On February 25, 1970, Mark Rothko, Abstract Expressionist painter, died. As one of the most influential and definitive painters in this movement, he was known for his massive paintings featuring large rectangles of color which are meant to evoke emotion.
Born in Russia in 1903, Rothko immigrated to Portland, Oregon with his parents at the age of 10. A bright student who excelled in school, Rothko attended Yale University on scholarship after graduating early from high school, but thought the school to be too bourgeois and dropped out after his sophomore year. Little did he know he would receive an honorary degree from the school 46 years later.
Rothko moved his life to New York City in the early 1920s, and was inspired to take on artistic endeavors after viewing students sketching a model at the Art Students League of New York. He studied art briefly at both the New York School of Design and the Art Students League before he started teaching children at the Center Academy of the Brooklyn Jewish Center.
For his first public exhibit, Rothko returned to the West Coast, and had a one-man show featuring his work which he lined with the work of his students from Center Academy. Surrounded by other great modern artists of the time, he formed a group with some of them called, “The Ten,” and showed with them in New York City in the 1930s. His style up to this point had been more realistic, painting scenes urban life, but after being inspired by surrealists like Joan Miro, it began to evolve into something biomorphic and otherworldly.
“Art is an adventure into an unknown world,” Rothko and fellow artist Adolph Gottlieb wrote in their artistic manifesto in 1943. “We favor the simple expression of the complex thought.” Rothko, Gottlieb, and other artists like Jackson Pollock and Willem de Koonig became known as the Abstract Expressionists. Along with this manifesto came the work Rothko is now known for. He began producing his large color field paintings at this time. He soak-stained canvases to create abstract colorful cloud-like rectangles. These highly expressive and emotional pieces with no reference to the material world are what defined Abstract Expressionist paintings.
His work became so abstract that Rothko stopped giving his pieces descriptive names and chose to simply number each of his pieces. By the 1960s, his art took a dark turn. He used less bright expressive colors and began painting in mostly maroon, black, and brown. Rothko was commissioned to do several large pieces at this time, but left some unfinished. By the late ’60s, he was diagnosed with heart problems and it seemed that the emotion he expressed in his dark paintings was something that he was feeling on the inside as well. After battling with depression for some time, Rothko took his own life in his studio on February 25, 1970.
He produced over 800 works in his lifetime, most of which were subject to legal battles over ownership after his death. His unpublished manuscript was edited by his son after his death and was published in 2006. As one of the leading forces in modern and abstract art, his approach and technique has effected the development of modern art for decades.