Thursday, July 29, 2010

Artist Profile: Mark Rothko

"The exhilarated tragic experience is for me the only source of art." - Mark Rothko

This is the first in my series of artist profiles. My intention isn't to provide a regurgitated biography, but I will include relevant biographical information if it punctuates a point.
Born: Marcus Rothkowitz on September 25, 1903 in the former Russian empire. Today,
Daugavpils, Latvia.
Died: February 25, 1970 in Manhattan, New York. (Suicide)
Ethnicity/Religion: Jewish
Movement: Abstract Expressionism/Color Field Painting

I approached Rothko's work, already knowing his ultimate fate and history of emotional turmoil. After doing some research, I learned that after he was diagnosed with a heart condition, he continued to drink and smoke and eat poorly, but he did heed his doctor's advice to avoid painting any pictures larger than a yard in height.

He committed suicide in February 1970 by overdosing on barbiturates and slicing his arms with a razor blade. He cut his left arm first, then the right - the cut on the right was so deep it almost severed his brachial artery. He was found in a 6 ft by 8 ft pool of blood with his arms outstretched - his body a shocking, final masterpiece. His arms outstretched like a Christ figure, overlapping the deep red often used in his pieces, the same grand scale; sticking it to the face of his own destiny. A friend at the scene wanted to take a photo, but was ultimately persuaded not to, surely had the photo surfaced there would be no escaping the transfixing of his lifeless body on every canvas. Thank goodness this is not the case. Rothko had once told his assistant, "If I choose to commit suicide, everyone will be sure of it. There will be no doubts."

My Reaction:

There’s a deep, haunting nature about a Rothko.

Looking at his canon of multiforms, the color schemes he used were mostly in the same family, or complimentary opposites on the color wheel. Picking one at random and looking at it up close, it almost looks like they were painted on a piece of paper that was later burned. The smears in the painting are rapt with sorrow.

The fact that his paintings were so large is slightly ironic. There is a simplicity to them, but the simplicity is complicated by the size, and complicated further the more you look into it.

Rothko once said, "Silence is so accurate." There is an element of spiritual transcendence in a Rothko. The works have a quiet, tragic beauty. They aren't as jarring or visually "complex" as a Jackson Pollock piece, but it probably has just as many layers.

A Pollock dances around you and pulls you in. The Rothko doesn't dance, it marches to a solemn dirge, but it pulls you in. It doesn't sing like a Pollock sings, it moans, but its a transcendent moan. Like a Buddhist 'om'.

There is something particular about the way the paint is layered and scraped on the canvas. The one I attached at the top of this post (Untitled, 1960) almost looks like someone pressed some berries or other natural media against a sheet of paper. Looking at it up close, it's self-correcting because of the way the paint is smeared. You can look within the smears and find the layers: red with yellow, blue with pink that looks sprayed around it almost like an afterthought, but paradoxically looks like the foundation for the blue, the layer which supports the one after it, like a matriarch to a son.

The rectangular forms aren't centered - that's part of the point. They help you find your own center, your own mythology. The sublime in the subliminal. They're perfect in their imperfection.


  1. "The Rothko doesn't dance, it marches to a solemn dirge, but it pulls you in"

    Great observation. I always loved Rothko, but never really thought about why. I mostly liked the colors. But I agree it has a haunting quality that slowly pulls you in. I had no idea about his suicide. Definitely makes his story more interesting. No cries for help. No false attempts at suicide. Just dove right in. he didn't screw around. I think I'm going to enjoy this blog.

  2. Thanks a lot! I hope you do enjoy it. :)

  3. That's certainly a convincing interpretation (in the form of an emotional outpouring). I say "emotional" to mean the opposite of rational. I'm unwilling to argue or criticize any of the story you weave around "Untitled, 1960", because it works, is fun to read, and adds to the experience of looking at it afterwards. I can't ask for more. Thanks Kat.

    PS: If I do have any hesitation, it's that we are talking about art that uses empty space, silence, etc. It's about less is more, and forces the viewer to do all the hard work of thought and imagination. The result, then, is always going to be a very personal experience that can vary from individual to individual.

  4. Thanks Lex!
    I agree, with more abstract or minimalist art, save for the people who just flat-out hate it because it is so simple, there is more of a gray area in terms of appreciation, some people will like it because of the use of color, or because it isn't busy, and some people will find other things in it (like the silence that I see) and like it for those reasons. A lot of modern/contemporary art yells at you, and while viewing that kind of art, or any kind of art is still a personal experience, more people are likely to take issue with the more loud/dynamic works. :)


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I love to read about linguistics, behavioral economics, theory and philosophy. I listen to music some might call outdated, write satirical and high testosterone plays, consume too much caffeine and ruthlessly defend modern and contemporary art.