“I’m not an abstract artist, I’m not interested in the relationship of colour or form or anything else. I’m interested only in expressing basic human emotions – tragedy, ecstasy, doom and so on.” Mark Rothko.
Mark Rothkowitz was born in Dvivsk, Russia. His early childhood was marked by terror campaigns against the Jews forcing his mother to emigrate with her children to the United States in 1913. Rothko turned out to be a gifted academic entering Yale University in 1921 and a man with strong radical tendencies, maintaining that he was an anarchist his whole life. Dropping out in the second year he headed to New York to study with Max Weber. His early paintings were oriented to social themes and contain expressionist as well as surrealist overtones.
In 1935 Rothko and Adolph Gottlieb founded ‘The Ten’, a group of artists that favoured expressionist styles over the more abstract techniques of the Americans. The Ten sought to communicate human emotion and human drama through their paintings.
From around 1947 Rothko began to develop his mature and distinctive style, often featuring large rectangles of colour in vertical juxtaposition. His contrasts were carefully chosen in order to convey a wide range of human emotions from foreboding and despair to hope and rapture. In 1961 Rothko was given a major retrospective exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. After years of teaching art to subsidise his painting, this show finally brought him the success he so deserved. Some of his most impressive works were not to be seen until after his death, when his murals for the nondenominational chapel in Houston, Texas were finally unveiled. Becoming known as the Rothko Chapel these 14 final works were supremely sombre in tone but achieve an almost transcendental quality when viewed in the tranquility of the building itself. After a life of severe depression Rothko committed suicide by slashing his wrists in his studio.
Mark Rothko’s most fully realised paintings with their large expanses of colour and uneven, hazy divisions between them, strive to convey emotions rarely attempted in modern art. While his work is greatly admired by many, his detractors either view his attempts at expressing the sublime as over-ambitious or see his paintings merely as boring and wholly unimpressive.