Our World

Mark Rothko

Art & Design

Marcus Rothkowitz was born in Russia in 1903. His family arrived as immigrants at Ellis Island in 1913, settling in Portland, Oregon. By the age of 17, Marcus, an avid reader, spoke four languages and was awarded a full scholarship at Yale University in Connecticut. His intention was to pursue a career as either an attorney or engineer. A year later, he left Yale and moved to New York City to follow his true passion – to study art. Working as a waiter and a delivery boy, he saved enough money to attend formal training at Parsons The New School of Design. Under cubist artist, Max Weber, he began to view art as “a tool of emotional and religious expression”. After schooling, he was employed as a children’s art teacher at the Academy of the Brooklyn Jewish Center, a post he kept for almost two decades. He admired how children approached art with total abandonment, unhindered by conscious thought and judgment.

While teaching, Marcus continued to paint, working mostly on landscapes, street scenes and figures, using abstract compositions. His paintings incorporated symbolism, myth, and religious references. It was also the period that Marcus Rothkowitz became an American citizen and officially changed his name to Mark Rothko in response to growing antisemitism in the United States in 1938. His name would become known worldwide as the most renowned visual artist of the twentieth century, admired for his iconic Colour Field paintings.

Rothko’s Colour Field paintings took him years to perfect. His compositions, reduced to two or three forms filled his large-scaled canvases with hundreds of thinly layered paint, melting atmospheric stains of colour that seem to float beyond their boundaries. Rothko asked that the viewer stand eighteen inches away to feel totally engulfed, dissolving any obstacle between the two. He famously remarked, “A painting is not a picture of an experience but is the experience. If you are only moved by colour relationships, you are missing the point. I am interested in expressing the big emotions – tragedy, ecstasy, doom".

Mark Rothko, Yellow over Purple, 1956. 69 12 × 59 38 in. (177.2 × 150.8 cm. Private Collection. 1998 Kate Rothko Prizel and Christopher Rothko

Mark Rothko. 1903 - 1970. Green Blue Green. Acrylic and ink on paper mounted on linen. 48 ½ by 40 ½ in. 123.2 by 102.9 cm.

During the mid 1950’s to late 1960’s, Rothko worked on two major commissions. In 1954, the Bronfman family, owners of the Seagram distilleries hired Philip Johnson and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe to collaborate on their new headquarters in Manhattan. Rothko was given $35,000 to create mural-scaled canvases to line the walls of the building’s restaurant, The Four Seasons. After completing the murals that were predominately saturated reds, deep browns, and rich blacks, he withdrew his commission and returned the payment. He felt that the opulent restaurant and its patrons would be at odds with his social views. In 1964, John and Dominque de Minel commissioned Rothko to design a chapel for the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas, that would be an intimate place of worship to people of every belief. He told his friends that he wanted it to be his most important artistic statement – a place where visitors would ‘linger’ to gain a deeper understanding of his work.

Mark Rothko. Black on Maroon 1958. Seagram Mural © Kate Rothko Prizel and Christopher Rothko DACS 2022

Mark Rothko Room at the Tate Modern

After years of negotiations, nine of Rothko’s paintings, known as the Seagram Murals, intended for The Four Seasons were donated to the Tate Gallery in London on the condition that they be hung in a ‘private’ place with specific instructions on how they should be hung and lit. The paintings arrived at the Gallery on February 25, 1970, the same day that his body was discovered in his Manhattan apartment. It was also the day that a representative from the Marlborough Gallery was due to visit his warehouse to select pieces to be sold. He felt he had put himself in a powerless situation by handing over too much control to Marlborough. He was just 66 when he died by suicide. He had overdosed on barbiturates and had cut an artery in his right arm with a razor blade. He left no note. During the last years of his life, he had found it hard to accept his wealth, material success and a feeling of deep rejection by his some of closest friends.

His beloved Chapel in Houston opened one year later. The Tate Gallery continues to honour his wishes. The Rothko Room is one of their most well-known displays. His children Kate and Christopher, who were only 19 and 6 when their father passed away, sued Marlborough for fraud proving that they had deflated their father’s paintings’ worth to sell to their ‘favoured clients’ and collected inflated commissions as high as 50 percent. They were fined $9.2 million and the Marlborough’s owner, Frank Lloyd, was convicted for tampering with evidence. The unsold pieces were given back to his children but more than one hundred pieces that Marlborough sold, were not part of the settlement. Kate and Christopher loan their father’s work to museums around the world. The National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC is the largest public collection of Rothko’s in the world.

Mark Rothko Chapel. Houston. Exterior View

Mark Rothko Chapel. Houston. Interior View