25 February, marks the death of artist Mark Rothko in 1970.
Rothko was born in Imperial Russia to a Jewish family. Rothko’s father, fearing the brutality and rampant anti-Semitism of pre-revolutionary Russia, fled to the USA, settling the family in Portland, Oregon. Although the family was of modest means, Rothko recalled that theirs was a “reading family” and Rothko himself was able to speak several languages. In addition, he became exposed to the radical labor organizers of the West Coast, attending meetings of the Industrial Workers of the World and hearing a lecture by anarchist Emma Goldman.
Rothko would receive a scholarship to Yale, but soon became repulsed at what he viewed as the racist, arrogant elitists of the Yale community, prompting Rothko and some friends began to a satirical sheet called, ‘The Saturday Evening Pest’ which attempted to deflate the bloated egos of those they found themselves surrounded by. Rothko would drop out after a year and never earn a university degree.
Rothko first became interested in the field of art in 1923, when he dropped in on some friends at the Art Students League and observed them sketching a model. Rothko was soon learning at the elbow of such avant-garde luminaries as Arshile Gorky and Max Weber, the latter of whom he developed a strong rapport.
By 1928, Rothko was exhibiting his works with other young artists and was well received, but not financially secure. He taught art classes to remain solvent and would do so up until 1932. Rothko would also find work in the New Deal created, Works Progress Administration.
In 1942 Rothko exhibited paintings at Macy’s Department Store, a showing that received negative commentary from the New York Times whose critic expressed “befuddlement” at the works. Rothko, along with abstract expressionist painter Adolph Gottlieb, replied in part:
“We favor the simple expression of the complex thought. We are for the large shape because it has the impact of the unequivocal. We wish to reassert the picture plane. We are for flat forms because they destroy illusion and reveal truth.”
In the early 1950’s Rothko had one man shows in galleries in New York, Amsterdam, and Sao Paulo. A 1954 solo show at the Art Institute in Chicago would prove particularly beneficial to his career. In 1961 he would be a guest at the inaugural ball of John F. Kennedy. Rothko described color as “merely an instrument” that could convey “tragedy, ecstasy, and doom”.
Examples of the most famous style of his work appear below…