Mark Rothko's Paintings
Influences, Characteristics, Style of Colour Field Painting.

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Mark Rothko's Paintings (c.1938-70)


Characteristics of Rothko's Art
Early Influences
Use of Classical Myth
Early 1940s
Rothko's Mature Painting - Heroic Style
Murals and Other Late Paintings

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Important Works

No 8 (1952) Private Collection.
Probably the most emotional style
of Abstract Expressionist painting
of the New York School. Its ethereal
luminosity makes it one of the
greatest 20th century paintings
of the New York School.

White Over Red (1957)
Private Collection.

Blue and Grey (1962)
Private Collection.


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Characteristics of Rothko's Art

In 1949 Mark Rothko developed a pictorial format of a softly defined, rectangular clouds of colour, which he stacked symmetrically on top of one another (see, for instance, No 22, 1949, Museum of Modern Art, NY). Now considered to represent the Colour Field Painting tendency within American Abstract Expressionism, these rectangles of uniform width fill the canvas almost edge to edge; at the top and bottom the forms also press close to the perimeter. This is a rudimentary visual language conceived to evoke elemental emotions with maximum poignancy. Rothko regarded this format as an inexhaustible structure and he worked exclusively in this format until his suicide in 1970.

All Rothko's mature works are abstract paintings yet - unlike such contemporaries in the New York School as Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning, as well as even more kindred spirits like Clyfford Still and Barnett Newman - Rothko had no particular interest in the complexities of abstraction like texture, colour or form. He was only interested in expressing basic human emotions, such as ecstasy, tragedy, doom and so on. To achieve this, he created increasingly large canvases, saturated with colour, which were designed to engulf the spectator in the emotional feelings that he himself experienced when he painted them. In his focus on purely emotional matters - devoid of any intellectualisms or aesthetic issues - Rothko was poles apart from most abstract-minded modern artists notably the gesturalists of the New York School (including Pollock, de Kooning, Kline) and the later devotees of hard edge painting and minimal art (including Frank Stella, Kenneth Noland, Ellsworth Kelly and Robert Ryman).

The critic Dore Ashton, who met Rothko in the 1950s, portrayed him as a man disposed to causes - always ready to storm the barricades whether in the name of his leftist politics, his concept of the mission of abstract art, or his radical views on art education for children. He was a nervous man, who would get up and walk around with a cigarette between courses at a dinner party. His contemporary Robert Motherwell described him as a cauldron of seething anger that would sometimes blow up, completely irrationally.

Perhaps not surprisingly therefore, underneath the meditative reserve of his paintings and their deliberate reduction of vocabulary lies a passionate ethical and psychological fundamentalism. The very simplicity of the structure sets a moral tone that places matters of value in high relief. Rothko's work has a frightening sense of the absolute that resembles the primitive force of Old Testament justice. Sometime around 1956, the artist told Dore Ashton that he was making the most violent pictures in America. For Dominique de Menil, the patron of his last mural paintings, Rothko's works evoked "the tragic mystery of our perishable condition. The silence of God, the unbearable silence of God."

Rothko's paintings now command multi-million dollar prices. In May 2012, for instance, Rothko's work Orange, Red, Yellow (1961) sold for $86.9 million at Christie's New York. This was $14 million higher than the $72.8 million paid in 2007 for his White Center: Yellow, Pink and Lavender on Rose (1950). In 2014, his work Untitled (Purple, Orange, Brown) (1952) fetched $66.2 million at Sotheby's New York. See Most Expensive Paintings (Top 20) for details.



Early Influences

Marcus Rothkowitz (he altered the name to "Mark Rothko" around 1940) was born in 1903 in the Lithuanian town of Dvinsk. His childhood was marked by the worst period of pogroms against Jews in Russia in a generation, and for the rest of his life he harboured memories of that threatening environment. In August 1913, the 10-year-old Marcus, his older sister, and his mother left to join his father and two brothers in Portland, Oregon. Seven months later his father unexpectedly died.

The young Rothko had learned self-discipline memorizing the Talmud in the Jewish school of Dvinsk and he excelled academically in Portland. In 1921 he won a full scholarship to Yale. Although he studied drawing in high school, he gave the larger share of his energy to radical politics. At Yale, Rothko explored music, drama, literature, philosophy, and mathematics (at which he was particularly brilliant), but his radicalism still remained the focus of his intellectual life. In his second year at Yale the scholarship evaporated and after struggling along for the year he dropped out and headed for New York.

He took courses at the Art Students League and briefly did some acting. Studying under the Russian-born painter Max Weber (1881-1961) at the League, Rothko learned about Cubism, the modern classicism of Cezanne, the colour harmonies of Matisse, and the primitivism of German expressionism. The recently opened New Art Circle gallery of J. B. Neumann introduced Rothko to a good variety of German expressionist works and he began his career painting uninspired figure compositions of an expressionistic character.

The 1938 Subway Scene (National Gallery of Art, Washington DC) is the last and most accomplished work in a series that grew out of Rothko's early expressionist style. The painterly handling, the generality of the forms, the symmetry and planar frontality of the composition, and the subject itself - the sombre atmosphere of the New York subway - anticipated aspects of Rothko's mature work. This painting also shows the influence of Milton Avery's quiet lyricism (see, for instance, Avery's Interior with Figure, 1938, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden) in the static composition, the hints of rich but subdued colour harmonies, and the large flat colour areas, although the mood of frozen anxiety that hangs over the Rothko contrasts markedly with the calm sensuality of Avery's canvas.

Rothko met Avery (1885-1965) in 1928 and they established a warm, lifelong friendship. In 1929 or early in 1930 he also met Adolph Gottlieb (1903-74) and developed an intimate relationship with him that recalls the serendipitous meeting of minds between Willem de Kooning and Gorky in the late 1930s. This camaraderie peaked in the early 40s, when Gottlieb and Rothko collaborated on some important joint statements on art and aesthetics.

Rothko's history in the thirties resembled that of other 20th-century painters of his generation. He was struggling simultaneously with his basic ability to survive, his social conscience, and the stylistic influences of modern artists from Europe. He was aided by the support of an artists' group called "The Ten," which he and Gottlieb helped to organize in 1935, and by close relationships with Gottlieb, Edith Sachar (a goldsmith whom he married in 1932), and Milton and Sally Avery. It was around the Averys' vacation house near Gloucester, Massachusetts, that the Gottliebs and Rothkos spent their summers in the mid-thirties. Rothko also met the sculptor David Smith (1906-65) and painter Barnett Newman (1905-70) at that time, and in 1936 to 1937 he worked in the easel painting division of the Federal Art Project.

Political activism and a concern for social justice characterized the intellectual climate of New York in the late thirties. When John D. Rockefeller had the Mexican muralist Diego Rivera (1886-1957) forcibly removed from the scaffold at Rockefeller Center in 1934 (and then destroyed the mural) for including a portrait of Lenin in his painting, the outcry from artists created a focus for political organizing. The event catalyzed the founding of the Artists' Union in 1934 with a journal called Art Front, edited by Stuart Davis (1892-1964).

American art was finding its voice and Rothko participated in the Artists' Union, in the American Artists' Congress, and in the Federation of American Painters and Sculptors. He was always drawn to leftist politics, characterizing himself as "still an anarchist," as late as 1970. But in the interwar period the climate of ethical concern arising from the Depression, the looming spectre of fascism in Europe, and then the war gave Rothko's social and political agenda particular urgency. For Rothko, Gottlieb, Newman, and many of their contemporaries this made conventional fine art painting seem irrelevant and consequently immoral; they sought subjects that addressed the timeless ethical and ontological questions of the human condition.

Use of Classical Myth

In 1938 Rothko and Gottlieb turned to classical myths in order to find themes of sufficient magnitude and universality. He and Gottlieb explored not only Greek tragedy but also the writings of Nietzsche and Jung, and the mechanisms of the unconscious mind.

A general interest in myth prevailed from the mid-1930s through the war among the surrealists, Picasso, John Graham, and most of the nascent New York School. Sir James Frazer's classic book of mythology The Golden Bough, the works of Plato, Aeschylus, and Shakespeare, all became central texts for an examination of universal human questions. The tragic hero provided a model of key interest and for Rothko so too did works of classical music, especially Mozart's operas.

Rothko's first mythic painting, Antigone (1941, National Gallery of Art, Washington DC), has an overall grey tone, like an archaic stone frieze. The layering of the forms in registers of shallow relief reinforces this association with antiquity, while the frontality of the composition gives it an emblematic character, stressing its distance from representation. The classical profiles and curly hair of the heads, as well as the part-animal, part-human feet in the lower stratum, refer in a general way to sources in Greek sculpture and painting.

Rothko also included crucifixion imagery such as the outspread arms that separate the top two layers of forms in Antigone (extending the mythic content beyond the Greek pantheon). In some of his drawings Rothko even showed the hands of these outstretched arms pierced with nails. The Passion of Christ represented for Rothko, as it did for Newman, an embodiment of the eternal tragedy of the human condition and not a uniquely Christian subject - any more than Antigone was a uniquely Greek one. This mixture of iconographic elements illustrated Rothko's ongoing search for universal tragedy.

For Rothko, history verified the universality of ancient themes. But Rothko and Gottlieb concerned themselves above all else with content as they took pains to assert in a now famous letter to the New York Times: "It is a widely accepted notion among painters," they wrote, "that it does not matter what one paints as long as it is well painted. This is the essence of academic art. There is no such thing as good painting about nothing."

Early 1940s

In retrospect the letter to the New York Times also anticipated the development of Rothko's mature style. In it he declared that he favoured the simple expression of the complex thought; that he preferred large canvases for their impact; that he wanted to reassert the importance of the picture plane, and flat forms because they destroyed illusion and revealed truth. If this proclamation sounds like Barnett Newman's art theory of the forties, that is not accidental. Newman worked closely with Gottlieb and Rothko on it, and in thanks for his publicly unacknowledged, but obviously substantial help, each artist gave Newman a painting in 1943.

In the theory of surrealism Rothko was drawn to the mechanisms of the unconscious mind. He had experimented with automatic drawing (please see Automatism in Art) as early as 1938 and taken an interest in the Oedipus myth. The careful preparatory drawings for his mythic pictures indicate that he did not conceive them in an automatist manner, but from 1944 through 1946 he did experiment with automatism to produce loose, linear doodles that dominate the foregrounds of his compositions. He painted the backgrounds of these works in luminous, "allover" washes of colour, often dividing them into wide horizontal bands. In several canvases of 1945 he also began to increase the scale. The paintings of this three-year period are uneven in quality, despite notable successes like his watercolour Baptismal Scene (1945, Whitney Museum of American Art), but they provided a crucial step towards Rothko's "multiforms" of 1947 to 1949 (see, for instance, Untitled, 1949, Pace Wildenstein Gallery, New York), where the doodles melted into soft colour forms and then gradually coalesced, in 1949, into the hazily defined colour blocks of Rothko's mature style (like Number 22, 1949, MOMA, New York).

The art critics at Rothko's January 1945 show at the Art of This Century Gallery, owned by Peggy Guggenheim (1898-1979), immediately saw the connection to surrealism, but also noted that Rothko's work was at the same time rather different: he did not use orthodox surrealist symbols. During the early forties Rothko and a number of other New York painters had shifted their focus past that continuum stressed by Freud and the surrealists toward the universal orders of myth discussed by Jung. The deliberate planning of structure in Rothko's "automatist" works of 1944 to 1946, as testified to by the numerous studies on paper for them, underscores this difference in emphasis.

Clyfford Still (1904-1980), whom Rothko admired, referred disparagingly to the automatists as "scribblers"; he rejected surrealism's link to the particularities of the individual psyche and the historical moment. Instead Still sought to embody the sublime and the absolute independence of the individual by rejecting all the conventions of painting; his crusty application, tenebrous palette, and his flat, anti-illusionistic forms deliberately opposed traditions of sophisticated paint handling, colouristic harmony, and compositional structure.

Rothko met Still on a trip to California in 1943. Two years later Still began to show up occasionally in New York and East Hampton, and in the summer of 1947 he taught with Rothko at the California School of the Arts in San Francisco. During 1946 - the high point of their relationship - Rothko's work started to exhibit the impact of Still's compositional ideas. Rothko's automatist drawing dissolved into indistinctly defined colour forms, moving among one another at a glacial pace over a flat plane. This shift in style to a more purified colour abstraction gave way between 1947 and 1949 to larger shapes, generally more geometric in character, and then an increasingly regular, horizontal layering of forms in 1949.

Between 1947 and 1950 Rothko made few sketches. He worked out his ideas directly on the canvas, in thin washes of colour that seem to dematerialize into the weave of the fabric. This identity of the paint with the surface, as well as the increasingly simplified order of the compositions, creates a meditative mood, stressing immateriality and universality while playing down the artist's presence, as expressed in the autographic gesture.

Rothko's own watercolour painting of the mid-forties influenced the thin handling of his oils after 1945, as did the work of Joan Miro (1893-1983), who thinned his paint into washes to heighten their ethereal, poetic quality. Matisse's The Red Studio, which went on permanent display in February 1949 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, also influenced Rothko's approach. The Red Studio consists of a delicately traced map of insubstantial objects and architecture drawn over a large, flat, evenly washed expanse of red canvas. Rothko spent many hours in front of this composition.


Rothko's Mature Painting - Heroic Style

During 1949 Rothko finally arrived at a style that seemed to promise the elimination of all obstacles between the painting and the spectator - including memory, history, and geometry. Rothko rejected memory in so far as it concerned forms that evoke an already known content, thus narrowing the experience and trivializing the universality of his painting. History, including identifiable myths like that of Antigone, also deflects the viewer's attention from a confrontation with the unknown, which was central to Rothko's vision by the late forties. Geometry refers to the ubiquitous geometric abstraction and other styles that derived from formal notions rather than from a compelling content.

In order to achieve "the simple expression of the complex thought" as Rothko had expressed it in his 1943 letter to the New York Times, he relied on the large scale of the colour blocks in the works of 1949 and after to create an overpowering material presence; yet it was the presence of something undefinable. Children's art may have been instrumental in Rothko's formulation. He taught art to children at the Center Academy of the Brooklyn Jewish Center from 1929 until 1952 and took a keen interest in their ideas. In a notebook from the late thirties Rothko observed that scale and space had an important effect on how children saw paintings. In his view, his large scale works thus achieved a vivid sense of presence. De Kooning's large Women of the early 1950s also fill the composition and create a powerful presence like Rothko's massive rectangular colour clouds. However, the fact that de Kooning's work is figurative and his brushwork prominent gives his paintings a more earthbound focus. It is interesting that in 1951 Jackson Pollock also reintroduced figurative elements, derived from the mythic images of his work of the early forties; and David Smith built several works of the 1950s and 60s using geometric parts, arranged around a figurative structure. For Newman no remnant of the figure is conceivable, because his work originated in a metaphysical thought, a pure abstract idea attained through the eidetic image (the ideograph) and concepts of placement in space. (Note: some experts think that Rothko's search for the universal content of human experience through an individual exploration of grand themes, allows for the theoretical possibility of a lingering figurative content.)

The stratification in Rothko's paintings of the late thirties and early forties into bands of symbols paved the way for his bands of rectangular colour blocks. This suggests not only a formal predisposition for such shapes but that, through association, the mythic content may still persevere indirectly in the abstract work. Rothko's interest in the entombment and other aspects of the Passion of Christ also lingers in these later works. The art historian Anna Chave has suggested that the horizontal band of red with incised lines across the centre of Number 22 (1949) is literally derived from earlier depictions of horizontal dead figures lying across the laps of maternal figures - as in the many medieval and Renaissance paintings of scenes from the Passion of Christ, first reinterpreted by Rothko in works such as his Entombment (1946, Private Collection).

Indeed, to the extent that a "clear preoccupation with death," as he phrased it, permeated his work and that he believed that "all art deals with intimations of mortality," Rothko's concrete art continues to carry a spiritual link to entombment and pieta themes as well as to Greek tragedy. His luminous colour structures are something genuinely new in the history of art, although much Christian art of the Medieval period shares the iconic symmetry that conveys an elemental religious feeling in his work. The mysteriously hidden source of his glowing light heightens this feeling; the same effect exists in the works of Rembrandt and Fra Angelico, whose handling of light he greatly admired. Like Pollock, Rothko also saw how the richness of colour in the late lily-studies of Claude Monet, was more important than the subject matter being represented.

Rothko looked shrewdly at work in museums and books to glean visual ideas, he read philosophy and literature, and he may even have taken formal inspiration from music. For example, the composer Edgard Varese (whose work Rothko knew) would separate a single timbre or tone in his most celebrated compositions, playing it off against various orchestrations and rhythms to bring out the nuances of its individuality. This has a parallel in Rothko's isolated clouds of individual hues. Rothko's painting is an art of perpetual and meticulous refinement. It is directly sensual and relies on great subtlety and variety in the colour, application, and even the structure of the forms. Within his limited format, Rothko developed a remarkably wide emotional range, from exuberance to contemplation and foreboding.

Murals and Other Late Paintings

By the late 1950s the public had begun to appreciate the originality and subtlety of Rothko's work, and his reputation grew considerably. In 1958 Philip Johnson commissioned him to paint a monumental mural for the Four Seasons Restaurant in the new Seagram Building. This was Rothko's first mural commission and his first series. The idea of painting a permanent cycle of murals for a specific space appealed enormously to Rothko because it meant that he could finally have control over the way a group of canvases were viewed.

In the spring of 1959 Rothko set up a studio on the Bowery to paint the commission, and over the next two years he made three sets of murals. The first group - which he immediately either dispersed or destroyed - were in his usual format of stacked rectangles. Then he broke away and used open rectangles. He also abandoned this second set of murals; one can only speculate as to the reasons. He completed the third and final sequence in a horizontal format of rectangles with open centers. But instead of delivering the paintings he returned the money and a decade later gave them to the Tate Gallery in London, where they were installed precisely according to his wishes. There may be some truth in the belief, which he evidently encouraged, that he rejected the Seagram commission because he found it distasteful that the restaurant catered to the rich, but the large scale of the room in relation to the murals and the lack of a meditative mood in the busy restaurant seem more likely as the precipitating causes.

Two years later the Nobel Prize-winning economist Wassily Leontief asked Rothko to execute a mural for the private dining-room of Harvard's prestigious Society of Fellows, which Leontief chaired. Rothko began the Harvard murals in December 1961 and completed them within a year. These murals loomed over the relatively small room, and the reddish backgrounds with dark forms over them created an air of sombre silence. The orange rectangles in the left panel have a mysterious iridescence. The murals commanded the space quietly, even passively at first, and set a contemplative tone. But below the surface stillness they seem to vibrate with anxiety and elemental force.

The scale of the Harvard murals in relation to the room follows from a development, initiated by Rothko around 1950, toward larger, more monumental pictures. Like Newman, Rothko wanted his paintings to be seen from close up, to fill the environment and engulf the spectator. His concern with controlling the viewer's position in relation to the work had long been an issue; indeed he had been generally unwilling to participate in group shows for some time because he could not control the space around his work.

A religious metaphor resurfaces persistently in connection with Rothko's paintings, particular when seen in groups. He himself stated that "the people who weep before my pictures are having the same religious experience I had when I painted them." The Harvard murals create the atmosphere of a cathedral; and Rothko conceived his last mural commission for a Catholic chapel in Houston. In addition the texts and art of early Christianity attracted Rothko because they embodied a simplicity of faith. Typically, early religious paintings seem to use the same symmetry, lack of motion, shallow depth, and richness of surface to evoke meditation on a spiritual realm that transcends earthly thoughts. One may find oneself transported by staring into the rich nuances of shadow and hue in the deep ultramarine robes of a medieval Madonna and Child, just as one can in Rothko's subtle oscillating fields of colour. But Rothko cleared away all reverberations of objects to create a grand, tragic silence.

In the late spring of 1964 Rothko received the commission from John and Dominique de Menil to paint a set of murals for an octagonal chapel in Houston. Here he had even greater control over the setting for the paintings than at Harvard. Inscriptions of the Stations of the Cross were planned for the outside walls of the chapel, and this set the tone for Rothko's concept of the murals. In the winter of 1964 he laid a parachute over the skylight of his studio to create a sacral light. Then he began work on the paintings, using a single, nearly black rectangle on a background of dark maroon. The purplish red of the murals, which deepened by the time he finished them to an almost black on black palette, was chosen so as to bring his paintings to their maximum poignancy. Working incessantly, he completed the mural cycle in 1967, though the installation didn't take place until February 1971, a year after his death.

By the 1960s Rothko had achieved financial security and a prodigious reputation. Presidents Kennedy and Johnson invited him to their inauguration festivities and to dinner at the White House. In 1961 the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) gave him a major retrospective; and in the fall of 1963 the prestigious Marlborough Gallery took him on. Still he felt trapped and restless. In the spring of 1967 he sunk into a deep melancholy and a year later he had an aneurism of the aorta. His mood was black. During his last years he did many brilliantly coloured works, though the sombre tone of the Houston murals prevailed, and after his heart attack in 1968 he started painting predominantly with acrylic on paper. In addition, Rothko's second marriage and emotional life steadily deteriorated during this period and finally on February 25, 1970 he took his own life.

The above article includes material from the book "Art Since 1940" (By Jonathan Fineberg; Laurence King Publishing, 2000) an indispensible reference work for all students of 20th century visual art. We gratefully acknowledge the use of this material.


• For biographies of other modernists of the New York School, see: Famous Painters.
• For more details of Abstract Expressionism, see: Homepage.

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