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25 September 2020

Five Fascinating Facts about Mark Rothko

Anna Harvey

Despite his turbulent start in life, Rothko would become one of the most significant painiters of the post-war period. His blatant refusal to mimic nature and instead reduce matter to planes of vibrant colour, paved the way to monochrome painting.

Here are five things you should definitely know about Mark Rothko.

1. 'Mark Rothko' saved him from antisemitism 

Growing up in a lower-middle class household, Markus Rothkowitz spent most of his childhood living in fear. The artist’s Jewish heritage left him a target in his Latvian hometown (then part of the Russian Empire) due to flagrant antisemitism, to the extent that his father shunned religion in favour of a secular upbringing.

The family emigrated to the United States in late 1913 to avoid being drafted into the Imperial Russian Army, and so that Rothko could learn his fourth language (since Yiddish, Russian and Hebrew were obviously not enough!).



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Mark Rothko - Yorktown Heights, 1949

In 1938, the artist legally changed his name to a more anglicised moniker, Mark Rothko, due to increasing Nazi influence and sweeping discrimination across the Western world. Cruelty and forced deportations became a familiar sight, which in turn would provide a catalyst for Rothko’s quest to transcend political confines in his art.

2. Nihilism guided his paintbrush 

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Rothko in front of painting

As a light bedtime read, Rothko would devour Friedrich Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy, seeking inspiration from Nietzsche’s nihilistic notes. The theory discusses mythology’s role in releasing humanity from the suffocating mundanity of our little human lives.

In modern terms it’s like rewatching Friends for the 800th time during quarantine until your brain cells just pack up and move on.

Rothko, inspired by this idea of perpetual ennui for mere mortals, sought to not only convey it in his art, but to cure it.

He used archaic symbols to bridge the gap between antiquity and modern existence. Antiquity was, according to the artist, the only way of truly encapsulating and bettering contemporary human life and replenishing our innate emotional void. Will probably stick to Netflix, but thanks anyway, Mark.

3. He hated pop art

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Jasper Johns - Flag

When pop art, well, popped into existence in the 1940s, Rothko was quick to denounce it. Contrary to popular belief, Rothko’s aversion to the likes of Warhol, Haring and most prominently Jasper Johns’ Flag, was not due to jealousy, but rather a genuine concern for the development of art. A bit like your annoying hipster friend that suddenly refutes everything remotely mainstream, Rothko claimed pop art was a backwards step in the quest for profundity in art as a political movement. 



4. He made a recipe for art

Put down that banana bread recipe and listen up, because we’ve got everything you need to make a multi-million dollar painting:



undefinedWhite Center, oil on canvas by Mark Rothko, 1950

Art à la Rothko:

  1. There must be a clear preoccupation with death, [peppered with] intimations of mortality [and gently salted with] tragic art, romantic art etc. 
  2. Sensuality: Our basis of being concrete about the world, it is a lustful relationship to things that exist.
  3. Tension: Either conflict or curbed desire.
  4. Irony: This is a modern ingredient (fancy!); the self-effacement and examination by which a man for an instant can go on to something else.
  5. Wit and play ... for the human element.
  6. The ephemeral and chance ... also for the human element.
  7. Hope: [but ONLY] 10% to make the tragic concept more endurable.

5. His works are pricey AF

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Mark Rothko, Orange, Red, Yellow

In 2007, he sold a painting for a reasonable $72.8 million. In 2012, his painting Orange, Red, Yellow sold for a cool $86 million at Christie’s. Then, in 2018, he pocketed another $35.7 million. Must be all that curbed desire…


...not got $72.8 million to spare? Well, lucky for you we have a myriad of Rothko-inspired paintings (completed with just 10% of hope of course) that won’t break the bank.

Get Inspired by Mark Rothko!

Color field famous artist large-scale Mark Rothko