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Artist in Focus : Mark Rothko

In this section for Art From Us, we pick one artist to showcase their work and creative journey so far. Today, we look at Mark Rothko.

Art From Us & Divvya Nirula introduce you to artists and their art. Underlining significant works, discovering creative practices. And giving you a glimpse into their studio.

Early Life

Born as Marcus Rothkovich I in 1903 in Latvia, he was the youngest of four children. The family immigrated to Portland, America, fleeing the hostile political climate in Russia – which was particularly difficult for Zionist Jews. Rothko’s childhoodwas non existent. Following the death of his father he was enlisted to work even though he was very young. Rothko made his way to Yale, only to abandon formal education in 1923, moving to New York.

Rothko’s participation at the Opportunity Gallery’s exhibition for fellow immigrant artists was the beginning of his artistic career. It was during the years of economic depression in the 1930s that his work began to flower, though commercial success was far away. In the early phases of his career he was inspired by Expressionism and Surrealism. This was the beginning of Rothko’s formulation of his personal theory that man was caught in a mythic battle. He was deeply influenced by the writings of Nietzche.

Art Movement

Rothko observed several movements closely and his own works saw several stylistic shifts. Eventually in the late 1940s, he started on the prototypes for his best-known works. Here the figures are banished entirely and are known as “multiple-forms”. His work is known for the iconic softly floating rectangular coloured forms. The compositions consist of soft-edged blocks of colours floating in space.

It was Rothko’s personal statement of uniting the painter, the viewer and the painting. He wanted to consciously remove all impediments. The swatches of colour drew the attention away from the necessity of forms, enveloping the viewer. It was an endeavour to momentarily escape the commercial and the banal society which he and other artists despised.

1949 saw Rothko fill out the canvas with colours that hovered over the canvas, visible at borders. These remain amongst his best known works and have come to be called his “sectionals”.

Legacy

In 1964, Rothko received a massive commission to create large wall murals for a non- denominational chapel they were sponsoring on the campus of St. Thomas Catholic University. It was sponsored by John and Dominique de Menil from Houston.

Working with a series of architects, Rothko generated fourteen paintings, constructing a meditative environment with a dark palette. ‘The Rothko Chapel’ has been the site of several international meetings of some of the world’s great religious leaders, like the Dalai Lama.

“When I was a younger man, art was a lonely thing. No galleries, no collectors, no critics, no money. Yet, it was a golden age, for we all had nothing to lose and a vision to gain. Today it is not quite the same. It is a time of tons of verbiage, activity, consumption. Which condition is better for the world at large I shall not venture to discuss. But I do know, that many of those who are driven to this life are desperately searching for those pockets of silence where we can root and grow. We must all hope we find them.”

― Mark Rothko

Even though Rothko was bestowed with several honours during his active career, including an invitation as a US representative at the Venice Biennale, 1958, he remained unconvinced. He refused the award by the Guggenheim Foundation, in protest against the idea of art being competitive. 

The Rothko Foundation then donated the rest of the works to museums in the United States and abroad. After bitter battles between his children and the friends who were trustees of his art.


To learn more about iconic artworks and their socio-political context, visit the Artist in Focus archive.

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