Mark Rothko, one of the great masters of Abstract Expressionism in the 1950s, was also a founding member of The Ten, a group of dissident modernists who were pre-war forerunners of the Abstract Expressionist movement.
Mark Rothko was born Marcus Rothkowitz on September 25, 1903, in Dvinsk, Russia. His father Jacob was a pharmacist who earned a decent living. The family immigrated to the United States in 1913 in order to eliminate the possibility that their sons be drafted into the Czarist army.
After Mark’s first year of school in America, his father died on March 27, 1914, leaving his family destitute. Everyone contributed financially in some way, including Mark who found employment in one of his uncle’s warehouses, selling newspapers to employees. Although life in America was a struggle, he managed to graduate with honors from Lincoln High School in Portland in June of 1921. Mark received a scholarship to Yale University, New Haven, but was forced to take menial jobs to support his studies when the scholarship ended. Following his second year, he dropped out of school and moved to New York where he joined the Art Student’s League. In 1925, he became a student under Russian-American Expressionist painter Max Weber, who brought him under the influence of the surrealists.
The next decade was a prosperous time for Mark Rothko as his work achieved much acclaim. The young artist participated in his first group exhibition at the Opportunity Galleries in New York in 1928. His first solo exhibition was also held in New York at the Contemporary Arts Gallery in 1933. In the year 1935, he became a founding member of the Ten, a group of artists sympathetic to abstraction and expressionism.
In the mid-1940s, Mark Rothko experimented with abstraction, arranging intense colors in irregular shapes. He began to develop a semi-abstract form of art that soon marked him as a leading exponent of a uniquely meditative and personal strain within the larger movement of abstract expressionism. Rothko’s works were characterized by horizontal bands of subtle color with blurred edges. While other fellow Abstract Expressionists used more dramatic techniques such as rigorous brush strokes or the dripping and splattering of paint, Rothko’s technique consisted of juxtaposing large areas of melting colors to achieve similar effects.
In 1958, Rothko was commissioned to paint a series of murals for the Four Seasons restaurant in the Seagram Building in New York. At the onset, he was enthusiastic about the project, but mid-way, he decided that he did not want his paintings to be the backdrop in a restaurant. He ultimately gave the set of nine paintings to the Tate Gallery in London; all of which were received upon his death. By 1958, Rothko had achieved stunning acclaim and hence, was chosen to represent the United States in painting at the Venice Biennale.
In 1967, Rothko collaborated with influential American architect Philip Cortelyou Johnson on a church in Houston, Texas, contributing 14 related works in an installation setting. The church has subsequently become known as ‘The Rothko Chapel’.
In 1968, Rothko suffered an aneurysm, a result of chronic high blood pressure. He was not very health conscious and lived life very freely; drinking heavily, smoking and eating poorly. His health continued to decline and his marriage began to disintegrate. He and his wife separated on New Year’s Day 1969. Rothko moved into his studio and indulged in his addictions.
After suffering from extreme depression and many years of alcohol abuse, Mark Rothko committed suicide in his New York studio on February 25, 1970, by slitting his wrists at the age of 67. He left behind a legacy of work and a few words that clarify how he felt about art; “The progression of a painter's work, as it travels in time from point to point, will be toward clarity… toward the elimination of all obstacles between the painter and the idea... and the idea and the observer. To achieve this clarity is inevitably to be understood.”.