12 (25).09.1903, Dvinsk, Vitebsk Province (now Daugavpils, Latvia) – 25.02.1970, New York
Painter and teacher
The son of a pharmacist, Mark Rothko went to a cheder from the age of five, studying the Pentateuch and the Ancient Hebrew language. As they were fearful of pogroms, the family emigrated to the USA in 1913, settling in Portland, Oregon. Three months after the family’s arrival in America, the father died, and at the age of ten Mark was forced to go and work.
He drew and also enjoyed music, literature and the theatre. He went to Yale University in 1921 with the intention of becoming an engineer or a lawyer. However, he gave up his studies in 1923 after a chance visit to a friend at an art school.
From 1925 he studied with the outstanding American artists Arshile Gorky, Max Weber and Milton Avery. The latter had a particularly strong influence on him. Young artists gathered round Avery, and they included the future classics of American painting Adolph Gottlieb and Barnett Newman. Together with their teacher the young people travelled, drew and talked about art. The influence of Milton Avery is very noticeable in Rothko’s works of the end of the 1920s.
From 1929 to 1952 he taught painting and sculpture to children at the Central Academy of the Brooklyn Jewish Center. Rothko’s first solo exhibition was held in the Portland Art Museum in 1933, and works by the students of his Brooklyn school were shown alongside his own drawings and watercolours. He was delighted by the children’s pictures and their ability to render what they saw in an extremely simplified visual language, and he considered their work to be the foundation for the modern artist’s quest.
At his first New York exhibition, held in 1935, Rothko showed 15 pictures, mainly portraits, and now completely free of Avery’s influence. At the end of 1935 Rothko and some young artists who were close to him formed a group called The Ten, and even 15 years later this group was still considered to be radical in America. In the 1940s he was keen on Surrealism for a time, and created subtle biomorphic fantasies in the style of Klee, or his own teacher, Arshile Gorky. At the end of the 1940s he established his own version of abstract painting that was built on large coloured surfaces – sometimes dark and subdued, sometimes bright and luminescent – that adjoined one another or were laid one on another. As a rule these pictures, which are very large in size, have a powerful meditative tension. Rothko’s most monumental and impressive project was his famous inter-faith chapel in Houston (the Rothko Chapel, consecrated in 1971).
Rothko took part in the 29th Venice Biennale in 1958.
He was elected a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1968.
He suffered severe depression and the breakup of his family, drank alcohol and smoked to excess, and eventually took his own life. He died in his studios after cutting open his veins. V.G.