Marcus Rothkowitz (Mark Rothko) was born in Russia in 1903. At ten years old, Rothko, his mother, and his older sister immigrated to Portland, Oregon. Rothko attended Yale University on a full scholarship, but left after two years for New York, where he received his only formal art training at the Art Students League. There, he was introduced to early European modernism and artists such as Matisse, Picasso, Cézanne, and the German Expressionists.
In 1933 he experienced his first solo show. Around this time, Rothko, along with others, founded the Ten, a group of artists who encouraged abstraction and expressionism. During the Depression years, many artists, including Rothko, participated in the federal Works Progress Administration
’s easel project as part of President Roosevelt’s New Deal. Rothko began painting in his signature style
in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Characteristic of this style were large-scale canvases of one or two softly edged rectangular forms. Rothko preferred his paintings to be exhibited in groups, and he received a major commission in 1958 for a group of paintings for the Four Seasons Restaurant in the Seagram Building in New York. While Rothko chose not to complete the commission, he did complete commissions for groups of paintings from Harvard University in 1962 and an interdenominational chapel
in Houston in 1964. Rothko committed suicide in 1970.
Rothko's Painting Style and Techniques
Much of Rothko’s work beginning in the late 1940s is characterized by large, colorful forms whose soft and glowing edges fill wall-scale canvases. The forms become more rectangular by 1950. These rectangles are carefully painted with subtle tonal variations. While Rothko’s signature paintings lack representational forms, the juxtaposed colors are intended to radiate, interact, and evoke emotion.
Rothko propped his canvases on easels to paint them. His techniques for applying paint were specific and thoughtful. He worked in layers, applying many thin layers of paint on unprimed canvas to create a dense, saturated surface rich with variations in tone. He sometimes used sponges and cloth to apply layers, in order to prevent visible brushstrokes. This approach often created a stained effect. He wanted his paint to dry as quickly so that he could more efficiently add more layers. Sometimes he mixed his own paint, using unconventional materials, such as egg and glue, acrylic resins, phenol formaldehyde, and modified alkyd.
With its vibrant rectangular forms and soft edges, Orange, Red and Red exemplifies the work Rothko was creating from the 1950s until the end of his career.
Though he strongly denied it, Rothko is closely associated with abstract expressionism, the first avant-garde art movement to originate in the United States. The term refers to the work of artists who responded to World War II through large-scale, non-representational paintings. The experience and artistic styles of the abstract expressionists varied greatly, but they all believed that they could directly express emotional and spiritual realities through painting. Each artist in his or her own way explored the use of color, line, and abstract shapes in order to find new, more direct ways to express the energy and confidence as well as the anxiety of the post war world.
The abstract expressionists were often interested in two ideas: 1) painting as an impulsive physical process intended to capture an emotional response or 2) creating tension and evoking emotion through the color relationships in a painting. Artists such as Jackson Pollock and Franz Kline were interested in the former, while artists like Clyfford Still and Rothko are associated with the latter.
Additionally, many of these artists believed that the subconscious could be a source of abstract images and marks that would be universally understood. Through dreams and the process of automatism (an intuitive or spontaneous method of drawing or painting), they sought to probe beneath the rational, conscious mind and find a new visual language that would unify the modern world because all could understand it. They believed in the power of abstract art to directly communicate profound spiritual and philosophical truths. Based primarily in New York, artists associated with abstract expressionism are sometimes called the New York School.
The Rothko Chapel is an interfaith sanctuary in Houston, Texas, that functions as a chapel, an art museum, and a forum. In 1964 Houston philanthropists Dominique and John de Menil commissioned Mark Rothko to create fourteen paintings to hang in their chapel, intended to be a meditative, introspective space. They also invited Rothko to work closely with the architects and builders to help shape the space that would house this body of work.
Rothko worked on the commission for over two years. In his New York studio, he built mock walls the size of the chapel’s walls and created a pulley system to experiment with the arrangement of the canvases. The finished group of paintings includes seven deep purple paintings and seven paintings of black rectangular forms over maroon. Unfortunately, Rothko died before visiting the finished chapel.
Written in 2009 by American writer John Logan, Red is a two-actor play about Mark Rothko and an enormous commission from the Four Seasons Restaurant in the Seagram Building in New York. Red, which takes place entirely within Rothko’s studio, features only two characters: Rothko and Ken. Ken is a fictional character who might possibly represent an amalgamation of Rothko’s studio assistants, and the storyline is based on the events surrounding a real commission Rothko received in 1958.
The commission involved the creation of a series of canvases to cover the walls of the Four Seasons Restaurant. While Rothko preferred to display his work in groups, and the Seagram commission was theoretically the perfect opportunity for Rothko to create an environment for his work to be displayed, the play focuses on Rothko questioning the integrity of the project. During the play, Ken increasingly probes and questions Rothko about his intentions for his Seagram paintings as well as his theories on art.
To experience the play, audience members must walk directly into a re-creation of Rothko’s studio—the play’s set—and sit around all four walls along its perimeter. Rothko intended viewers of his work to be completely immersed in his paintings. Reflecting that intention, viewers of Red must be completely immersed in the play, literally sitting in the set among the actors.
The Works Progress Administration for Artists
The Works Progress Administration, or WPA, was a comprehensive national job-building initiative from 1935 until 1943 under President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. The WPA hired and provided economic relief for millions of Americans who had previously been unemployed. During its eight years, the WPA provided jobs to a half million people.
The Federal Art Project (FAP)—a subdivision of the WPA—supported artists by creating jobs for painters, sculptors, muralists, graphic artists, and other artists with varied backgrounds and experiences. The FAP funded the creation of over 100,000 paintings and murals and over 18,000 sculptures to enliven public buildings across the country. Additionally, nearly one hundred community art centers were built to provide art classes for children and artists. Not only did these art projects provide economic relief for many artists, but they brought thousands of works of visual art to Americans, facilitating a new appreciation for art among the American public.
Rothko participated in the FAP’s easel division, which urged artists to explore America as a subject for artworks. Many artists—such as Rothko—who later became the forerunners of abstract expressionism, developed as professional artists through the FAP.