Mark Rothko (1903-1970)
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One of the most innovative figures in abstract art in America during the mid-20th century, the Latvian-born, Jewish-American painter, Mark Rothko (Marcus Rothkowitz) was the leading pioneer of Abstract Expressionism, a movement triggered by the collapse in moral values following World War II. Along with Clyfford Still (1904-80) and Barnett Newman (1905-70) he became a leading member of the New York School and pioneer of Colour Field painting. Rothko's key works include: Slow Swirl at the Edge of the Sea (1944, MOMA); Multiform (1948, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra); Untitled (Violet, Black, Orange, Yellow on White and Red) (1949, Guggenheim Museum, New York); Green and Maroon (1953, Phillips Collection, Washington DC); Untitled (Purple, White and Red) (1953, Art Institute of Chicago); and Light Red over Black (1957, Tate Gallery, London). Now ranked among the giants of modern American art, Rothko is regarded as one of the greatest abstract painters of the 20th century. His colour-saturated abstract paintings - some of which are available online in the form of poster art - influenced many of the younger generation of modern artists including Frank Stella (b.1936), Helen Frankenthaler (b.1928), Kenneth Noland (b.1924) and others, and paved the way for movements like Hard Edge Painting and other 1960s styles of Post-Painterly Abstraction.
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Rothko's father was a pharmacist and an intellectual. The family emigrated to the United States in 1913. His father died soon after arriving in their new land, leaving the family without an income. Rothko started school and worked selling newspapers on the side. Following graduation he received a scholarship to Yale. He disliked the bourgeois attitude of other students and dropped out in his second year. He only returned 46 years later to receive an honorary degree.
Instead, he enrolled in the New School of Design, where his instructors included the emigrant painter Arshile Gorky, who was also a key influence on Willem De Kooning. That summer, Rothko joined the Art Students League run by the still life artist Max Weber. It was Weber who encouraged Rothko to see art as a tool to express his emotions. Rothko's early painting was entirely representational, including such works as Seated Woman, 1938 (Christopher Rothko Collection); Subway, 1937 and Street Scene, 1937 (both National Gallery of Art, Washington DC).
In 1932 he became acquainted with the painter Milton Avery, 18 years his senior, who was known as the 'American Matisse'. He influenced the younger painter, who began to paint forms more simply and started applying paint in thin layers of colour. Around this time Rothko also became friendly with Adolph Gottlieb (1903-74), Barnett Newman (1905-70), John Graham and Joseph Soloman. They spent vacations together, painting and discussing art. Rothko had his first one-man show in 1933 at the Portland Museum. By the late 1930s he was moving in the direction of his later, more famous abstract works.
In the 1940s Rothko's style of painting underwent a radical change, mainly in response to the chaos and bloodshed of World War II. Influenced by new ideas brought to New York by European emigrants such as Max Ernst, Joan Miro, and Piet Mondrian, he moved increasingly toward abstract art as he explored a range of styles rooted in expressionism and symbolism. This decision was also influenced by his new friendship with the abstract artist Clyfford Still.
In 1946 he unfolded his new 'multiform' paintings, which are viewed as his transition between Surrealism and pure abstraction. (For a contrast in style, see the more expressive acrylic paintings of Rothko's younger contemporary Robert Motherwell.) The paintings consisted of blurred blobs of colour, devoid of any recognisable human figure or landscape.
By the 1950s this multiform style had evolved into his signature style of abstract expressionist painting, known as "Colour Field Painting". He painted in oils and on very large canvases: he wanted the viewer to feel overwhelmed by the colour, to feel a part of the painting. As he said: "I realize that historically the function of painting large pictures is painting something very grandiose and pompous. The reason I paint them, however . . . is precisely because I want to be very intimate and human. To paint a small picture is to place yourself outside your experience, to look upon it with a reducing glass. However you paint the larger picture, you are in it. It isnt something you command!"
During this time, Rothko's painting featured bright and vibrant colours, and in particular used a lot of reds and yellows. Examples include Yellow Greens, 1953 (Estate of Frederick Weisman); Yellow, Red, Blue on Blue, 1953 (Private Collection); Saffron, 1957 and Blue, Yellow, Green on Red, 1954 (The Whitney Museum of American Art, New York). Beginning in 1957 and continuing to his later years, Rothko tended to adopt a darker palette. He used fewer reds, yellows and oranges and instead used more browns, grays, dark blues and black. He applied very thin layers of paint over each other, which allowed the colour to radiate through, giving a sense of drama and light.
As a man Rothko was constantly wracked with anxiety and uncertainty about his ability as an artist. But the art critics liked what they saw. In 1950 the Museum of Modern Art bought one of his paintings and his works were represented at shows all over the world during the decade. Fortune magazine named him as an artist to invest in, and for the first time in his life, his finances began to improve. However, despite his rising fame he feared that people did not understand his art, that they were just buying it out of fashion rather than because they grasped his concept. In 1958 he received an important commission to furnish the newly finished Seagram Building on Park Avenue in New York. This was the first time Rothko produced a connected series of works. He painted approximately 40 in all, and used a warm palette of dark red and brown. This brought him huge publicity, and more collectors queued up to purchase his works.
However by the 1960s and with the advent of Pop Art, the popularity of Abstract Expressionism began to wane. Young artists like Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein became the fashionable names of the day. Rothko described them as 'charlatans and young opportunists'. But the critics interpreted the rise of Pop Art as the death knoll for Abstract Expressionism. But in 1964 he received a lucrative commission to paint a series of wall paintings for the chapel at the St Thomas Catholic University in Houston. Unfortunately he did not live to see the paintings installed, although he told his friends that he felt the chapel was his most important artistic statement. In 1970 his assistant found him dead in his kitchen. He had sliced his arms open with a razor. He was 66 years old.
In May 2012, at Christie's New York, Rothko's work Orange, Red, Yellow (1961) sold for $86.9 million - $14 million higher than the $72.8 million paid for his White Center: Yellow, Pink and Lavender on Rose (1950), in 2007. In 2014, his work Untitled (Purple, Orange, Brown) (1952) sold at Sotheby's New York for $66.2 million. Today he takes his place at one of the most important painters in modern art. His radical refusal to copy nature reduced painting to large, vibrant fields of colours. Regarded as one of the great 20th century painters of the abstract genre, his works have influenced numerous painters from many different schools - see for instance, Patrick Heron (1920-99) - and he remains a key figure in American art of the 20th century. His paintings can be seen in many of the best art museums across the world, including the National Gallery of Art Washington DC.
For a comparison, read about the life and career of the lyrical "Abstract Impressionist" Philip Guston (1913-80), who eventually switched from abstraction back to representational art.
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