“There is no such thing as good painting about nothing” – Mark Rothko

Markus Yakovlevich Rothkowitz, or Mark Rothko, was an American abstract artist known for his ‘color field paintings, representing large areas of rich colors. Born in a highly educated family that had a modest income, Rothko’s early childhood did not point to any of his interest in art, rather, he was passionate about political issues and wished to become a labor union organizer. 

Rothko also struggled to gain income and wandered from place to place, and on one such occasion, when he visited the ‘Art Students’ League of New York’, his life as an artist began. He then took courses on art and design.

Life of an Artist Mark Rothko - Sheet1
Mark Rothko ©www.wsj.com – The Wall Street Journal

Inspirations | Mark Rothko


Right from the beginning of his life as an artist, influenced by a cubist artist Max Weber, he began to view art as a medium of emotional and religious expression. While he exhibited his artworks in various art galleries, he met many artists along the way. To name a few were expressionist artists Paul Klee, Milton Avery, Adolph Gottlieb, Barnett Newman, and many others who inspired Rothko. 

He then began painting urban scenes, dark and moody expressionist interiors, aquarelles, and paintings depicting rich form and color, inspired by Avery’s abstract nature paintings. During this time, he used oil paints to show the richness of colors in his paintings.

Life of an Artist Mark Rothko - Sheet2
Street Scene, 1937, Expressionism ©www.wikiart.org


In his ‘transitional’ years, Rothko’s interest in form, space, and color grew beyond his expression in nature and urban scenes. During this time, the effects of World War II provoked him to seek art that would produce a social impact to be able to exceed the limits of the current history to transcendence. His studies on dramatic themes of myth transformed his art forms into mythological symbols as images depicting spiritual consciousness. 

During this time, he was greatly influenced by Friedrich Nietzsche, a German philosopher and writer, who stated that how Greek tragedy compensated man’s terrors of mortal life. After that, Rothko aimed to assist in man’s spiritual and mythological requirementsAt the same time, he was influenced by Surrealism, Cubism, and Abstract art. 

But no sooner did he shift from surrealism, he got influenced by another artistClyfford Still, whose paintings led Mark Rothko to develop his signature style in the future.

Life of an Artist Mark Rothko - Sheet3
Hierarchical Birds, 1942 ©www.mark-rothko.org

Development Of His Own Philosophies And Style

Multiforms (1951-1970)

Rothko painted large areas of blocks of various colors, which he described as “unconscious symbolism that possessed their own life force”, and “unknown adventures in an unknown space”.

Rothko’s ‘Multiforms’ as well as other paintings, were interpreted by general people as ‘abstract art’. While ‘abstractionism‘ was not his purpose of creating art, he sensed that the people misunderstood his ‘art’ as a fashion or a decor. 

For him, his paintings were a means to take human emotions – tragedy, ecstasy, doom, and so on, to a spiritual level. According to him, when the viewers cried in front of his paintings, they were experiencing the same religious experiences that he himself experienced while painting. It was a form of communication for himthe people with their spiritual world.

Life of an Artist Mark Rothko - Sheet4
Orange, Red, Yellow, 1961 ©www.mark-rothko.org

Colors and mediums | Mark Rothko

Mark Rothko painted the pictures in bright reds, yellows, oranges, expressing energy and ecstasy, subtly transforming to deep reds, mauves, greens, dark blues, and finally to blacks and grays. Art critics interpreted this transformation as either his spiritual experiences growing dark or the increasing darkness in his personal life.

He also painted on large areas because he wanted to be intimate and human, and he surmised that people immerse themselves in ‘larger’ pictures. However, in the later years, due to his ill medical condition and as prescribed by his medical advisors, he began painting pictures in acrylics, not larger than a yard in height, which required less physical strain.

Notable paintings 

Rothko’s most notable artworks are – Hierarchical Birds (1942), White Center (1950), Seagram Murals (1958), Orange, Red, Yellow (1961), etc. After that, he started giving numbers to his paintings rather than giving them names.

Display at art gallery ©koreajoongangdaily.joins.com
Display at art gallery ©koreajoongangdaily.joins.com

Rothko Chapel (1971) and the Book | Mark Rothko

One of Mark Rothko’s iconic works is the Rothko Chapel, in Houston, that he intended to build to display his paintings. Architects Howard Barnstone and Eugene Aubry, too, played a considerable part in designing the building. The small, windowless, and geometric shaped building is in the postmodern style, having only a central cupola for an effect of light that Rothko wanted to direct in that space. 

His desire for this effect was to enclose the observer with massive, imposing visions of darkness. He designed the building depicting religious art and architecture, inspired by the Roman and Byzantine churches and other art forms. This Chapel for Rothko was a place of pilgrimage for his ‘religious artwork’, and a representation of his concern for the transcendence of the people.

Mark Rothko also authored a book named ‘The Artist’s Reality- Philosophies of Art’, which was probably written around 1940-1941.

Rothko Chapel ©commons.wikimedia.org
Rothko Chapel ©commons.wikimedia.org
Artworks displayed at Rothko Chapel ©www.artnews.com
Artworks displayed at Rothko Chapel ©www.artnews.com

Recognition In The World After His Death

Rothko’s suicidal death, in February 1970, was interpreted by art historians asa result of his extensive use of Blacks and Grays in his paintings that he painted during the latter years of his life. These were the ‘pictorial suicide notes portraying the depression in his life’ according to them. Few art historians argued that the Blacks and Grays did not depict his suicidal attitudes, but rather, the continuation of his lifelong artistic themes.

Post his death, the resale value of his paintings grew exceedingly. Many of his paintings are on display at various art galleries like Tate Britain Art Gallery, National Gallery of Modern Art, National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C., etc. 

His works, totaling 836 paintings, have been cataloged in ‘Mark Rothko: The Works on Canvas: Catalogue Raisonné,’ by art historian David Anfam. His book ‘The Artist’s Reality- Philosophies of Art’, which was left unpublished, too, was published. In Latvia, his birthplace, a monument was built to honor him. A play ‘Red’ based on his life was also played, that focused majorly on his period of Seagram Murals.

Display at art gallery ©pinterest.com
Display at art gallery ©pinterest.com

Influence Of His Artwork | Mark Rothko

Mark Rothko always aimed to excite people’s emotions through the expression of forms, light, and color. The colors were just instruments for him to produce an environment of intimacy and transcendence in the viewers. He recommended the general public to view his art not as a mere flat surface having color relationships, but to go beyond the gap between his artwork and the human body.


Pranjali is a passionate artist and an architect who loves to blend her designs with nature. She designs meticulously and is always exploring the impact of architectural spaces on user's mind and body. You will find her lost in travelling, daydreams, books, and also on mountain trails.