Mark Rothko

1903 - 1970 · United States

Artist biography

Mark Rothko was an American painter famous for his abstract paintings which pushed the boundaries of the field of Abstract Expressionism. For Rothko, the creation of art was a moral act and he saw it as the deepest form of communication. Today, he is one of the most renowned artists worldwide and his work has had a major influence in contemporary art and culture.

Born in 1903 in Latvia (then the Russian Empire) as Markus Yakovlevich Rothkowitz, Rothko’s family immigrated to the United States in 1913. He studied for two years at Yale University before dropping out, feeling that the institution was elitist and racist. He later enrolled in the Parsons School for Design in New York City, and was taught by Arshile Gorky. He also studied classes at the Art Student League, where he began to view art as a way to express basic human emotions and beliefs. By the 1950s he had developed his signature compositional style which became known as ‘Colour Field’ painting, defined by significant areas of open space and emotive uses of colour. By the 1960s however, Rothko’s health had declined and in 1970, critically depressed, he committed suicide. He left behind a legacy and body of work which had garnered him a great deal of fame and success throughout his life.

At the basis of his philosophy, Rothko sought to make paintings that would bring out people’s strongest and deepest emotions, believing that analysing his works only by the colour was to ‘miss the point’ of them, as it was merely an instrument in the overall art work. In using flat and simple forms in his works he aimed to reveal the truth and dispel any notion of illusion. From the 1950s he began to develop his signature style, the so-called ‘multi-form’ paintings on vertical canvases which were purposefully large in order to overwhelm and envelope the viewer. Rothko developed a ‘recipe’ of elements a true work of art should contain. These were: a preoccupation with death; sensuality, tension, irony, wit, chance and hope. For Rothko, the form was secondary to these elements and the final result of the artwork would be dictated by the proportion of them when he was creating the artwork.

Rothko’s works have been displayed in many renowned institutions across the world. His works can be seen on display at the Tate Modern gallery in London, which has a permanent room dedicated to his work, and is in the collections of the Pace Gallery in New York and the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía and the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museums in Madrid. His work also continues to sell well at auctions, and notably in 2012, his piece ‘Orange, Red, Yellow’ sold for $86.9 million, the highest price ever fetched for a piece of contemporary art at auction.

Mark Rothko

  • Exhibitions 4

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