top of page

The Tragic Color Fields Of Mark Rothko

Updated: Nov 21, 2023

Markus Yakovlevich Rothkowitz was a Latvian American abstract painter. Rothko is associated with the American Abstract Expressionist movement that evolved during World War II. Rothko emigrated from Russia with his family to Portland, Oregon, though his father's death led him back to religion, Rothko's Marxist and violently anti-religious father had a great influence on Rothko's artistic career.

Rothko learned his fourth language, English, and became an active member of the Jewish community center. Rothko's move to New York landed him in a fertile artistic atmosphere. vanguard painters regularly exhibited in New York galleries, and the city's museums were a resource for an emerging artist's knowledge and skills.

Rothko's artistic career...

Rothko's artistic career began when he enrolled in the Parsons the New School for Design, where one of his instructors was "the overcharged with supervision" Arshile Gorky. Rothko began to view art as a tool of emotional and religious expression. In 1928, with a group of other young artists, Rothko exhibited works at the Opportunity Gallery. His paintings were generally accepted among critics.

As a source of income, in 1929 Rothko began a career of instructing schoolchildren in drawing, painting, and clay sculpture at the Center Academy of the Brooklyn Jewish Center. During the early 1930s, Rothko was part of a group of young artists surrounding the painter, Milton Avery. Avery gave Rothko the idea that the life of a professional artist was a possibility.

In late 1935, Returning to New York, Rothko had his first East Coast one-person show at the Contemporary Arts Gallery. He showed fifteen oil paintings, mostly portraits, along with some aquarelles and drawings.

Rothko's transitional decade was influenced by World War II and Friedrich Nietzsche's "The Birth of Tragedy" philosophy. Rothko believed modern man's spiritual emptiness resulted partly from a lack of mythology. Rothko believed his art would fill the modern man's spiritual starvation.

Light Red Over Black 1957 Mark Rothko
Light Red Over Black 1957 Mark Rothko

Rothko's remarkable Multiforms "color-field paintings."

Between 1947 and 1949, Rothko created what art critics have termed his transitional "multiform" paintings. The "multiforms" brought Rothko to a realization of his signature style of color fields, which he continued to produce for the rest of his life.

Rothko's most remarkable color-field painting style depicts irregular and rectangular regions of color. Rothko painted canvases with regions of pure color which he further abstracted into rectangular color forms. Rothko's color-field paintings attempted to handle modern man's spiritual requirements.

In Rothko's mature period (1951-1970), he consistently painted rectangular regions of color, intended to elicit an emotional response from the viewer. Rothko believed his titles limited the larger aims of his paintings.

To allow the viewer's interpretation, Rothko stopped naming and framing his paintings, referring to them only by numbers. Rothko wrote articles for two new art publications, Tiger's Eye and Possibilities. Using the forums as an opportunity to discuss in detail his own work and philosophy of art.

Rothko favored large canvases, in Rothko's words, to make the viewer feel "enveloped within" the painting, Rothko even went so far as to recommend that viewers position themselves as little as eighteen inches away from the canvas, so that they might experience a sense of intimacy, as well as awe.

For some critics, the large size was an attempt to make up for a lack of substance. Many of the early "multiforms" are composed of bright, vibrant colors, particularly reds, and yellows, expressing energy and ecstasy, a decade after the completion of the first "multiforms", Rothko began to employ dark blues and greens, this shift in colors was representative of the growing darkness within Rothko's personal life.

Rothko 1960s... "Black on Grays"

During the late 1960s, Rothko painted a series known as the "Black on Grays", using black and grey-toned color fields. These canvases have been associated with his depression and suicide and have been interpreted as "pictorial suicide notes".

Rothko adopted flat forms because they destroy illusion and reveal the truth. Rothko favored the simple expression of complex thought. Generally, abstract expressionists' spiritual aims exceeded their artistic pathways.

As Rothko achieved success, he became increasingly protective of his works, turning down several potentially important sales and exhibition opportunities.

Rothko committed suicide on February 25, 1970, Rothko was found lying dead on the kitchen floor in front of the sink, covered in blood.

Rothko had overdosed on barbiturates and cut an artery in his right arm with a razor blade. Although Rothko lived modestly for much of his life, the resale value of his paintings grew tremendously in the decades following his suicide. In 2021, one of Rothko's art pieces sold at auction for $82.5 million.

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page