I’m interested only in expressing basic human emotions: tragedy, ecstasy, fear”
Mark Rothko, original name Marcus Rothkovitch (1903, Dvinsk, Russia—1970, New York), is a Russian-born American painter, champion of the Abstract Expressionist school along with fellow artists Jackson Pollock, Barnett Newman, and Clifford Still, but he occupies a unique place in art history due to his use of color and the philosophy behind his work.
When his family emigrated from Russia to the U.S. in 1913, they settled in Portland, where he stayed until he entered Yale University in 1921. Preoccupied with politics and social issues, Rothko wanted to become a labor leader but dropped out after two years and wandered about the U.S. In 1925 he settled in New York City and took up painting. Although briefly studied under the painter Max Weber, he was essentially self-taught.
Rothko’s initial realistic style culminated in the Subway series of the late 1930s, quickly developing in the early 1940s to semi-abstract biomorphic forms. His next phase, which would become his signature style, is rooted in his love for watercolor, a technique that enabled him to explore the dimension of pure color and the layering process. In 1947 Rothko developed his compositional strategy, described as “Color Field Painting” by critic Clement Greenberg: colored rectangles that seemed to dematerialize into pure light. Rothko spent the rest of his career exploring the limitless possibilities of layering variously sized and colored rectangles onto fields of color.
Unlike many of his fellow Abstract Expressionists, Rothko never relied on such dramatic techniques as violent brushstrokes (Clifford Still) or the chaotic dripping and splattering of paint (Jackson Pollok). Instead, his virtually gestureless paintings achieved their effects by juxtaposing large areas of melting colors, creating a space more than a figure. Furthermore, the philosophy behind his work is of a spiritual nature, and his professions are conceived as “portals” to a sacred dimension: while he developed his technique throughout his career, the environment for his canvases became more and more important to him.
Rothko was known to be obsessed with the exhibiting conditions of his work: he didn’t want his paintings to hang on white walls because white didn’t dialogue well with his colors; the walls had to be of a certain grey. The lights had to be softened, and more so in the later years. The point is that the viewer had to be introduced to a contemplation space to really understand his work. One of the most important commissions, in fact, was a chapel in Houston, Texas, named “The Rothko Chapel” after his death, for which he produced, from 1958 to 1966, a series of 14 immense canvases, virtual monochromes of darkly glowing browns, maroons, reds, and blacks.
Rothko spent the rest of his life refining this basic style through continuous simplification. He restricted his designs to two or three “soft-edged” rectangles that nearly filled the wall-sized vertical formats like monumental abstract icons.
Plagued by ill health and feeling that he had been forgotten by those artists who had learned most from his painting, he committed suicide in 1970.
After his death, the execution of Rothko’s will caused one of the most spectacular and complex court cases in the history of modern art, lasting for 11 years. The misanthropic Rothko had hoarded his works, numbering 798 paintings, as well as many sketches and drawings. His daughter, Kate Rothko, accused the executors of the estate and Franck Lloyd, owner of Marlborough Galleries in New York City, of conflict of interest in selling the works—in effect, of enriching themselves. The courts decided against the executors and Lloyd, who were heavily fined. In 1979 a new board of the Mark Rothko Foundation was established, and all the works in the estate were divided between the artist’s two children and the Foundation. In 1984 the Foundation’s share of works was distributed to 19 museums in the United States, Great Britain, the Netherlands, Denmark, and Israel; the best and the largest proportion went to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.
The recent art mark has crowned Rothko as one of the most valuable painters of all time:
His record price at auction, by now, is 86,8 million dollars for “Orange, Red, Yellow” (1961), sold at Christie’s New York in 2012.