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!).
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
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
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:
White Center, oil on canvas by Mark Rothko, 1950
Art à la Rothko:
5. His works are pricey AF
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…