Mark Rothko

No. 3, 1949, 85 1/4 inches by 64 1/2 inches, oil on canvas, The Museum of Modern Art, New York,

Bequest of Mrs. Mark Rothko through the Mark Rothko Foundation, Inc., 1981


National Gallery of Art, May 3 to August 16, 1998

Whitney Museum of American Art, September 10 to November 29, 1998

Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, January 8 to April 18, 1999

"Silence is so accurate."

-Mark Rothko

By Carter B. Horsley

Mark Rothko’s signature format of simple compositions of soft-edged bands of color, which he arrived at after experimenting with realism and surrealism, has come to be regarded by many critics as a sublime abstract expression.

These "classic" paintings, an example of which is shown above, are luxuriant and often luminous. The best are marvelous immersions into saturation and Rothko intended his large oil paintings to be seen up close so that the viewer can be enveloped by their colorful aura.

Rothko is in the firmament of the New York School of Abstract Expressionists and it is now half a century since his mature, "signature" style evolved and his works hold up well. There is no denying the loveliness of many of them, although loveliness is not necessarily what Rothko pined for. Indeed, Rothko was a very ambitious artist who wanted to transcend mere painting and achieve the magic of poetry and music and he considered himself neither a colorist nor an abstract painter, both of which he most certainly was.

In an interesting catalogue essay entitled "Rothko's Unknown Space, Jeffrey Weiss discusses the notion of landscape and architecture in the artist's work:

"Rothko himself was known to repudiate interpretations of his art that isolate formal elements such as color or space, denying, on separate occasions, that he was primarily concerned with either of these. He did, however, accept and even perpetuate a metaphorical and affective response to form. In fact, during a time when Rothko's manner of painting was new and unfamiliar, the metaphor was a useful device. At the very least, it represented a way in which to begin addressing the question of meaning or content, a question that the artist himself had provoked by sometimes alluding in written statements and interviews to large themes such as tragedy and death. If metaphoric imagery fills the 'empty' pictorial spaces of Rothko's work, however, it also bears o the precise formal and conceptual nature of that space, especially when the metaphors conflict. Landscape, which is paramount in the literature on Rothko, suggests the impression of immense depth. A second, less familiar metaphor evokes another realm: that of architecture and, secondarily urban space. Substituting structure for color or light as a chief concern, this image expresses the liminal nature of Rothko's work in physical terms - the center versus the margin, the portal, the wall - that belong (more closely than landscape) to the realm of the two-dimensional picture plane and to the roomlike scale of his most important canvases. Moreover, the architectural metaphor is one that was partly drawn from certain pictorial continuities that exist between Rothko's early and late work. Ultimately, in contrast to landscape, it is less an image than a device, establishing expressive principles of space in paintings of the classic and late periods, while permitting them to remain abstract."

"Allusions to landscape are a function of Rothko's profoundly original implementation of color as well as his horizontal division of the canvas into an upper and lower zone, suggesting a horizon line," Weiss wrote. "This is so despite the fact…the forms do not extend all the way to the edge of the canvas;' they are not cropped by the frame the way the horizon is in conventional landscape painting. Nonetheless, the lure of the landscape in Rothko's work is strong, and its relevance implies the impression of three-dimensional space, for which the most useful rhetorical equivalent is understood to lie beyond the confines of the canvas. Landscape, or nature in general, is also used to establish the role of emotion or mood in Rothko's work. In 1958 Elaine de Kooning described Rothko's large paintings as being possessed of tension or impending threat, which she likened to the physical experience of 'atmospheric pressure' and the 'ominous, pervasive light' that precedes a hurricane. Rothko's shapes inhabit illusory space: they 'loom,' 'expand,' and 'approach.' This was the sort of conceit that Robert Rosenblum drew on, in a now classic formulation from 1961, when he described paintings by Rothko, as well as Jackson Pollock, Barnett Newman, and Clyfford Still, as having descended from the eighteenth-century romantic concept of the Sublime (as it was discussed by Burke and Kant among others), a quasi-religious state of awe induced by the experience of nature on a vast scale….Standing before a Rothko canvas, the viewer is a surrogate for the minuscule figures that appear in romantic landscape painting….Rothko made few public statements about the mechanics of color or pictorial space in his work, especially after 1949. During the 1940s, however, he described the conception of a painting in which 'shapes' - or 'performers' - first emerge as 'an unknown adventure in an unknown space.'…By 1949, when urban, classical, tribal, and primordial imagery had been successively eliminated from his work and his shapes gradually enlarged, Rothko devised the concept of pictorial 'clarity' as 'the elimination of all obstacles between the painter and the idea, and between the idea and the observer. As examples of such obstacles, I give (among others) memory, history or geometry, which are swamps of generalization from which one might pull out parodies of ideas (which are ghosts) but never an idea in itself. To achieve this clarity is, inevitably, to be understood.'"

In notes taken at a Rothko lecture at the Pratt Institute on October 27, 1958, and printed in the catalogue's notes, the artist allegedly made the following comments:

"The recipe of a work of art - its ingredients - how to make it - the formula.

I measure these ingredients very carefully when I paint a picture. It is always the form that follows these elements and the picture results from the proportions of these elements.

I belong to a generation that was preoccupied with the human figure and I studied it. It was with utmost reluctance that I found that it did not meet my needs. Whoever used it mutilated it. No one could paint the figure was it was and feel that he could produce something that could express the world. I refuse to mutilate and had to find to find another way of expression. I used mythology for a while substituting various creatures who were able to make intense gestures without embarrassment. I began to use morphological forms in order to paint gestures that I could not make people do. But this was unsatisfactory. My current pictures are involved with the scale of human feeling, the human drama, as much of it as I can express."

While he was influenced by Milton Avery, who was best known for his pastel-like, two-dimensional, flat-field works that were derived in part from Matisse’s style, Rothko, however, is not two-dimensional and there is considerable "depth" in his fields and grounds, yet he stops far short of the Op Art phenomenon that would follow. It is interesting that Rothko was particularly enamoured of Matisse's Red Studio, which had been acquired by the Museum of Modern Art in 1949. In his catalogue essay of "Rothko: Color as Subject," John Gage wrote that Rothko maintained that when one looked at the Red Studio "you became that color, you became totally saturated with it," and Gage added "it was like music."

His most famous paintings are large, vertical paintings with only a few large bands of color. His palette was quite broad although the best paintings are dominated by yellows, reds and oranges. Near the end of his life, before he committed suicide, his paintings became much darker and his palette narrower.

All of these "classic" Rothko’s vary little and yet one is tempted, nay, encouraged, to see an almost infinite variety of potential color mixes. The paintings are not always the same size and occasionally he changed the format from vertical to horizontal and the latter are, in fact, more pleasing.

What is surprising is that he did not experiment more. There are several other painters of the same generation that did: Theodore Stamos, William Baziotes, Clyfford Still, Franz Kline, Willem de Kooning, and, perhaps most importantly, Adolph Gottlieb. Their works have the same intensity but much more drama, more explosiveness and, often, more sinuosity. They have more artistry, if not poetry. One hesitates to demean Rothko’s determined preoccupation with his simple themes even if they are merely two- or three-note sambas to the rich orchestral works of someone like Richard Diebenkorn whose works are sharper and more complex, but just as poetic. Rothko's oeuvre is impressive, but stops short of greatness. It is lush, but not rich.

Prior to "discovering" his style, Rothko had done numerous works that showed the strong surrealistic influence of the "automatic writing" of Arshile Gorky, André Masson and others and these are very fine works and one wonders why he did not merge these two styles.

The answer probably lies in his intense desire to be a purist and his search for "inner light."

"It is not clear when the essentially formalist notion of inner light became a commonplace in the criticism of Venetian painting of the sixteenth century, but it was certainly a major concern of the Bavarian painter Max Doerner, whose handbook The Materials of the Artist and Their use in Painting, with notes on the Techniques of the Old Masters (1921), had been published in an English translation in New York in 1934 and came to be much used in the circle of the abstract expressionists. Although Rothko has the reputation of being a poor technician, it is striking that he adopted a number of the thoroughly traditional materials and techniques discussed in Doerner's book, notably the grinding of his own pigments and the use of a variety of egg tempera. In addition to Doerner's particular interest in traditional methods, as implied in his title, he felt able to recommend some of the new synthetic materials, such as the titanium white and the coal tar 'lithol fast scarlet,' which were later used so disastrously by Rothko in his Harvard murals. On the other hand, Rothko showed none of Doerner's concern for the careful construction of stretchers, and he adopted the late medieval technique of interposing an isolating egg-white glaze between layers of pigments or vanish, which Doerner had specifically discouraged since egg white becomes very brittle with time and turns brown. Yet these examples too suggest that Rothko was quite familiar with Doerner's book," wrote John Gage in his essay.

"Rothko was clearly concerned to articulate color through contrast and assimilation, which constitute the basic language of hues in his mature style. It was a language of dynamism: as he told Alfred Jensen in 1953, 'either their surfaces are expansive and push outward in all directions, or their surfaces contract and rush inward from all directions. Between these two poles you can find everything I want to say,'" Gage continued, adding that Rothko's optical effects of simultaneous contrast are often "inhibited by the softening of color boundaries or by the introduction of an intermediate buffer color between the tones."

"Although Rothko's approach to color and subject," Gage wrote, "has something in common with, for example, Barnett Newman's, perhaps his closest affinities among contemporary artists were with the work of Ad Reinhardt, whose adoption of near-monochromatic color groupings form the late 1940s and exclusive concentration on symmetrical composition from around 1950 have clear parallels in Rothko's work. Yet Rothko, concerned in the context of the hard-edged Houston murals with the finite as well as the infinite, was unhappy with what he saw as Reinhardt's mysticism: '…his paintings are immaterial. Mine are here. Materially. The surfaces, the work of the brush, and so on. His are untouchable.'"

Rothko, who was a heavy smoker and drinker, suffered from myopia.

"In his outline for a treatise on art that he was developing in the 1930s and early 1940s but never finally wrote, Rothko listed three headings related to color: its objective or subjective use, its decorative use, and its sensuous use. Conspicuously absent from this agenda was color's symbolic function….And although Rothko occasionally gave hints about his notions of the meaning of color,…he never suggested the possibility of any systematic approach of the sort that had been articulated, for example, by Kandinsky. In this he was perhaps well advised, for in Kandinsky's own day German experimental psychology had already begun to undermine the whole project of a possible color language, and this development was reported in some detail in the American literature of experimental aesthetics," Gage noted.

"Cultural factors," Gage continued, "were also of some interest to Rothko, who told the president of Harvard University in 1962 that his somber monumental triptych for the university was intended to convey Christ's suffering on Good Friday, while the brighter panels represented East and the Resurrection. It is, on the other hand, far from easy to reconcile the low-toned browns and reds of the 'apse' in the Rothko Chapel in Houston with the 'inviting and glorious apse' and its 'celestial vision of the Madonna and Child' in the cathedral at Torcello, which Rothko suggested to his patron Dominique de Menil as some sort of a stimulus to his own conception."

In a September 25, 1954 letter to Katharine Kuh, Rothko wrote that:

"Since my pictures are large, colorful and unframed, and since museum walls are usually immense and formidable, there is the danger that the pictures relate themselves as decorative areas to the walls. This would be a distortion of their meaning, since the pictures are intimate and intense, and are the opposite of what is decorative; and have been painted in a scale of normal living rather than an institutional scale. I have on occasion successfully dealt with this problem by tending to crowd the show rather than making it spare. By saturating the room with the feeling of the work, the walls are defeated and the poignancy of each single work…become[s] more visible. I also hang the largest pictures so that they must be first encountered at close quarters, so that the first experience is to be within the picture. This may well give the key to the observer of the ideal relationship between himself and the rest of the pictures. I also hang the pictures low rather than high, and particularly in the case of the largest ones, often as close to the floor as possible, for that is the way they were painted."

Rothko would also note on another occasion that "historically the function of painting large pictures is painting something very grandiose and pompous," but the reason he painted large pictures was "precisely" because he wanted to be "very intimate and human."

Underground Fantasy (Subway), c. 1940, 34 3/8 inches by 46 1/2 inches, oil on canvas,

National Gallery of Art, Washington, Gift of the Mark Rothko Foundation, Inc., 1986

One of the most surprising and rewarding works in the exhibition is this "Underground Fantasy," shown above, which conjures Giacometti figures and is part of a series of paintings Rothko did with the subject of New York's subways. One is puzzled somewhat that Rothko did not produce more such works.

"Rothko's paintings of the New York scene have long been credited with motifs and compositional devices that seem to anticipate the artist's later pictorial concerns," Weiss noted. "In particular, works form the middle to late 1930s are taken up with interiors as well as subjects lifted from the subway and the city street in which figures - represented in a spare, unrefined expressionist idiom - are placed in a variety of measured spaces….Defined by walls, doors, and other architectural elements, depicted space in these paintings is compressed by the artist's simplified manner, producing a shallow pictorial realm that is only occasionally relieved by pockets of plunging depth. Typically isolated or in pairs, Rothko's actors occupy segregated zones, within which they can only be described as having been sequestered or constrained. Rothko's urban settings are generally vague, but the subway clearly engrossed him as a unique realm of experiential space. By the time he took it up, it already belonged to a list of gritty, unglamorous urban subjects that typified depictions of Manhattan during the period, especially among artists of the Ashcan School and related tendencies in realist art. While the subject is usually treated by Rothko's contemporaries as one of human interest, his own images display a sustained emphasis on the peculiar coordinates of subway space….Ultimately, Rothko's characters are remote ciphers that establish scale. As such, they possess a haunted air, as if existing solely to inhabit the border that separates real and pictorial space."

Rothko's work would move onto to more bizarre landscapes and draw, according to Weiss, "primarily on the subaqueous surrealist images of Yves Tanguy…whose pictures were understood to represent inner landscapes of the mind." "Tanguy's work was accessible during 1945-46 in two exhibitions at the Pierre Matisse Gallery," Weiss noted. Rothko's work also bore a similarity to some of Arshile Gorky's work of the time as can be seen in the illustration, below, a very elegant work.

"Archaic Idol" (recto), 1945, wash, pen and ink, and gouache on paper, 21 7/8 inches by 30 inches,

The Museum of Modern Art, New York, The Joan and Lester Avnet Collection

"That Rothko's images possess a distopian air during a post-utopian era of economic decline does require us to account for them in relation to the desolate culture of the urban scene, a conception of the city that is often expressed in turn as the experience of a peculiar space. Rothko's street scenes are also characterized by claustrophobic buildings and somber, sparsely inhabited city squares….The early work of Giorgio de Chirico is generally acknowledged to have left an imprint on these images, although Rothko's idiom has little in common with the modernist's deadpan technique. Indeed, de Chirico shows up perhaps even more convincingly in Rothko's ensuing series of mythology paintings, which seem to be partly indebted to de Chirico's works of the early to middle 1930s….Although New York was reconceptualized in theory as a rational metropolis of visionary dimensions, utopianism was outpaced by the congestion it was conceived to forestall, and the soaring development of the city created margins, shadowy corridors and pockets of eccentric space that subverted the premise of a rational plan….Rothko shared with the French an appetite for urban crime fiction, and big noir themes such as destiny and chance are not without relevance to his philosophic interests."

Weiss goes on to make comparisons between Rothko and Piet Mondrian and to quote French critic Michel Butor's observation that Rothko's paintings are like store windows and places of "aeration, of purification, of judgment." Weiss then writes that "inside an area of space that bears the imprint of modernist geometry, Rothko establishes an ambiguous domain that represents the very opposite of the rational grid, reinstating a 'mythic' or nonrational realm of meaning that had been eradicated by the logic and transparency of modernist style."

In 1943, Rothko wrote a letter to The New York Times with Adolph Gottlieb and Barnett Newman in which they said:

"It is a widely accepted notion among painters that it does not matter what one paints, as long as it is well painted. This is the essence of academicism. There is no such thing as a good painting about nothing. We assert that the subject is crucial and only that subject matter is valid which is tragic and timeless. That is why we profess a spiritual kinship with primitive and archaic art."

On another occasion, Rothko declared on a radio program that "The myth holds us..., not through its romantic flavor, not the remembrance of beauty of some bygone era, not through the possibilities of fantasy, but because it expresses to us something real and existing in ourselves, as it was to those who first stumbled upon the symbols to give them life." According to the National Gallery of Art's excellent website on the Rothko exhibition, which contains information and pictures not in the exhibition and the catalogue (see hypertext link below), Rothko and Gottlieb favored the simple expression of the complex thought" and "flat forms because they destroy illusion and reveal truth."

In their essay on Rothko's late, dark paintings, Barbara Novak and Brian O'Doherty wrote that "One of Rothko's many subversive comments was that his art was not 'art' - a limiting category - but communication on an exalted level of experience." "His activity and its issue, paintings, aspire to transcend their category even as they are detained by it. The paintings remain subject to the vicissitudes of what Rothko most despised: the politics of reputations, the unavoidable museums, the charades of the auction house, the eternal critical murmur."

The 352-page catalogue, which includes 116 full-page color reproductions of paintings in the show as well as numerous other illustrations and a detailed chronology of the artist's life, has an essay by Carol Mancusi-Ungaro on "Material and Immaterial Surface: the Paintings of Rothko," and interesting interviews with several artists including Ellsworth Kelly, Brice Marden, Gerhard Richter, Robert Ryman and George Segal. Richter, for example, observes that in the 1970s he felt "quite mixed about his work," adding that "it was both too holy and too decorative. Although the paintings apparently had a transcendental aspiration, they were used for decorative purposes, and looked overly beautiful in collectors' apartments."

The catalogue is good, but David Anfam's catalogue raisonée is better because it has so many more illustrations, most in color. Both are published by Yale University Press. The current exhibition well documents Rothko's career and achievements, but not all of the selections in this show are masterpieces and it is only when one sees how many great "classic" works there are that one is truly impressed with Rothko's achievement as an artist.

Rothko, who was born on September 6, 1903, could be radiant and certainly was on the path to epiphany. He committed suicide on February 25, 1970.

Use the Search Box below to quickly look up articles at this site on specific artists, architects, authors, buildings and other subjects

See The City Review article on the Spring Modern Art Sale at Sotheby's for a reproduction of the Rothko that set an auction record for the artist of $14 million

There is a reproduction of a large and important Rothko painting in The City Review article on the Nov. 19, 1999 Contemporary Art Part 1 auction at Sotheby's

The National Gallery of Art has an excellent and very large website on Mark Rothko, which includes numerous illustrations not in the catalogue

Click here to order the exhibition's hardcover catalogue at 30 percent off its $65 list price from

Click here to order the excellent, 708-page catalogue raisonnée on Mark Rothko by David Anfam published by the Yale University Press for 30 percent off its $125 list price from

Click here to order the excellent hardcover catalogue of the Mark Rothko retrospective in 1983 at the Whitney Museum of Art by Diane Waldman for 30 percent off its $65 list price from


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