Rothko was born Marcus Rothkowitz, the fourth and youngest child of the Russian Jews Jacob Rothkowitz and Kate Goldin Rothkowitz. His father, a popular town pharmacist, encouraged secular education over orthodox religious fervor. By 1910, to avoid the tsarist pogroms, Jacob emigrated to Portland, Oregon, sending for his eldest sons first and then the rest of the family. Seven months after the family was united Jacob died, leaving his widow and children struggling to make a living.
An excellent student, Rothko completed his studies at Portland's Lincoln High School in three years. With the promise of scholarships, he entered Yale University in the fall of 1921. Two years later the nonconformist was weary of Yale's anti-Semitism and social stigmas, and he moved to New York City permanently in 1925 "to wander, to bum a bit, and to starve." He enrolled at the Art Students League, where he took painting classes and studied for four months with the modernist painter Max Weber. He always considered himself self-taught, however. During the late 1920s and through the depression of the 1930s Rothko taught children's art and worked for the Federal Art Project of the Works Progress Administration. His early figurative and representational paintings from this project have disappeared. In 1935 he co-founded The Ten, a group of expressionist artists in New York City.
Rothko married Edith Sachar, a jewelry designer, on 12 November 1932; this first marriage was short-lived. After a bohemian life of poverty the marriage ended, and they were divorced in 1944. Rothko became a U.S. citizen in 1938. In 1945 he was featured in a one-man show sponsored by the socialite and benefactor Peggy Guggenheim at her Art of This Century gallery. That March he married Mary ("Mell") Alice Beistle, a children's book illustrator; they had two children. By 1951 postwar prosperity extended into the art world, and art trading experienced a financial boom fueled by the new international millionaires. A Fortune magazine article (Dec. 1955) encouraged art buyers to play the market with living artists, suggesting that the pioneers of the New York School—Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, and Rothko—were growth issues. Rothko had been using the shortened form of his name on paintings since 1940, and in 1958 he changed it legally.
Awards, honors, and glowing reviews kept pace with increasing prices for paintings by Rothko and his peers. Unfortunately, the first generation of abstract expressionists was financially naive; they were shamefully exploited and cheated by galleries and dealers. In June 1958 Rothko agreed to provide murals for the elegant Four Seasons restaurant at the new Seagram Building on Park Avenue. The building was designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, assisted by the eminent architect Philip Johnson, in the International style. Rothko, a socialist by political persuasion, was upset at the necessarily wealthy clientele of the restaurant. Further, he was outraged by its opulent theatrical setting, in which his paintings would be but a backdrop; he had imagined diners soulfully communing with his murals only. After two years and nearly forty paintings he returned his commission in a fury of betrayal. The paintings were dispersed to the Tate Gallery in London and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.
By his own admission, in 1961 Rothko was financially comfortable, with an East Ninety-fifth Street townhouse; a cottage in Provincetown, Massachusetts; and showings in museums and galleries. He was a frequent subject of articles in art magazines as well as in Time and Newsweek, but he felt misunderstood. In January 1961 he was the first living artist of his generation to be given a one-man show at the Museum of Modern Art. In the following two years the exhibit traveled to Paris, London, Brazil, Amsterdam, and Rome. Time and Newsweek published interviews and articles before the opening. Previously a "fellow traveler," Rothko became a staunch anti-Communist during the cold war. He and Adolph Gottlieb, cofounder of The Ten, founded the Federation of Modern Painters and Sculptors and decried the Communist Party's influence on art organizations.
The radical abstract expressionists emerged at a point when the United States was seizing the cultural lead after World War II. Politically, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) supported and funded efforts like those of the Museum of Modern Art to promote the new art, seizing the opportunity to showcase U.S. culture as modern and progressive compared with that of Western Europe. In 1962 Rothko was encouraged to donate paintings to Harvard's faculty dining room. The arrangement both affirmed Harvard's interest in the influential painting of the decade and allowed Rothko to deduct the gift for tax purposes; he was flattered at the request, differentiating between the dining room of elite academics and the Four Seasons. Rothko explained that his somber canvases were depictions, however abstract, of Christ's suffering and the Easter Resurrection. Nathan Pusey, president of Harvard, was convinced that Rothko had painted his vision of a universal religion. Unfortunately, the use of cheap fugitive colors, sun damage, and destruction consequent to the use of the faculty dining room for parties took a severe toll on the paintings. The works remain in dark storage now, accessible only to scholars.
Although Rothko continued to paint throughout the 1960s, he sold primarily out of his studio. He was inducted into the National Institute of Arts and Letters in May 1968, and in June 1969 Yale awarded him an honorary doctorate. In 1965 Rothko signed a contract for $250,000 to paint murals for a small chapel commissioned by John and Dominique de Menil in a quiet residential neighborhood in Houston, Texas. Philip Johnson was hired to build the chapel under Rothko's direction. It would be the crowning achievement of the artist's work. From 1964 until he finished in 1967 Rothko worked on the project with the expectation that the building would be modest and not detract from the paintings. Controversy arose, however, when Johnson planned a vertical, visually prominent building into which Rothko's paintings would fit, whereas Rothko wanted a building that would fit his paintings. Johnson resigned from the project in 1967, and the architects who replaced him deferred to Rothko's wishes. Rothko never saw the work installed. The building eventually was named the Rothko Chapel.
On 1 January 1969, at the age of sixty-five, Rothko left his family. A year earlier he had suffered an aneurysm of the aorta, adding to the depression he had experienced all his life. Rothko smoked heavily, drank and ate too much, and had high blood pressure. Although he was a millionaire, he spent his last months in his poorly furnished studio, lonely, depressed, and suffering from myriad illnesses, both real and imagined. His studio assistant found him dead on the morning of 25 February 1970; he had committed suicide by cutting the brachial arteries inside his elbows, having first taken a large dose of the antidepressant Sinequan to dull the pain. What may have destroyed Rothko was that his deepest fears about the art world were coming true; close friends, dealers, and advisers, driven by greed, were profiting from the masterpieces he had painted from the depths of his soul. He is buried in East Marion Cemetery in East Marion (Suffolk County), New York.
After the death of their mother not long after, Rothko's children were left with the enormous burden of recovering their father's collection, which was in danger of being stolen and hidden in Europe through the machinations of the executors of his estate. After six years of litigation and millions of dollars in legal fees the case was concluded in the New York State Court of Appeals. In a landmark decision, seven judges imposed fines and damages on Rothko's executors, Francis K. Lloyd and the Marlborough Galleries, for $9.3 million. The paintings were returned to the Rothko children and the Mark Rothko Foundation; they have since been organized, catalogued, and cared for appropriately.
The contradictions, tensions, anger, despair, and sadness of Rothko's life disappear in the quiet solitude and mystical depths of his paintings. Throughout the world viewers find their own serenity in the rich and somber works of his later life.
Biographies of Rothko include Dore Ashton, About Rothko (1983); James E. B. Breslin, Mark Rothko: A Biography (1993); Lee Seldes, The Legacy of Mark Rothko (1978); Anna C. Chave, Mark Rothko: Subjects in Abstraction (1989); Mark Rothko 1903–1970, a catalog of the Rothko exhibition of 17 June–1 September 1987; and London and Frances Stonor Saunders, The Cultural Cold War (2000). See also Diane Waldman, Mark Rothko, 1903–1970: A Retrospective (1978). An obituary is in the New York Times (26 Feb. 1970).
Rosemarie S. Cardoso
Mark Rothko was born on Sept. 25, 1903, in Gvinsk, Russia, and emigrated to the United States in 1913. He attended Yale University (1921-1923), and he began painting in 1925, when he studied with Max Weber at the Art Students League in New York. He later traveled extensively in Europe.
In 1935 Rothko cofounded "The Ten," an organization of expressionist artists in New York. During 1936 and 1937 he worked on the government's Federal Arts Project. In 1948 he joined Robert Motherwell, Barnett Newman, and William Baziotes in founding a New York art school called "Subjects of the Artist." For extensive periods throughout his career Rothko taught at colleges and universities, including the Center Academy in Brooklyn (1929-1952), the California School of Fine Arts in San Francisco (summers of 1947 and 1949), Brooklyn College (1951-1954), the University of Colorado (1955), and Tulane University (1956).
Rothko's first important one-man show in 1945 at the Art of This Century Gallery in New York City established him as a leading figure in postwar American painting. During the 1940s and 1950s he exhibited regularly. In 1958 his work was included in the Venice Biennale, and in 1961 the Museum of Modern Art in New York City held a retrospective exhibition. Among Rothko's special awards were his election to the National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1968 and the honorary degree of doctor of fine arts from Yale University in 1969. Rothko committed suicide in New York on Feb. 25, 1970.
Like nearly all the advanced American painters who matured during the 1940s, Rothko's early work was founded on the tenets of both cubism and surrealism. This meant that his art leaned both toward the problems of formal abstraction and toward a more traditional notion of conceptualized subject matter. By the late 1940s, however, he gradually broke through to a style that rejected both cubism and surrealism, and his work became linked with the abstract expressionism of men like Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning. Rothko's bestknown paintings of the 1950s and 1960s continued to be associated with this general style.
But Rothko's art reveals a distinct and personal interpretation of the abstract expressionist style. From his first emergence as a mature artist, he eschewed the gestural brushwork and the dense, painterly surfaces that became celebrated in the work of De Kooning, Franz Kline, and others. Instead, Rothko concentrated on expression through color alone, and to this end he radically simplified his imagery. In his best paintings, the imagery consists of two or three rectangles of color that float within an abstract space. Generally, the areas of color dissolve softly into one another, denying all traces of either hard or tactile edges. The softness is a function of the artist's delicate, feathery brushstrokes, and it results in an expanding pictorial space that seems to consist of pure color rather than colored objects. In many of Rothko's paintings his colors appear to generate their own magical or divine light.
The catalog of Rothko's Museum of Modern Art retrospective exhibition, Mark Rothko, by Peter Selz (1961) is especially rich with illustrations. Rothko's place within the abstract expressionist movement is presented in Barbara Rose, American Art since 1900 (1967). □
ROTHKO, MARK (1903–1970), U.S. painter. Born Marcus Rothkowitz in Dvinsk, Russia, Rothko immigrated to the United States in 1913 with his family, settling in Portland, Oregon. He attended Yale University on a scholarship (1921–23), but after two years he moved to New York and briefly studied at the Art Students League, notably with Max *Weber. In 1928 the former yeshivah student was commissioned to draw maps for Rabbi Lewis Browne's book The Graphic Bible. Rothko also supported himself by teaching art to children at the Brooklyn Jewish Center, a position he held from 1929 until 1952. He found success early with expressionistic, painterly, representational canvases, shown in his first group exhibition at the Opportunity Galleries (1928) and his first one-man show at the Contemporary Arts Gallery (1933), both in New York. As a member of The Ten, an artist-group that he co-founded in 1935 with Adolph *Gottlieb and *Ben-Zion, and affiliated with for five years, Rothko exhibited imagery stimulated by aspects of mythology, and at times Christian iconography, such as the crucifixion. He worked as a Works Progress Administration artist from 1936 to 1937.
In the early 1940s Rothko fell under the influence of Surrealism, often making images comprised of organic forms. At the end of the decade Rothko painted fully abstract imagery with an oil technique that approximated his watercolor experimentations in the mid-1940s. Typical of Rothko's signature style is Green and Tangerine on Red (1956, Phillips Collection, Washington, d.c.), a large canvas consisting of two flat, rectangular shapes of thin color. Filling the canvas, the nearly translucent hues seem to float on the surface of the composition. Rothko exploited this formula with differing color variations, size of colorfields, and application of the paint to convey an array of sensations, ranging from meditative to ominous. By 1961 Rothko was a celebrated artist who enjoyed a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.
Rothko received several public commissions, including the artwork for an octagonal chapel in Houston, Texas. Decorated with 14 canvases in nuanced shades of black and maroon, the Rothko Chapel was dedicated in February 1971, a year after the artist committed suicide.
D. Waldman, Mark Rothko, 1903–1970: A Retrospective (1978); B. Clearwater, Mark Rothko: Works on Paper (1984); A.C. Chave, Mark Rothko: Subjects in Abstraction (1989); J.E.B. Breslin, Mark Rothko (1993); D. Anfam, Mark Rothko, The Works on Canvas: Catalogue Raisonné (1998).
[Samantha Baskind (2nd ed.)]