10 Things You Didn’t Know About Mark Rothko

When it comes to abstract expressionism, one artist who undoubtedly left an indelible mark on the art world is Mark Rothko. His captivating and contemplative color field paintings continue to enchant viewers, evoking profound emotions and contemplation. While his art is widely recognized, there are several fascinating aspects about the artist himself that are lesser-known. From anecdotes about his life to the hidden symbolism in his works, here are 10 things you might not know about Mark Rothko.

1. Immigrant Roots and Birth Name

Mark Rothko, born on September 25, 1903, was a renowned American painter of Jewish descent. However, before he became an American citizen, he was known as Markus Yakovlevich Rothkowitz. He was born in Dvinsk, located in present-day Latvia, which was then part of the Russian Empire. In 1913, at the age of 10, Rothko immigrated to the United States with his mother and sister, joining his father who had arrived earlier seeking better opportunities.

Upon settling in Portland, Oregon, the family decided to shorten their last name to Rothko to assimilate better into American society. This change indicated the beginning of a new chapter for the young artist, paving the way for his art to make a profound impact on American culture in the years to come.

2. A Tragic Childhood

Rothko’s childhood was marred by tragedy. When he was just 10 years old, his father passed away, intensifying the hardships faced by the family. This loss had a profound impact on the young artist, serving as a recurring theme throughout his life and art. The grief and longing for a father figure manifested in the melancholic and introspective nature of his paintings.

Rothko once remarked, “The people who weep before my pictures are having the same religious experience I had when I painted them.” This poignant connection between his personal experiences and the emotions his artworks evoke highlights the raw depth of his artistry.

3. Exploring Spirituality

While Rothko is most famous for his abstract works, he had a deep interest in spirituality and philosophy that greatly influenced his artistic journey. During the 1940s and 1950s, he became fascinated by various philosophers and spiritual thinkers, including Sigmund Freud, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Carl Jung. Rothko’s immersion in these deep philosophical and psychological ideas inspired him to explore the spiritual aspects of art through color and form.

For Rothko, art was a gateway to the ethereal, a means to provoke intimate emotional responses to the human experience. Through his expression of color and the transcendental nature of his paintings, Rothko sought to create a spiritual connection with viewers, inviting them to delve into their own contemplative journey.

4. Ancient Inspiration

When looking at Rothko’s awe-inspiring color field paintings, it is easy to assume that his inspiration stemmed solely from his contemporary environment. However, the truth is that Rothko was deeply influenced by ancient art and mythology throughout his career. He frequently visited museums to study ancient artifacts and ambled through ancient ruins during his travels.

Rothko was particularly drawn to Greek mythology and the art of ancient civilizations. He believed that ancient art had a timeless quality that resonated with the human condition. By incorporating these ancient elements into his works, Rothko sought to bridge the gap between the past and the present, connecting viewers to a profound sense of timelessness and universality.

5. The Rothko Chapel

In Houston, Texas, an architectural masterpiece was created to showcase Rothko’s art and embody his vision for an immersive and spiritual experience. The Rothko Chapel, completed in 1971, houses 14 of Rothko’s large-scale paintings in a serene octagonal space. The chapel was not only designed as a space for contemplation but also as a monument to serve universal, non-discriminatory purposes.

The Rothko Chapel is ecumenical, welcoming people of all faiths and those with no religious affiliation, fostering dialogue, peace, and introspection. It stands as a testament to the belief that art has the power to transcend cultural and religious boundaries, providing solace and a place for introspection for all who enter its sacred walls.

6. Depression and Enduring Struggles

Behind the serene and vibrant hues of Rothko’s paintings lay a deep well of emotional turbulence. Despite his enormous success and recognition, Rothko battled with inner demons throughout his career. He suffered from depression and struggled with feelings of anxiety and inadequacy. These emotional struggles often permeated his works, with his paintings serving as a medium for introspection and catharsis.

Rothko’s relentless pursuit of artistic perfection, combined with his emotional fragility, led to frequent bouts of self-doubt and despair. Unfortunately, his relentless self-criticism and the pressures of the art world culminated in his tragic suicide in 1970. The art world lost an icon, but Rothko’s remarkable legacy continues to mesmerize and inspire art enthusiasts to this day.

7. Horizontal vs. Vertical Orientation

One of the lesser-known aspects of Rothko’s artwork is his deliberate choice of horizontal or vertical orientation for his paintings. In his early works, Rothko typically used vertical formats, symbolizing a spiritual ascent. However, as his style evolved, he began experimenting with horizontal orientations, which reflected a meditative and earthly quality.

This shift in orientation occurred as Rothko sought to connect art with the viewer’s experience on a more physical and emotional level. By altering the orientation, Rothko encouraged viewers to engage with his art through different perspectives, inviting them to explore their own emotions and immerse themselves in the contemplative spaces he created.

8. The Importance of Color

Central to Rothko’s artistic philosophy was the use and significance of color. For him, color was not merely a visual element but a powerful tool to evoke emotions and spiritual experiences within the viewer. He believed that color could convey the full range of human emotions, from joy and love to melancholy and grief.

Rothko meticulously layered colors, allowing them to interact and create a sense of depth and luminosity. By positioning different hues next to each other, he aimed to generate a dynamic and emotional response within the viewer. The harmonious blending of colors in his paintings symbolized the interconnectedness of human emotions and the infinite possibilities of emotional expression.

9. Exhibiting ‘Seagram Murals’

One of Rothko’s most notable series of paintings, the ‘Seagram Murals,’ was commissioned to adorn the Four Seasons Restaurant in the Seagram Building, New York City. However, he ultimately withdrew from the project, returning the advance he had been paid. The artist believed that the luxurious restaurant environment contradicted the intended spiritual and introspective experience his paintings aimed to provide.

Despite this setback, the ‘Seagram Murals’ were exhibited at London’s Tate Modern in 2009, offering viewers the opportunity to appreciate the large-scale works in all their intended glory. The exhibition shed light on Rothko’s artistic vision and provided fascinating insights into his intentions when creating these remarkable pieces.

10. Inspiring Emotions Through Art

Above all, Mark Rothko sought to inspire emotions, provoke introspection, and ignite the human spirit through his art. His color field paintings, with their vast canvases and immersive colors, continue to captivate audiences around the world. Rothko believed that art should connect on a deeply personal level, transcending language and cultural barriers. By stripping art down to its emotional essence, he created spaces for viewers to explore the depths of their own emotions and contemplate the profound mysteries of existence.

Mark Rothko’s contributions to the art world cannot be overstated. His paintings, born out of personal struggles and a relentless pursuit of emotional expression, have left an indelible mark on the realm of abstract expressionism. Each stroke of color invites viewers to engage with their own emotions and embark on a contemplative journey that transcends time and place.

Visit the Rothko Chapel Website
Learn more about the Tate Modern’s Rothko Exhibition