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Mr. Burgher's Art Facts

Mark Rothko

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Mark Rothko: September 25,1903-February 25,1970...Russia/United States

"It is a widely accepted notion among painters that it does not matter what one paints as long as it is well painted. This is the essence of academicism. There is no such thing as good painting about nothing."
~Mark Rothko

One of the great color field painters was Mark Rothko. Actually, he was born Marcus Rothkowitz from Dvinsk, Russia (in modern day Daugavpils, Latvia). He was born to a Jewish pharmacist, Jacob. Jews living in Russia became the scapegoats for their hard times. Many Jews lived in fear. As his oldest sons reached the age where they could be drafted into the Czarist Army, Jacob and his three sons (including seven year old Mark) moved to the United States. By August of 1913, the family, including Mark’s mother Anna and his older sister Sonia were living in Portland, Oregon. Soon, Jacob became ill and when Mark was only eleven years old, his father died of colon cancer. Through it all he stayed active in school and also helped work to support the family. He was considering going into drama after high school, but chose to take an academic scholarship to attend Yale University to study psychology and philosophy. Over the years, he had grown into a deep thinking, talkative, hot tempered, and a bit of a know-it-all kind of guy. After two years, his scholarship was pulled and he dropped out of Yale and enrolled at the New York School of Design. Between Portland and New York, he also took some acting classes as well as art classes from Arshile Gorky, Max Weber and Milton Avery at the Art Students League. His first job as an artist was teaching at the Jewish Center in Brooklyn. The kids loved him there. Soon he was offered a solo exhibition at the Contemporary Arts Gallery in New York. "No galleries, no money, no critics. But a vision to gain and nothing to loose." He was exhibiting his work but made very few sales. During the Great Depression, he earned jobs as an easel painter through the Federal Art Project, a federal work program that helped support artists at that time. Also during this time he had met Edith Sachar, a sculptor and jewelry designer. They were married on November 12, 1932. He had lived in the United States long enough by February 21, 1938 he was considered a naturalized American citizen and thus, begins to sign his works as "Mark Rothko".

As the United States entered World War 2, Rothko was not allowed to serve in the military due to short-sightedness (a fact that he was always embarrassed about). At this time American art was very popular and he desperately wanted to be a part of that new culture. Although driven, his marriage was failing and would end in divorce in 1944. Before his divorce was final, he had met and began to "fall for" Mary "Mell" Beistle, a young illustrator. They were married on March 31, 1945 in Linden, New Jersey and the couple had two children (Kate and Christopher). He was also struggling to develop an art style he enjoyed. He was influenced by the dada and surrealists, but that wasn’t really him. Pablo Picasso was widely popular, but he didn’t want to walk in his shadow as a Cubist. He wanted to make a visual drama with color. The idea of art being color was developed after seeing Henri Matisse’s The Red Studio. Almost like a Friedrich Nietzsche philosophy written by William Shakespeare and acted out by mythological beasts and symbols. By 1947, he abandons all figurative subjects in his artworks and stopped titling art (now using a numbering system). "It was with the utmost reluctance that I found the figure could not serve my purposes. But a time came when none of us could use the figure without mutilating it." The work the Rothko was creating was taking on his identifiable patchwork of color in place of any form of figuration. He was now focused on the abstract and the artwork now had a physical emphasis on color and gravity, although the work is not about either one. "I’m not an abstractionist. I’m not interested in the relationship of color or form or anything else. I’m interested only in expressing basic human emotions: tragedy, ecstasy, doom, and so on." The work was a conscious effort to be relaxed and free but not to the point of becoming haphazard and incoherent. Relaxed and free was not simple for the stiff artist who preferred to wear formal jackets and ties and sincerely felt that people needed limits. So the color he was using also needed to be properly packaged so that its power would more powerful to its viewer. The rough blocks of color become the trademark of his work.

The process of physically painting was only the first step in making the artwork. The interactions of the work with people was truly the most important step. He was extremely interested in the public opinion of his art. The eye of the public truly made the art a success or crap. How close should one stand to a Rothko? Eighteen inches. The new works were intended to be seen in small room, so the first impression is "in" the art. "And last, it may be worthwhile trying to hang something beyond the partial wall because some of the pictures do very well in a confined space…I also hang the largest pictures so that they must be first encountered at close quarters, so that the first experience is to be within the picture." How one saw the work was crucial to the success of the artwork. This experience had to have a powerful first impression. He was known to sneak into galleries to reorganize, often lowering the paintings, fixing the lighting, and reworking the shows to his feeling of perfection. If perfection was not achieved he threw a fit, taking art off the wall and walking out with it. The environment was as much a part of the art as the art itself. His biggest fear, like a parent for their child, was that people would see his creation in a bad light. The art was to emit rather than absorb light. He literally cried over sold works. But his meticulous nature, his passion, his love for every artwork seemed to show through. His new style came with financial success. He loved that he could express himself as he wished.

When some students look at Rothko’s art, they often ask, "How is this not Geometric Abstraction? Look at it: it all squares and rectangles." This is a close observation, but those students haven’t looked long enough. Look for example at Untitled, 1955. We see zones of lavender and ultramarine, not blocks. They are glowing patches of color without a boarder. Collectors paid for this quality. Between 1954 and 1957, his sale prices tripled and all the major collectors wanted Rothkos in their collection.

Untitled, 1955

1955. Oil on canvas. 205 x 193 cm. Kate Rothko Collection.

One of his last large works was his 1964 work titled, Untitled (Black, Red over Black on Red). Rothko did not make art to create beauty. He hated that comparison to his art. His art was about human emotion. Tragedy is an internal part of the work that he tries to express within many works. He, as learned from the personal observations of Rembrandt van Rijn how to balance black into his paintings. Black will often suck the light out of the work, but he uses it as a tool to direct a viewers focus into the composition. Good art is not about money, however, students are often shocked with the price of great art by great artists. His art works have been sold for well over $17 million.  

Untitled (Black, Red over Black on Red)

1964. Oil on canvas. 205 x 193 cm. Pompidou Center, Paris, France.

Rothko was always interested in creating a total art environment. He was commissioned to create a set of paintings for the Four Seasons restaurant in the new Seagram Building in Manhattan. The works were made and hung, in his typical style, he was not pleased with the look, so he rejected the two-million dollars to sell the works (the works were reinstalled in the Tate Modern in London). He still had the dream to make the environment, but just a background to eat in. His friend Werner Haftmann, an art historian, came to visit. One thing lead to another, and Rothko asked him to fund the building of a chapel of Expiation for the Holocaust and in return he offered to make art for it, at no cost. He couldn’t fund the project. But the word spread and in 1964 he was approached by the modern art collectors, Dominique and John de Menil, to have a custom built chapel. Rothko had created a group of fourteen paintings: seven canvases with hard-edged black rectangles on maroon ground and seven purple tonal paintings, all in a two year period of time. The works were created in his Manhattan studio and shipped to the chapel in Houston, Texas. Rothko never saw the completed chapel. It joined the list of the National Register of Historic Places in 2001, and has also been listed as one of the most Peaceful and Powerful Destinations by National Geographic in 2009 and one of the ten greatest places to experience art by GQ magazine in 2010.

Rothko Chapel 

1971. Houston, Texas, USA.

Rothko was drinking far too much alcohol and chain smoking cigarettes. He had been developing heart, lung and other physical problems for some time. He had an aortic aneurysm in 1968 than nearly killed him. He was advised to only paint small works until he was well. He was depressed by that so he drank more. This upset his wife so the marrage fell apart. Soon, the great artist felt forgotten by the art community. Feeling even more depressed, Rothko moves into his studio, leaving his family behind. Nine of his mural paintings were being pulled from the crates at a show at the famed Tate Modern in London, England. At the same time, his body was being discovered in his Manhattan studio. Rothko has slit his wrists due to his depression. Rothko left 798 paintings and many sketches and drawings for the executors of his estate to sell. Dazzled by dollars in their eyes, the men got greedy and attempted to sell the works for their own personal gains. Rothko’s daughter, Kate Rothko, sued them for the conspiracy and sited that their sales were in conflict of interests. A court agreed with her and the executors were heavily fined. A new Mark Rothko Foundation was established in 1979 and his art was divided between the artist's two children and the Foundation. Later, the Foundation's share was distributed to nineteen museums around the world.

Mr. Mike Burgher * PO Box 247 * Dallas Center, Iowa. 50063