According to many of his contemporaries, Mark Rothko was a genius. He was an innovator who made giant canvases that absorbed the spectator, creating consummating experiences the artist said were meant to be spiritual and akin to religious ecstasy.
But when the swinging sixties came along, Rothko and his deeply intellectual paintings were brushed under the carpet. Pop art quickly became a thing, and suddenly Rothko’s foreboding colour fields seemed outdated and old fashioned in the wake of the hip counterculture movement.
But the intervening years have been kind to the tragic artist who committed suicide when he was 66, and in the 21st century we see him as the great visionary that he was. And if you’re looking to get clued-up on what Rothko and his sparse yet monumental blocks of colour were all about, let’s take a look at 7 things you need to know about Mark Rothko and his art.
Rothko Wasn’t A Colorist
At first sight, Rothko looks like a colourist. After all, Rothko eventually rejected lines altogether and stuck to just abstract colours to convey what he was trying to say. Yet remarkably enough Rothko denied that he was a colourist and grew angry whenever someone accused him of being one.
To Rothko, colour was just a vehicle that allowed him to express himself. He wanted to provoke an emotional reaction in the viewer, and if colour was what he had to use, then he would use it; yet he despised it whenever a critic or observer would discuss the relationships of the colours in his paintings.
“If you are only moved by colour relationships, you are missing the point.”
Rothko’s Career Can Be Divided Into Four Periods
Rothko’s four periods began with his Realist years, from 1924 – 1940, before moving onto the Surrealist years, which lasted from 1940 until 1946. Then came his Transitional years, from 1946 – 1949, before finally his Classical years, which lasted from 1949 until his death in 1970.
Rothko was never a particularly great technical painter, once saying there is a difference between pure painterly technique and technique that is related to the spirit. Even in his Realist years, his technique was linked to his spirit, as crude strips of figures and deformed perspectives make up his paintings. It was Realism in Rothko’s eyes only.
His Classical years are what most of us know him for best; huge canvases consisting of one or two blocks of colour which the viewer is invited to immerse themselves in.
Rothko Wasn’t Driven By Money
Rothko was once accused by his contemporary Clyfford Still – a staunch abstractionist – of “selling out” and for being in art only for the money. Still was so incensed by the direction he thought his buddy was taking that he asked for all the paintings he had given to him to be returned. Once returned, the pair never spoke again.
But Rothko was entirely devoted to his art, and was one of the great art theorists and intellectuals who was constantly striving for meaning and expression. In 1958, he was offered the chance to hang a few works in the prestigious Four Seasons restaurant in New York in a commission that would have seen his work viewed by all the serious money-makers of the time.
But after dining there one evening with his wife, he realised that it was a middle-class establishment populated by diners who wouldn’t have a clue what his art was trying to say. Incensed, he cancelled the contract and refunded any advance payment.
As a side note, Rothko’s paintings now sell for millions and millions of dollars.
Rothko Later Became Depressed, Which Was Reflected In His Art
Although Rothko claimed that “tragedy is the only source book for art” early on in his career, he continued to paint using bright, vibrant colours that offered the viewer hope.
It was only until the late fifties that his paintings began to reflect his ever darkening mood. Gripped by depression, Rothko’s art became wracked with despair, with Untitled 1969, painted just a year before his suicide, his gloomiest ever.
Rothko Was A Fierce Intellectual
And here is the evidence:
“To us art is an adventure into an unknown world, which can be explored only by those willing to take the risk.”
“We favour the simple expression of the complex thought. We are for the large shape because it has the impact of the unequivocal. We wish to reassert the picture plane. We are for flat forms because they destroy illusion and reveal truth.”
“Maybe you have noticed two characteristics exist in my paintings; either their surfaces are expansive and push outward in all directions, or their surfaces contract and rush inward in all directions. Between these two poles you can find everything I want to say.”
Rothko Was A Big Fan Of Child Art
Throughout the 1930’s, Rothko taught art to children and for his first ever exhibition he invited his students to exhibit their work alongside his.
Recognising the important of what children can teach us about art, Rothko believed that children have an inborn feel for form and that they should be encouraged from an early age to express themselves as freely as possible, without any academic restraints.
“The result (of a work of art) is a constant creative activity in which the child creates an entire child-like cosmology, which expresses the infinitely varied and exciting world of a child’s fancies and experiences.”
Rothko felt that we could learn a lot from children when it comes to creating art, including their simple understanding of the world, as well as their spontaneity and their directness.