and joined a circle of painters that emerged during the 1940s that was later called the New York School.

A renaissance in painting

Mark Rothko was part of a group of avant-garde American painters who wished to break away from the realist approach of the 1930s. Their goal was to invent a new and fresh way of painting with a pioneering and innovative spirit after the Great Depression and the Second World War.

Curating an elite group of artists

Peggy Guggenheim opened the gallery Art of this Century in New York in 1942. The gallery showcased works by established European artists with an emphasis on Surrealism and began attracting the attention of a new generation of artists, critics and art dealers searching for innovative work.

The gallery was divided into four distinct spaces dedicated to different painting techniques:  the Abstract Gallery, the Surrealist Gallery, the Kinetic Gallery, and the Daylight Gallery.

Mark Rothko’s distinctive paintings were featured in the Abstract Gallery and his work became widely-recognized by 1949. He was fascinated by Henri Matisse's painting The Red Studio, a piece that had recently become part of the MoMA’s permanent collection. The painting’s use of rectangles and bold use of the color red captivated and inspired him with its vibrant, expressive and fresh way of depicting the world through its flat composition.

The master of abstract expressionism

Mark Rothko was also influenced by the German painter Hans Hofmann and his post-impressionist and cubist theories. He was most drawn to Hofmann’s signature works created during the 1950s and 1960s, in which bold color planes emerge from and recede into energetic surfaces of intersecting and overlapping shapes. Hoffman referred to the pieces that incorporated these expanding and contracting forces Push & Pull.

Mark Rothko's painting techniques radically shifted after discovering Hoffman’s Push & Pull paintings. From that moment on, Rothko focused on creating large scale canvases with rectangular planes of colors that seem to float off of their backgrounds, experimenting with different color combinations and proportion to enhance this optical illusion. By the 1960s Mark Rothko’s paintings were already considered revolutionary and stood apart from other Abstract Expressionist pieces created by his contemporaries.

Color Field Painting

The Abstract Expressionist movement can be separated into two categories:

- Action painting: the artist taps into their emotions and enters a flow state, using broad gestures to drip paint across a canvas. Jackson Pollock is the most famous of the drip painters.

- Color Field Painting: work characterized by expansive areas of a more or less flat single color.

Mark Rothko’s paintings created during the 1950s and 1960s are categorized as Color Field Paintings. Rothko used painting to transport him to the limits of creation, as if on a spiritual quest that aimed to transcend the materialistic world and bring him into a dreamlike state.  

Mark Rothko’s abstract painting: a unique style

The sheer size of Mark Rothko's abstract paintings is key to their visual impact. The viewer feels as though they can walk into his paintings because the picture seems to extend beyond and behind the physical canvas. This idea of the observer "immersing" themselves in a work of art is reminiscent of Monet's paintings. Scale is absolutely fundamental to the nature of Rothko’s work and was identified as such by Clement Greenberg in 1950: “Broken by relatively few incidents of drawing or design, their surfaces exhale color with an enveloping effect that is enhanced by size itself. One reacts to an environment as much as to a picture hung on a wall.”

Rothko’s paintings used the Allover painting technique – an approach that gives each area of the composition equal attention and significance. It was a style characterized by vast open spaces and expressive colors. MoMA’s former chief curator William S. Rubin wrote, “[Rothko’s] colored rectangles seem to dematerialize into pure light.” An effect he achieved by covering his canvases with thin layers of color that created the illusion of saturated fields of color that have lights shining from behind them. Rothko spent the rest of his career exploring this technique with various color combinations and different sized rectangles on fields of color.

A tragic ending

Mark Rothko committed suicide in 1970 in New York. He died after ingesting barbiturates and cutting the veins in both arms. He was 67 years old. There are many theories as to the reasons for this desperate act, some of which explore an existential malaise and powerful spiritual concerns.

Mark Rothko left us a legacy of paintings filled with life precisely because he was not afraid to delve into new aspects of art that had not yet been explored. In 1951 Rothko stated: “I paint very large pictures…precisely because I want to be very intimate and human. To paint a small picture is to place yourself outside your experience…However if you paint the larger picture, you are in it. It isn’t something you command…. I’m interested only in expressing basic human emotions—tragedy, ecstasy, doom, and so on,” he declared. “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.”

Two emblematic abstract paintings by Mark Rothko

Mark Rothko’s full body of abstract paintings is considerable in size, nevertheless we have selected two iconic paintings that highlight his signature technique:

Blue and Gray (1962)

In this oil on canvas, Mark Rothko uses dark rectangles in shades of gray that are intended to evoke the metaphysical through the viewers’ communion with the canvas in a controlled setting. Here he uses dark gray, almost black, for the undercoat and white and blue-violet rectangles. The contrast generated is remarkably intense, with the white emerging from the gray despite its transparent layers, giving the impression of mist emerging from an unfathomable background.

Orange, Red, Yellow (1961)

This major work by the abstract painter Mark Rothko uses a warmer color palette in rectangles that do not extend to the edges of the canvas, giving the impression that they are hovering over its surface and heightening the sensation of chromatic afterimage.

Forty-two years after Mark Rothko’s death this painting set records at a Christie’s auction. On May 8, 2012, it was sold for 87 million dollars, a considerable sum that makes it one of the most valued paintings in the world.

We hope that you’ve enjoyed this Mark Rothko biography. Feel free to browse the other pages of our website. Artalistic is a leading virtual gallery that features work by well-established and emerging artists. Our carefully curated collection includes a wide variety of styles and media, including paintings, sculptures, drawings, photographs, etc.