Mark Rothko was an American painter of Russian Jewish descent. He is generally identified as an Abstract Expressionist, although he himself rejected this label and even resisted classification as an “abstract painter.” Wikipedia

Born: September 25, 1903, Daugavpils, Latvia

Died: February 25, 1970, New York City, NY

StructuresRothko Chapel

Periods: Color Field, Modern art, Abstract expressionism


Mark Rothko was born as Marcus Rothowitz into a Jewish family in what is now Latvia in 1903. In 1913 the family immigrated to Portland, Oregon where Marc grew up. By the 1920s Rothko was in New York City studying art at the New School of Design and the Art Students League. He began to teach art at the Center Academy with other artists of the New York School of Abstract Impressionism such as Adolph Gottlieb and Barnett Newman.





Rothko’s early paintings already revealed an interest in color as emotional tool but his style was moody and expressionistic — including striking portraits that remind one of Picasso. He experimented with Surrealism during the 30’s and early 1940’s

1930 or 1940


By the late 40’s Rothko had discovered the style that was to define the rest of his career — abstract horizontal rectangles of color stacked vertically. His genius was to develop a technique that made the rectangles appear to float off the canvass. He painted with a very light medium in multiple layers that lent transparency to the pictures and led to indistinct boundaries between the blocks of color



In the early 1960s Rothko had gained critical acclaim and financial success but his earlier bouts with depression returned and the mood of his paintings became more somber — trending to cooler colors. Rothko viewed his paintings as emotional and even spiritual expressions and expected the viewer to have visceral reactions to his works.



By the late 1960s, Rothko’s mood had become quite somber. His major commission was for a chapel in his honor in Houston Texas and his works for that were in very dark colors. He has a series of black on black paintings where the viewer is challenged to find texture in lieu of bright colors. He committed suicide in 1970.


What he’s famous for (1950-1970):


The fact that one usually begins with drawing is already academic. We start with color.” – Rothko


realize that historically the function of painting large pictures is painting something very grandiose and pompous. The reason I paint them, however . . . is precisely because I want to be very intimate and human. To paint a small picture is to place yourself outside your experience, to look upon an experience as a stereopticon view or with a reducing glass. However you paint the larger picture, you are in it. It isn’t something you command!

Mark Rothko paintings hanging at Tate Modern in 2000

Mark Rothko room, Tate Modern

He even went so far as to recommend that viewers position themselves as little as eighteen inches away from the canvas so that they might experience a sense of intimacy, as well as awe, a transcendence of the individual, and a sense of the unknown.


(detail of painting)

Rothko’s method was to apply a thin layer of binder mixed with pigment directly onto uncoated and untreated canvas and to paint significantly thinned oils directly onto this layer, creating a dense mixture of overlapping colors and shapes. His brushstrokes were fast and light, a method he would continue to use until his death.  


Rothko used several original techniques that he tried to keep secret even from his assistants. Electron microscopy and ultraviolet analysis conducted by the MOLAB showed that he employed natural substances such as egg and glue, as well as artificial materials including acrylic resinsphenol formaldehyde, modified alkyd, and others. One of his objectives was to make the various layers of the painting dry quickly, without mixing of colors, so that that he could soon create new layers on top of the earlier ones. [The less stable of his works are now coming off the canvas in flakes. Oops.]



Beginning in 1964, Rothko began painting a series of black paintings, which incorporated other dark hues and texture effects. The result is a spiritually somber space for quiet and intimate meditation. 

My Own Personal Thoughts:

With every painting you must ask yourself two things: what do I want to put into my painting, and what do I want to edit out from it. By choosing what we put in, and what we take out, we are deciding what is important. We are deciding what the basis of painting is, at least for us. For Rothko, the basis of painting was color. So he went along the process of putting in, and taking out, editing editing editing, expanding what he cared about, illuminating all else, until color was all that was left. Editing is a beautiful process, and not easily done, until it is finished, and you are looking behind you. If you do it well, it all appears obvious in hindsight. 

I feel unsurpassed spiritual connection when I look at a Rothko colorfield painting. It is simultaneously a full choir at the climax of a Messiah, and complete silence. I don’t feel it when I look at a Rothko reproduction, and I don’t feel it from looking at Rothko images on this screen. I get it when I creep up to about 18″ away from the surface of his actual painting. The sensation of awe and peace is inevitably interrupted by a museum guard, telling me to back away.  Sigh.