Page 1


“A p a i n t i n g i s n o t a b o u t a n e x p e r i e n c e . It i s a n e x p e r i e n c e .”



EARLY LIFE Childhood Early Career Rothko’s Circle One Man Show Development of Style

I N F L U ENietzsche NCES

“Mythomorphic” Abstraction Break with Surrealism “Multiforms”



LATE PERIOD Signature Style European Travels Dealing With Success Seagram Murals

LEGACY Rising Prominence The Rothko Chapel Sucicide and Aftermath










Rothko is of ten referred to as an Abstract Ex-

Once he had moved to this new st yle, Rothko

t hat ha s a t ra g ic d i mension, for it e voke s t he

pressionist, but the a r tist himself saw his work

began to distil l his ideas, gradua l ly stripping his

u lt i mate loss of sel f — deat h. S ome have sp ec u-

different ly. “ I am not an abstractionist,” the

work down to naked statements of form and color.

l ated t hat Rot h ko’s pa i nt i ng s g re w i nc rea si ngly

famously said. “ I am not interested in the re-

d a rk t h rough t he l ater pa r t of h is c a reer a s a n

lationship of color or form or any thing else…

From the ea rl ier canvases of amor phous blobs he

out w a rd i nd ic at ion of t he a r t ist ’s depre ssive i n-

I’m interested only in expressing basic human

moved to the simpler “ Mu ltiforms” of the 1950s:

ner state of m i nd: c u l m i nat i ng i n h is su ic ide i n

emotions — tragedy, ecstasy, doom and so on….

stacked hor iz onta l bands of color. A nd then

1970. ( T he pa i nt i ng s i n t he Rot h ko Chap el , for

The people who weep before my pict ures a re hav-

event ua l ly to the sof t, d if f use rectangles that

e x a mple , a re so d a rk a s to app ea r a l most ent i re-

ing the same religious experience I had when I

became his sig nat u re st yle. He stopped g iv ing

ly bl ac k .) Howe ver, Rot h ko stated u nequ ivoc a l-

painted them.” The a r tist ’s sea rch for these peak

a r tist ’s statements at this time, say ing simply

ly t hat h is pa i nt i ng s were not a n e x pre ssion of

experiences of a r t had beg un much ea rlier, in

that “si lence is so accu rate.” A s t he st yle de-

h is ow n emot iona l state , but rat her a n at tempt

the 1940s. At this time, Rothko and some of his

velop ed , Rot h ko’s pa i nt i ng s g re w muc h l a rger,

to con nec t h is v ie wer s w it h t he subl i me.

friends and associates, including Adolph Got-

somet h i ng t he a r t ist bel ie ved c reated “a state

t lieb and Ba rnet t New man, were experimenting

of i nt i mac y.” “A l a rge pic t u re is a n i m med iate

“ T he prog r e s sion of a p a i nte r ’s work , a s it

w ith the Surrea list st yle: combining representa-

t ra nsac t ion,” he sa id. “ It ta k e s you i nto it.”

t r av e l s i n t i me f rom p oi nt to p oi nt , w i l l b e

tiona l and abstract shapes. These a r tists w ished to look beyond the self to revea l universa l tr uths.

tow a rd c l a r it y : tow a rd t he e l i m i n at ion of a l l To f u r t her t h is i nt i mac y bet ween c a nv a s a nd

ob s t a c le s b e t w e en t he p a i nte r a nd t he id e a ,

v ie wer, Rot h ko bec a me more a nd more obse ssed

a nd b e t w e en t he id e a a nd t he ob s e r v e r,” he

A s he reac hed deep er a nd deep er for a mea ns of

w it h cont rol l i ng t he cond it ions i n wh ic h h is

s a id .

t ra nsl at i ng t hat u lt i mate hu ma n i nterac t ion

work s were v ie wed. He c a l led for t he pa i nt i ng s

a nd mor e si mpl i f ie d a s he c ont i nue d to r e a c h

w it h t he subl i me , Rot h ko’s work d re w f u r t her

to be e x h ibited at f loor le vel , or no f u r t her f rom

for t h i s g o a l , it m a k e s s en s e t h at h i s c hoic e s

a nd f u r t her f rom repre sentat ion of a ny k i nd. By

t he f loor t ha n si x i nc he s , a nd he prefer red t hat

of c olor s m i ght a l s o h av e b e c ome “c l a r i f ie d ,”

1946, a l l l i ne g ave w ay to sof t bloc k s of color

t he y be show n i n sit uat ions t hat requ i red v ie w-

hone d dow n g r a du a l l y to bl a c k . Bl a c k m i ght b e

t hat bled i nto a nd t h rough one a not her to c re-

er s to f i r st e x p er ience t hem i n c lose prox i m it y.

c on sid e r e d t he u lt i m ate p u r it y of c olor— id e a l ,

ate a mor phous shap e s , wh ic h Rot h ko t hought

He w a nted to su r rou nd t he v ie wer s a nd , i n a

p e rh ap s , for c ontempl at ion of l a r g e , u n i v e r s a l

of a s “org a n isms w it h vol it ion a nd a pa ssion

w ay, d issolve t he sense of sel f i nto t he e x p e-

t r ut h s . For R ot h k o, bl a c k , w h ic h c a n b e s e en

for sel f-a sser t ion,” Rot h ko had come to bel ie ve

r ience of t he work . In T he Tr iu mph of A mer-

a s b ot h t he a b s enc e a nd pr e s enc e of a l l c olor—

t hat “t he fa m i l ia r ident it y of t h i ng s ha s to be

ic a n Pa i nt i ng, a r t c r it ic I r v i ng Sa nd ler w rote

m i ght h av e b e l i k e si lenc e: “s o a c c u r ate .”

pu lver i z ed i n order to de st roy t he f i n ite a sso-

t hat Rot h ko de si red t he v ie wer to “ v ac ate t he

c iat ions w it h wh ic h ou r soc iet y i nc rea si ngly

ac t ive sel f….” a nd went on to poi nt out t hat :

ensh rouds e ver y a sp ec t of ou r env i ron ment.”

“ T h is cou ld lead to cosm ic ident i f ic at ions but

tJu s t a s h i s c omp o sit ion s b e c a me mor e




CHILDHOOD Mark Rothko (Marcus Rothkowitz, Mark Rotkovich) was born in Dvinsk, Vitebsk Province, Russian Empire (now Daugavpils, Lat via). His father, Jacob Rothkowitz, was a pharmacist and an intellectual, who provided his children with a secular and political, rather than religious, upbringing. Unlike Jews in most cities of Czarist Russia, those in Dvinsk had been spared from violent outbreaks of anti-Semitic pogroms. However, in an environment where Jews were often blamed for many of the evils that befell Russia, Rothko’s early childhood was plagued with fear. Despite Jacob Rothkowitz’s modest income, the family was highly educated, and able to speak Russian, Yiddish and Hebrew. Following cob’s return to Orthodox Judaism, he sent Marcus, his youngest son, to the cheder at age 5, where he studied the Talmud although his elder siblings had been educated in the public school system.

EMIGRATION FROM RUSSIA Fearing that his sons were about to be drafted into the Czarist army, Jacob Rothkowitz emigrated from Russia to the United States, following the path of many other Jews who left Daugavpils in the wake of Cossack purges. These émigrés included t wo of Jacob’s brothers, who managed to establish themselves as clothing manufacturers in Portland, Oregon, a common profession among Eastern European immigrants. Marcus remained in Russia with his mother and elder sister Sonia. They joined Jacob and the elder brothers later, arriving at Ellis Island in the winter of 1913 after 12 days at sea. Jacob’s death a few months later left the family without economic support. One of Marcus’ great aunts did unskilled labor, Sonia operated a cash register, while Marcus worked in one of his uncle’s warehouses, selling newspapers to employees.


In the autumn of 1923, Rothko found work in New York’s garment district and took up residence on the Upper West Side. While visiting a friend at the Art Students League of New York, he saw students sketching a model. According to Rothko, this was the beginning of his life as an artist. Even his self-described “beginning” at the Art Students League of New York was not whole-hearted commitment; two months after he returned to Portland to visit his family, he joined a theater group run by Clark Gable’s wife, Josephine Dillon.


Whatever his dramatic ability may have been, he looked nothing like the successful actors of the day, and professional acting seemed an improbable career. Returning to New York, Rothko brief ly enrolled in the New School of Design, where one of his instructors was the artist Arshile Gorky. This was probably his f irst encounter with a member of the “avant-garde”. That autumn, he took courses at the Art Students League of New York taught by still-life artist Max Weber, a fellow Russian Jew.

It was due to Weber that Rothko began to see art as a tool

In 1928, Rothko exhibited works with a group of other

of emotional and religious expression, and Rothko’s paint-

young artists at the appropriately named Opportunit y

ings from this era reveal a Weberian inf luence. Rothko’s

Galler y. His paintings included dark, moody, expression-

move to New York established him in a fertile artistic

ist interiors, as well as urban scenes, and were generally

atmosphere. Modernist painters had shows in the New

well accepted among critics and peers. Despite modest

York galleries, and the cit y’s museums were an invaluable

success, Rothko still neede d to supplement his income,

resource to foster a budding artist’s knowledge, exper

and in 1929 he began giving classes in painting and clay

ence and skills. Among those early inf luences were the

sculpture at the Center Academy, where he remained as

works of the German Expressionists.

teacher until 1952.


SHOW IN NEW YORK Ret u rning to New York , Rothko had his f irst East Coast on e-man show at the Contempora r y A r ts Ga ller y. He showed f if teen oi l pa intings, most ly por t ra its, a long w ith some aqua rel les and d raw ings. It was the oi ls that wou ld capt u re the cr itics’ eye; Rothko’s use of r ich f ields of colors moved beyond Aver y ’s inf luence. In late 1935, Rothko joined w ith I lya Bolotowsk y, Ben-Zion, Adolph Got t l ieb, L ou Ha r r is, R a lph Rosenborg, L ou is Schanker and Joseph Solman to form “ T he Ten “ ( W hitney Ten Dissenters), whose mission (accord ing to a cata log from a 1937 Mercu r y Ga l ler y show) was “to protest aga inst the reputed equ iva lence of A mer ican pa inting and l itera l pa inting.” Rothko’s st yle was a l ready evolv ing in the d irection of his renow ned later work s, yet, despite this new found ex ploration of color, Rothko t u rned his at tention to another forma l and st yl istic innovation, inaug u rating a per iod of su r rea l ist pa intings inf luenced by my tholog ica l fables and sy mbols. He was ea rning a g row ing reputation among his peers, pa r ticu la rly among the g roup that formed the A r tists’ Union.


Begun in 1937, and including Gottlieb and Soloman, the group’s plan was to create a municipal art galler y to show self-organized group exhibitions. The A rtists’ Union was a cooperative which brought together resources and talent of various artists to create an atmosphere of mutual admiration and self-promotion. In 1936, the group showed at the Galerie Bonaparte in France. Then, in 1938, a show was held at the Mercur y Galler y, in direct def iance of the W hitney Museum, which the group regarded as having a provincial, regionalist agenda. It was also during this period that Rothko, like many artists, found employment with the Works Progress Administration, a labor relief agency created under Roosevelt’s New Deal in response to the economic crisis. As the Depression waned, Rothko continued on in government ser vice, work ing for TR AP, an agency that employed artists, architects and laborers in the restoration and renovation of public buildings. Many other important artists were a lso employed by TR A P, including Aver y, DeKooning, Pol lock, Reinhardt, Dav id Smith, Louise Nevelson, eight of the “ Ten” artists of the dissenter group, and Rothko’s old teacher, A rshile Gork y.


DEVELOPMENT OF STYLE In 1936, Rothko began writing a book, never completed, about similarities in the art of children and the work of modern painters. According to Rothko, the work of modernists, inf luenced by primitive art, could be compared to that of children in that "child art transforms itself into primitivism, which is only the child producing a mimicr y of himself." In this manuscript, he obser ved that "the fact that one usually begins with drawing is already academic. We start with color." Rothko was using f ields of color in his aquarelles and cit y scenes, and his subject matter and form at this time had become non-intellectual. Rothko's work matured from representation and my thological subjects into rectangular f ields of color and light, that later culminated in his f inal works for the Rothko Chapel. However, bet ween thet primitivist and play ful urban scenes and aquarelles of the early period, and the late, transcendent f ields of color, was a period of transition. It was a rich and complex milieu which included t wo important events in Rothko’s life: the onset of World War II, and his reading of Friedrich Nietzsche.


MATURITY Rot h ko sepa rated f rom h is w i fe , E d it h Sac ha r, i n t he su m mer of 1937, fol low i ng E d it h ’s i nc rea sed succe ss i n t he je wel r y busi ne ss. Rot h ko help ed w it h h is w i fe's busi ne ss , a nd d id not enjoy it. At t h is t i me , Rot h ko w a s , i n compa r ison, a f i na nc ia l fa i lu re. He a nd Sac ha r reconc i led se vera l mont hs l ater, yet t hei r rel at ionsh ip rema i ned tense. On Febr ua r y 21, 1938, Rot h ko f i na lly bec a me a c it i z en of t he Un ited State s , prompted by fea r s t hat t he g row i ng Na z i i n f luence i n Eu rop e m ight provok e sudden depor tat ion of A mer ic a n Je w s. In June, Rothko and a number of other artists formed the Federation of Modern Painters and Sculptors. Their aim was to keep their art free from politica l propaganda. A rise of Nazi sy mpathy in the United States heightened Rothko's fears of anti-Semitism, and in Januar y 1940, he abbrev iated his name from "Marcus Rothkow itz" to "Mark Rothko". The name "Roth," a common abbrev iation, had become, as a result of its commona lit y, identif iably Jew ish, therefore he settled upon "Rothko".




INSPIRATION Fearing that modern American painting had reached a conceptual dead end, Rothko was intent upon exploring subjects other than urban and natural scenes. He sought subjects that would complement his growing concern with form, space, and color. The world crisis of war lent this search an immediacy, because he insisted that the new subject matter be of social impact, yet able to transcend the conf ines of current political symbols and values. In his essay, "The Romantics Were Prompted," published in 1949, Rothko argued that the "archaic artist ... found it necessar y to create a group of intermediaries, monsters, hybrids, gods and demigods" in much the same way that modern man found intermediaries in Fascism and the Communist Part y. For Rothko, "without monsters and gods, art cannot enact a drama." Rothko’s use of mytholog y as a commentar y on current histor y was not novel. Rothko, Gottlieb, and Newman read and discussed the works of Freud and Jung, in particular their theories concerning dreams and the archet ypes of the collective unconscious, and understood mythological symbols as images that refer to themselves, operating in a space of human consciousness that transcends specif ic histor y and culture. Rothko later said his artistic approach was "reformed" by his study of the "dramatic themes of myth." He apparently stopped painting altogether for the length of 1940, and read Freud ’s Interpretation of Dreams and Frazer’s Golden Bough.


UNTLD. (Yellow and W hite), 1956 Oil on canvas 87 x 921/2 in.













Rothko’s new vision would attempt to address modern

Many of his paintings of this period contrast barbaric

man’s spiritual and creative mythological requirements.

scenes of violence with those of civilized passivit y, with

The most crucial philosophical inf luence on Rothko in

imager y drawn primarily from Aeschylus’ Oresteia trilo-

this period was Friedrich Nietzsche’s The Birth of Trage-

g y. In his 1942 painting, The Omen of the Eagle, the ar-

dy. Nietzsche claimed that Greek tragedy had the function

chet ypal images of, in Rothko’s words, “man, bird, beast

of the redemption of man from the terrors of mortal life.

and tree ... merge into a single tragic idea.” The bird, an

The exploration of novel topics in modern art ceased to be

eagle, was not without contemporar y historical relevance,

Rothko’s goal; from this point on, his art would bear the

as both the United States and Germany (in its claim to

ultimate aim of relieving modern man’s spiritual empti-

inheritance of the Holy Roman Empire) used the eagle as

ness. He believed that this “emptiness” was created partly

a national symbol. Rothko’s cross-cultural, trans-histori-

by the lack of a mythology, which could, as described by

cal reading of myth perfectly addresses the psychological

Nietzsche,”... the growth of a child’s mind and – to a ma-

and emotional roots of the symbol, making it universally

ture man his life and struggles”.

available to anyone who might wish to see it. A list of the titles of the paintings from this period is illustrative of

Rothko believed that his art could free the unconscious

Rothko’s use of myth: Antigone, Oedipus, The Sacrif ice

energies previously liberated by mythological images, sym-

of Iphigenia, Leda, The Furies, A ltar of Orpheus. Ju-

bols, and rituals. He considered himself a “mythmaker,”

deo-Christian imager y is evoked: Gethsemane, The Last

and proclaimed “the exhilarated tragic experience, is for

Supper, R ites of Lilith, as are Eg yptian (Room in Karnak)

me the only source of art.”

and Syrian (The Syrian Bull). Soon after the war, Rothko felt his titles were limiting the larger, transcendent aims of his paintings, and so removed them altogether.


MOCA Los Angeles 1957–1970 Rothko Collection Oil on Canvas



MYTHOMORPHISM At the root of Rothko and Gottlieb’s presentation of archaic forms and symbols as subject matter illuminating modern existence had been the inf luence of Surrealism, Cubism, and abstract art. In 1936, Rothko attended two exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art, “Cubism and Abstract Art,” and “Fantastic Art, Dada and Surrealism,” which greatly inf luenced his celebrated 1938 Subway Scene. In 1942, following the success of shows by Ernst, Miró, Tanguy, and Salvador Dalí, who had immigrated to the United States because of the war, Surrealism took New York by storm. Rothko and his peers, Gottlieb and Newman, met and discussed the art and ideas of these European pioneers, especially those of Mondrian. They began to regard themselves as heirs to the European avant-garde. With mythic form as a catalyst, they would merge the two European styles of Surrealism and abstraction. As a result, Rothko’s work became increasingly abstract; perhaps ironically, Rothko himself described the process as being one toward “clarity.” New paintings were unveiled at a 1942 show at Macy’s department store in New York City. In response to a negative review by the New York Times, Rothko and Gottlieb issued a manifesto (written mainly by Rothko) which stated, in response to the Times critic’s self-professed “befuddlement” over the new work, Rothko’s vision of myth as a replenishing resource for an era of spiritual void had been set in motion decades before, by his reading of Carl Jung, T. S. Eliot, James Joyce and Thomas Mann, among others. Unlike his predecessors, Rothko would, in his later period, develop his philosophy of the tragic ideal into the realm of pure abstraction. He thereby questioned the possibility for mankind to transform a cradle of imagery into a new set of images, no longer dependent on tribal, archaic, and religious mythologies – the very symbols Rothko had utilized and struggled with during his middle period.


BREAK WITH SURREALISM On June 13, 1943, Rothko and Sachar separated again. Rothko suffered a long depression following their divorce. Thinking that a change of scenery might help, Rothko returned to Portland. From there he traveled to Berkeley, where he met artist Clyfford Still, and the two began a close friendship. Still ’s deeply abstract paintings would be of considerable inf luence on Rothko’s later works. In the autumn of 1943, Rothko returned to New York, where he met noted collector Peggy Guggenheim. Her assistant, Howard Putzel, convinced Guggenheim to show Rothko in her The Art of This Century Gallery. Rothko’s one-man show at Guggenheim’s gallery, in late 1945, resulted in few sales (prices ranging from $150 to $750), and in less-than-favorable reviews. During this period, Rothko had been stimulated by Still ’s abstract landscapes of color, and his style shifted away from surrealism. Rothko’s experiments in interpreting the unconscious symbolism of everyday forms had run their course. His future lay with abstraction. “I insist upon the equal existence of the world engendered in the mind and the world engendered by God outside of it. If I have faltered in the use of familiar objects, it is because I refuse to mutilate their appearance for the sake of an action which they are too old to ser ve, or for which ” perhaps they had never been intended. I quarrel with surrealists and abstract art only as one quarrels with his father and mother; recognizing the inevitabilit y and function of my roots, but insistent upon my dissent; I, being both they, and an integral Rothko’s 1945 masterpiece, “Slow Swirl at Edge of Sea” illustrates his newfound propensit y towards abstraction. Sometimes it is interpreted as a meditation on Rothko’s courtship of his second wife, Mar y Ellen Beistle, whom he met in 1944 and married in the spring of 1945. The year 1946 saw the creation of Rothko’s transitional "multiform" paintings. The term "multiform" has been applied by art critics; this word was never used by Rothko himself, yet it is an accurate description of these paintings.


UNTLD. (Green and Tangerine on Red), 1956 Oil on canvas 935/8 x 691/4 in.


UNTLD. (Green and Maroon), 1953 Oil on canvas 911/8 x 547/8 in.

UNTLD. (Ochre and Red on Red), 1954 Oil on canvas 925/8 x 633/4 in.




Despite the abandonment of his "Mythomorphic Ab-

They contained a " breath of life" he found lacking in

stractionism" (as described by ARTnews), Rothko would

most f igurative painting of the era. This new form

still be recognized by the public primarily for his "Surre-

seemed f illed with possibilit y, whereas his experimen-

alist" works, for the remainder of the 1940s. The W hit-

tation with mythological symbolism had become a tired

ney Museum included them in their annual exhibit of

formula, in much the same way as he viewed his late 1930s

Contemporar y Art from 1943 to 1950. No. 18 (1948) and

experiments in urban settings. The "multiforms" brought

Untitled (also 1948), are masterpieces in their own right.

Rothko to a realization of his mature, signature style, and

Rothko himself described these paintings as possessing

was the only style Rothko would never fully abandon prior

a more organic structure, and as self-contained units of

to his death. Rothko, in the middle of a crucial period of

human expression. For Rothko, these blurred blocks of

transition, had been impressed by Clyfford Still ’s abstract

various colors, devoid of landscape or human f igure, let

f ields of color, which were inf luenced in part by the land-

alone myth and symbol, possessed their own life force.

scapes of Still ’s native North Dakota.

In 1947, during a summer semester teaching at the California School of Fine Art, Rothko and Still f lirted with the idea of founding their own curriculum, and they realized the idea in New York in the following year. Named "The Subjects of the Artists School," they employed David Hare and Robert Motherwell, among others. Though the group was short-lived and separated later in the same year, the school was the center of a f lurr y of activit y in contemporar y art. In addition to his teaching experience, Rothko began to contribute articles to t wo new art publications, "Tiger’s Eye" and "Possibilities".

Using the forums as an opportunit y to assess the current art scene, Rothko also discussed in detail his own art work and philosophy of art. These articles ref lect the elimination of f igurative elements from his work. He described his new method as "unknown adventures in an unknown space," free from "direct association with any particular, and the passion of organism." In 1949, Rothko became fascinated by Matisse’s Red Studio, acquired by the Museum of Modern A rt that year. He later credited it as a key source of inspiration for his later abstract paintings.




SIGNATURE STYLE Soon, the “multiforms” developed into the signature st yle; by early 1949 Rothko exhibited these new works at the Bett y Parsons Galler y. For critic Harold Rosenberg, the paintings were nothing short of a revelation. Rothko had, after painting his f irst “multiform,” secluded himself to his home in East Hampton on Long Island. He invited only a select few, including Rosenberg, to view the new paintings. The discover y of his def initive form came at a period of great distress to the artist; his mother Kate died in October 1948. It was at some point during that winter that Rothko happened upon the use of symmetrical rectangular blocks of t wo to three opposing or contrasting, yet complementar y, colors, in which, for example, “the rectangles sometimes seem barely to coalesce out of the ground, concentrations of its substance. For the next seven years, Rothko painted in oil only on large canvases w ith vertica l formats. Ver y large-sca le designs were used in order to over whelm the v iewer, or, in Rothko’s words, to make the v iewer feel “enveloped w ithin” the painting. For some critics, the large size was an attempt to make up for a lack of substance. He even went so far as to recommend that a viewer position themselves as little as 18 inches away from the canvas so that the viewer might experience a sense of intimacy, as well as awe, a transcendence of the individual, and a sense of the unknown. As Rothko achieved success, he became increasingly protective of his works, turning down several potentially important sales and exhibition opportunities. Again, Rothko’s aims, in some critics’ and viewers’ estimation, exceeded his methods. Many of the abstract expressionists exhibited pretensions for something approximating a spiritual experience, or at least an experience that exceeded the boundaries of the purely aesthetic. In later years, Rothko emphasized the spiritual aspect of his art work, a sentiment that would culminate in the construction of the Rothko Chapel.


He even went so far as to recommend that a viewer position themselves as little as 18 inches away from the canvas so that the viewer might experience a sense of intimacy, as well as awe, a transcendence of the individual, and a sense of the unknown. As Rothko achieved success, he became increasingly protective of his works, turning down several potentially important sales and exhibition opportunities. Again, Rothko’s aims, in some critics’ and viewers’ estimation, exceeded his methods. Many of the abstract expressionists exhibited pretensions for something approximating a spiritual experience, or at least an experience that exceeded the boundaries of the purely aesthetic. In later years, Rothko emphasized the spiritual aspect of his artwork, a sentiment that would culminate in the construction of the Rothko Chapel. Many of the "multiforms" and early signature paintings display an affinity for bright, vibrant colors, particularly reds and yellows, expressing energy and ecstasy. By the mid 1950’s however, close to a decade after the completion of the first "multiforms," Rothko began to employ dark blues and greens; for many critics of his work this shift in colors was representative of a growing darkness within Rothko’s personal life.


The general method for these paintings was to apply a thin layer of binder mixed with pigment directly onto uncoated and untreated canvas, and to paint signif icantly thinned oils directly onto this layer, creating a dense mixture of overlapping colors and shapes. His brush strokes were fast and light, a method he would continue to use until his death. His increasing adeptness at this method is apparent in the paintings completed for the Chapel. With a total lack of f igurative representation, what drama there is to be found in a late Rothko is in the contrast of colors, radiating, as it were, against one another. His paintings can then be likened to a sort of fugal arrangement: each variation counterpoised against one another, yet all existing within one architectonic structure. Rothko used several original techniques that he tried to keep secret even from his assistants. Electron microscopy and ultraviolet analysis conducted by the MOLAB showed that he employed natural substances such as egg and glue, as well as artif icial materials including acrylic resins, phenol formaldehyde, modif ied alkyd, and others. One of his objectives was to make the various layers of the painting dry quick ly, without mixing of colors, such that he could soon create new layers on top of the earlier ones.

INCREASING SUCCESS Shortly thereafter, due to the Fortune magazine plug and further purchases by clients, Rothko’s f inancial situation began to improve. In addition to sales of paintings, he also had money from his teaching position at Brook lyn College. In 1954, he exhibited in a solo show at the Art Institute of Chicago, where he met art dealer Sidney Janis, who represented Pollock and Franz K line. Their relationship proved mutually benef icial. Despite his fame, Rothko felt a growing personal seclusion, and a sense of being misunderstood as an artist. He feared that people purchased his paintings simply out of fashion, and that the true purpose of his work was not being grasped by collectors, audiences or critics. He wanted his paintings to move beyond abstraction, as well as beyond classical art. For Rothko, the paintings were objects that possessed their own form and potential, and therefore, must be encountered as such. Sensing the futilit y of words in describing this decidedly non-verbal aspect of his work, Rothko abandoned all attempts at responding to those that might inquire after its meaning and purpose, stating f inally that silence is "so accurate."


SEAGRAM MURALS In 1958, Rothko was awarded the f irst of t wo major mural commissions that proved both rewarding and frustrating. The beverage company Joseph Seagram and Sons had recently completed their new building on Park Avenue, designed by architects Mies Van der Rohe and Philip Johnson. Rothko agreed to provide paintings for the building’s new lu xur y restaurant, The Four Seasons. For Rothko, this commission presented a new challenge for it was the f irst time he was required not only to design a coordinated series of paintings, but to produce an art work space concept for a large, specif ic interior. Over the following three months, Rothko completed fort y paintings, three full series in dark red and brown. He altered his horizontal format to vertical to complement the restaurant’s vertical features: columns, walls, doors and windows. He disclosed to John Fischer, publisher of Harper's, that his true intention for the Seagram murals was to paint "something that will ruin the appetite of ever y son-of-a-bitch who ever eats in that room.


If the restaurant would refuse to put up my murals, that would be the ultimate compliment. But they won’t. People can stand anything these days." W hile in Europe, the Rothkos traveled to Rome, Florence, Venice and Pompeii. In Florence, he visited the librar y at San Lorenzo, to see f irst-hand the librar y’s Michelangelo room, from which he drew further inspiration for the murals. He remarked that the "room had exactly the feeling that I wanted [...] it gives the visitor the feeling of being caught in a room with the doors and windows walled-in shut." Once back in New York, Rothko and wife Mell visited the near-completed Four Seasons restaurant. Upset with the restaurant’s dining atmosphere, which he considered pretentious and inappropriate for the display of his works, Rothko immediately refused to continue the project, and returned the commission cash advance to the Seagram and Sons Company. Seagram had intended to honor Rothko's emergence to prominence through his selection, and his breach of contract and public expression of outrage were unexpected.




PROMINENCE IN THE US Rothko’s f irst completed space was created in the Phi ll ips Col lection in Washing ton, D.C., fol low ing the pu rchase of fou r pa intings by col lector Duncan Phi l l ips. Rothko’s fame and wea lth had substantia l ly increased; his pa intings began to sel l to notable col lectors, inc lud ing the Rockefel lers. In Janua r y 1961, Rothko sat nex t to Joseph Kennedy at John F. Kennedy ’s inaug u ra l ba l l. Later that yea r, a ret rospective of his work was held at the Museum of Modern A r t, to considerable commercia l and cr itica l success. In spite of this newfound notor iet y, the a r t world had a l ready t u rned its at tention from the now passé abst ract ex pressionists to the "nex t big thing", Pop A r t, pa r ticu la rly the work of Wa rhol, Lichtenstein, and Rosenqu ist. Rothko labeled Pop-A r t a r tists "cha rlatans and young oppor t unists", and wondered a loud during a 1962 ex hibition of Pop A r t, "a re the young a r tists plot ting to k il l us a l l?" On v iew ing Jasper Johns' f lags, Rothko said, "we worked for yea rs to get rid of a l l that." It was not that Rothko cou ld not accept being replaced, so much as an inabilit y to accept what was replacing him: he found it vapid. Rothko received a second mura l commission project, this time a wa l l of paintings for the penthouse of Ha r va rd Universit y ’s Holyoke Center. He made t went y-t wo sketches, from which si x mura ls were completed and only f ive were insta l led. Ha r va rd President Nathan Pusey, fol low ing an explanation of the religious sy mbolog y of the Tript ych, had the paintings hung in Janua r y 1963, and later show n at the Guggenheim. During insta l lation, Rothko found the paintings to be compromised by the room’s lighting. Despite the insta l lation of f iberglass shades, the paintings were removed in the late 1970s and, due to the f ugitive nat ure of some of the red pigments, were placed in da rk storage and only displayed periodica l ly.


UNTLD. 1958 Oil on canvas 783/4 x80 in.


UNTLD. 1958 Oil on canvas 96 x 96 in.

UNTLD. 1958 Oil on canvas 87 x 84 in.


ROTHKO CHAPEL The Rothko Chapel is located adjacent to the Menil Col lection and The Universit y of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas. The building is sma l l and w indowless. It is a geometric, “postmodern” str uct ure, located in a t urnof-the-cent ur y midd le-class Houston neighborhood. The Chapel, the Menil Col lection, and the nea rby Cy Twombly ga l ler y were f unded by Texas oil mil lionaires

of pilgrimage far from the center of art (in this case, New York) where seekers of Rothko’s newly “religious” art work could journey. Initia l ly, the Chapel, now non-denominationa l, was to be specif ica l ly Roman Catholic, and during the f irst three years of the project (1964–67) Rothko believed it would remain so. Thus Rothko’s design of the building and the religious implications of the paintings were inspired by Roman

John and Dominique de Menil.

Catholic art and architect ure. Its octagona l shape is

In 1964, Rothko moved into his last New York st udio at

and the format of the tript ychs is based on paintings of

157 East 69th Street, equipping the st udio w ith pu l leys ca rr y ing la rge wa l ls of canvas materia l to reg u late light from a centra l cupola, to simu late lighting he planned for the Rothko Chapel. Despite wa rnings about the difference in light bet ween New York and Texas, Rothko persisted w ith the experiment, set ting to work on the canvases. Rothko told friends he intended the Chapel to be his single most impor tant a r tistic statement. He became considerably involved in the layout of the building, insisting that it feat ure a centra l cupola like that of his st udio. A rchitect Philip Johnson, unable to compromise w ith Rothko’s v ision, lef t the project in 1967, and was replaced w ith Howa rd Ba rnstone and Eugene Aubr y. The a rchitects frequent ly f lew to New York to consu lt, and on one occasion brought w ith them a miniat ure of the building for Rothko’s approva l.


For Rothko, the Chapel was to be a destination, a place

based on the Byzantine church of St. Maria Assunta, the Cr ucif i xion. The De Menils believed the universa l “spirit ua l ” aspect of Rothko’s work would complement the elements of Roman Catholicism. Rothko’s painting technique required considerable physica l stamina that the ailing a r tist was no longer able to muster. To create the paintings he env isioned, Rothko was forced to hire t wo assistants to apply the chestnut-brow n paint in quick strokes of severa l layers: “ brick reds, deep reds, black mauves.” On ha lf of the works, Rothko applied none of the paint himself, and was for the most pa r t content to super v ise the slow, a rduous process. He felt the completion of the paintings to be “torment ” and the inev itable resu lt was to create “something you don’t want to look at.” The Chapel is the culmination of six years of Rothko’s life and represents his gradually growing concern for the transcendent.

It forces one to approach the limits of experience and awakens one to the awareness of one’s own existence. For others, the Chapel houses 14 large paintings whose dark, nearly impenetrable surfaces represent hermeticism and contemplation. The Chapel paintings consist of a monochrome triptych in soft brown on the central wall (three 5-by-15-foot panels), and a pair of triptychs on the left and right made of opaque black rectangles. Between the triptychs are four individual paintings (11 by 15 feet each), and one additional individual painting faces the central triptych from the opposite wall. The effect is to surround the viewer with massive, imposing visions of darkness. Despite its basis in religious symbolism (the tript ych) and less-than-subtle imager y (the crucif ixion), the paintings are diff icult to attach specif ically to traditional Christian symbolism, and may act on the viewers subliminally. Active spiritual or aesthetic inquir y may be elicited from the viewer in the same way as a religious icon having specif ic symbolism. In this way, Rothko’s erasure of symbols both removes and creates barriers to the work. As it turned out, these works would be his f inal artistic statement to the world. They were f inally unveiled at the Chapel ’s opening in 1971. Rothko never saw the completed Chapel and never installed the paintings. The drama for many critics of Rothko’s work is the uneasy position of the paintings bet ween, as Chase notes, "nothingness or vapidit y" and "dignif ied ‘mute icons’ offering ‘the only kind of beaut y we f ind acceptable today’."


UNTLD. 1964 Oil on canvas


UNTLD. 1964 Oil on canvas

UNTLD. 1965 Oil on canvas



Rothko and his wife Mell separated on New Year’s Day

In t he spr i ng of 1968, Rot h ko w a s d ia g nosed w it h a

Oliver Steindecker, Rothko’s assistant, found the artist in

m i ld aor t ic a neu r y sm (defec t i n t he a r ter ia l w a l l , t hat g radua l ly leads to out pouc h i ng of t he ve ssel a nd at t i me s f ra n k r upt u re). Ig nor i ng doc tor ’s order s , Roth ko cont i nued to d r i n k a nd smok e heav i ly, avoided e xerc ise , a nd ma i nta i ned a n u n hea lt hy d iet. Howe ver, he d id fol low t he med ic a l adv ice g iven not to pa i nt pic t u re s l a rger t ha n a y a rd i n height, a nd t u r ned h is at tent ion to sma l ler, le ss phy sic a l ly st renuous formats , i nc lud i ng ac r yl ic s on pap er.


1969, and he moved into his studio. On February 25, 1970, his kitchen, lying dead on the f loor in front of the sink, covered in blood. He had sliced his arms with a razor found lying at his side. During autopsy it was discovered he had also overdosed on anti-depressants. He was 66 years old. The Seagram Murals arrived in London on the very day of his suicide. Shortly before his death, Rothko and his f inancial advisor, Bernard Reis, had created a foundation intended to fund "research and education" that would receive the bulk of Rothko’s work following his death.

Reis later sold the paintings to the Marlborough Galler y at substantially reduced values, and then split the subsequent prof its from sales to customers with Galler y representatives. In 1971, Rothko’s children f iled a lawsuit against Reis, Morton Levine, and Theodore Stamos, the executors of his estate, over the sham sales. The lawsuit continued for more than 10 years and became known as the Rothko Case. In 1975, the defendants were found liable for negligence and conf lict of interest, were removed as executors of the Rothko estate by court order, and, along with Marlborough Galler y, were required to pay a $9.2 million damages judgment to the estate.

T his amount represents merely a ver y sma l l fraction of the event ua l vast f inancia l va lue achieved since then for col lectors and ex hibitors of the numerous Rothko work produced in his l ifetime. Rothko's rema ins were f irst bu r ied in East Ma r ion Cemeter y on the Nor th Fork of L ong Island, New York , in a plot belong ing to Stamos, an a r tist who had been a fr iend of Rothko. Beg inning in 20 06, Rothko's chi ld ren, Dr. K ate Rothko Pr iz el, and her brother, Chr istopher Rothko, sought to d isinter Rothko's rema ins and reinter them, together w ith his w ife's rema ins, in Sha ron Ga rdens in Kensico Cemeter y in Va l ha l la, New York .


LEGACY T he s e t t lement of h i s e s t ate b e c a me t he s ubje c t of t he R ot h k o Ca s e . I n e a rl y Nov emb e r, 2 0 05, R ot h k o's 1953 oi l on c a nv a s p a i nt i n g , Hom a g e to M at i s s e , brok e t he r e c ord s e l l i n g pr ic e of a ny p o s t-w a r p a i nti n g at a p ubl ic auc t ion , at US$ 22.5 m i l l ion . I n M ay 2 0 0 7, R ot h k o's 1950 p a i nt i n g W h ite C ente r ( Ye llow, P i n k a nd L av end e r on R o s e), brok e t h i s r e c ord a g a i n , s e l l i n g at US$ 72.8 m i l l ion at S ot he by 's Ne w York . T he p a i nt i n g w a s s old by ph i l a nt h ropi s t D av id R o c k efe l le r, w ho at tend e d t he auc t ion . A pr e v iou s l y u np ubl i she d m a nu s c r ipt by R ot h k o a b out h i s ph i lo soph ie s on a r t , T he A r t i s t 's R e a l it y, w a s e d ite d by h i s s on , Ch r i s tophe r R ot h k o, a nd w a s p ubl i she d by Ya le Un i v e r sit y Pr e s s i n 2 0 0 6. R e d , a pl ay b a s e d on R ot h k o, w r it ten by Joh n L og a n , op ene d at t he D on m a r Wa r ehou s e , L ondon , on D e c emb e r 3, 2 0 0 9. T he pl ay c ente r s a rou nd t he p e r io d of d e v e lopment of t he S e a g r a m Mu r a l s . A l f r e d Mol i n a pl ay s R ot h k o. It i s d i r e c te d by t he D on m a r's a r t i s t ic d i r e c tor M ic h a e l Gr a nd a g e . I n M a rc h , 2 010, R e d mov e d to t he Joh n G old en T he ate r on Bro a d w ay i n Ne w York Cit y w it h t he s a me s t a r s (A l f r e d Mol i n a , E dd ie R e d m ay ne) a nd d i r e c tor. T he r u n op ene d of f ic i a l l y on A pr i l 1, 2 010 a nd , l i k e t he or i g i n a l L ondon pro duc t ion , r e c ei v e d g ene r a l l y f av or a ble r e v ie w s . O n Ju ne 13, 2 010, it r e c ei v e d si x Tony a w a rd s , i nc lud i n g B e s t P l ay. T he r u n c onc lud e d on Ju ne 27, 2 010.



UNTLD. (Red, Blue, and Orange), 1955 Oil on canvas


UNTLD. (Yellow and Gray), 1956 Oil on canvas





(Red and Yellow) 1957


pg. 19

Oil on canvas

Oil on canvas

96 x 72 in.

101 x 90 in.




(Black on Gray), 1956

pg. 8

Pg. 12

Oil on canvas

Oil on canvas

54 x 53 in.

801/4 x 691/4 in.



( W hite Stripe), 1957

pg. 20

pg. 10

Washington, DC, Philips Collection

Oil on canvas

Oil on canvas

811/2 x 911/2 in.




(Lavender and Mulberr y), 1959

pg.13 Oil on canvas

pg. 25 Oil on paper

107 x 861/2 in.

37 x24 in.



(Red over Dark Blue on Dark Gray), 1961


pg. 14 Oil on canvas

pg. 20 Washington, DC. Philips Collection

923/4 x 811/4 in.

Oil on canvas

NO. 207


(Red over Dark Blue on Dark Gray), 1961

(Texture), 1949

pg. 16 Oil on canvas 923/4 x 811/4 in.

pg. 28 Oil on canvas 116 x 223 in.





pg. 30

PG. 44

Oil on canvas

Oil on canvas 116 x 223 in.

NO. 14


( W hite and Greens in Blue), 1957


pg. 33

PG. 47

Oil on canvas

Oil on canvas

101 x 891/4 in.

116 x 223 in.



(Seagram Mural sketch), 1959

(Red, Blue, and Orange), 1955

pg. 34

pg. 48

Oil on canvas

Oil on canvas

112 x 83 in.

CHAPEL 1964 pg. 36 Oil on canvas

UNTLD. (Yellow and Gray), 1956 pg. 49 Oil on canvas

SEAGRAM (Murals) 1957 pg. 38 Oil on canvas

MURAL Rothko Chapel pg. 40 Oil on canvas


“Silence is so accurate.”

Profile for ravenarist

Rothko: A Retrospective  

Rothko: A Retrospective