Collections> Browse Mark Rothko

Collections> Browse Mark Rothko

Mark Rothko
Holdings (7)
5 paintings, 1 gouaches/watercolor, 1 poster

Wikipedia About Mark Rothko

Mark Rothko, born Marcus Rothkowitz (September 25, 1903 – February 25, 1970), was a Russian-American painter. He is classified as an abstract expressionist, although he himself rejected this label, and even resisted classification as an “abstract painter”. Full Wikipedia Article

essay Mark Rothko, Walker Art Center Collections, 2005

Mark Rothko’s journey toward a signature style has been characterized as one of struggle and ambiguity that, after two decades of effort, resolved itself in the simplest possible way: luminous, pure abstractions that are now benchmarks in the history of postwar American art.1 His earliest works, made during the 1930s, were muted, often melancholy urban scenes and landscapes. These were colored by his involvement in left-wing political committees and activist groups such as the Artists’ Union in New York; equally important were his studies with Max Weber at the Art Students’ League and his long friendship with Milton Avery. Both his mentors painted in a figurative style heavily informed by the ideas of Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse, but during the 1930s Rothko also encountered Surrealism, which was to prove the more salient influence for the next decade. He was especially captivated by the automatist abstractions of Joan Miró, and (along with fellow New York School artists Barnett Newman and Adolph Gottlieb) cultivated an interest in myth, Greek drama, tribal arts, and the art of children.

For a time Rothko attempted to bring all these interests together in canvases that communicated both the grim social reality of the day and the irrational, tragic nature of the human condition. But around 1938, as Hitler’s troops began stirring in Europe and the Depression continued in the United States, Rothko turned away from current events and committed himself to “the forms of the archaic and the myths from which they have stemmed.”2 Believing fervently that “there is no such thing as good painting about nothing,”3 he set out to embed the messages of his own time within a new semiabstract idiom. His canvases were filled with amorphous shapes swirling in shallow space, allusions to vast skies and oceans, musical notations, microscopic life, and fragmented human and animal forms. Typical of this period is the Walker Art Center’s Ritual (1944), in which a figure—with truncated limbs and an oversized ear that doubles as a head—floats mysteriously in an undefined space. Delicately painted in thin washes of magenta, ochre, and black, this lilting composition suggests ancient rituals and myths involving music and its often-hypnotic power—the irresistible song of the Sirens, or Orpheus, who lulls the Furies with his lyre.4

Rothko’s fervent desire to make his art the vehicle for transcendent experience led him to systematically eliminate representation and even allusion from his images. He forced his Surrealist-inspired forms of the 1940s to gradually dematerialize until, by 1950, he had distilled them into soft blocks and bands of luminous color arranged in simple, flattened compositions. He abandoned evocative narrative titles and began simply numbering his works, letting the content reside completely within the visual information. After 1950 he also ceased publishing statements about his aims and ideas, confiding to Newman that he had “nothing to say in words” about what he was doing on canvas.5 But he made it known that he was not a formalist: his paintings were experiences and ideas in their own right, not illustrations of experiences and ideas, and certainly not mere experiments with color and space. What Rothko was after were visceral, emotional, intimate encounters with objects that offered no less than complete physical and emotional immersion.

Rothko wanted his paintings to convey a sense of place, and he was extremely attentive to their scale and proportion as well as to the lighting, architectural setting, and context of their display. He also preferred that his paintings be seen in groups, isolated from the work of others. Given these preferences, it isn’t surprising that three mural commissions, with their distinct but related challenges, collectively occupied him for much of his last decade. The first, an invitation to make a group of murals for the Four Seasons Restaurant in New York’s Seagram building, was never completed, but he did finish five panels for a campus building at Harvard University in 1962.6 Perhaps his consummate achievement is the suite of fourteen black-and-blood-red canvases made for a chapel in Houston, Texas.7 With this commission, Rothko had the chance to create the transformative spiritual experience he had always envisioned for his audience. These brooding works, which were installed in the chapel in 1971, after Rothko’s death, are a kind of endpoint in the exploration of the sublime in abstraction—the enterprise that had brought Rothko and the New York School into the forefront of the avant-garde twenty years earlier.

  1. See David Anfam, Mark Rothko: The Works on Canvas (New Haven: Yale University Press; Washington, D.C.: National Gallery, 1998), 71.

  2. From Rothko’s notes for a letter (cowritten with Adolph Gottlieb) to Edward Alden Jewell, quoted in Dore Ashton, About Rothko (New York: Oxford University Press, 1983), 75.

  3. From the letter referenced in note 2, reprinted in Diane Waldman, ed., Mark Rothko: 1903–1970 (London: Tate Gallery, 1987), 77–78.

  4. Ritual was one of fifteen oils Rothko included in a 1945 solo exhibition at Peggy Guggenheim’s Art of This Century Gallery, which had opened in New York three years earlier with a mission to show work in difficult modern styles such as Surrealism.

  5. Quoted in Michael Compton, “Mark Rothko: The Subjects of the Artist,” in Mark Rothko: 1903–1970, 50.

  6. Nine of the Seagram paintings were given by Rothko to the Tate Gallery, London, where they were installed in a room of their own. The five Harvard canvases are installed in the university’s Holyoke Center.

  7. The Rothko Chapel was commissioned by Dominique de Menil for a new chapel for the University of St. Thomas, Houston. Rothko worked closely with the project’s original architect, Philip Johnson, on plans for the building, which was intended to be a Catholic chapel but is now described by its administrators as a “modern meditative environment” open to “people of every belief.”

Rothfuss, Joan. “Mark Rothko.” In Bits & Pieces Put Together to Present a Semblance of a Whole: Walker Art Center Collections, edited by Joan Rothfuss and Elizabeth Carpenter. Minneapolis, MN: Walker Art Center, 2005.

© 2005 Walker Art Center