Happy Birthday, Mark Rothko

“I’m not an abstractionist. I’m not interested in the relationship of color or form or anything else. I’m interested only in expressing basic human emotions: tragedy, ecstasy, doom, and so on.” – Mark Rothko

The man who defined an era of abstract expressionism in the 20th century, Mark Rothko would have turned 113 today. We’ve rounded up 5 ways to celebrate this iconic artist’s birthday:

1. Untitled (1949)

Untitled (1949), Mark Rothko.
Untitled (1949), Mark Rothko.

Rothko began fine-tuning his “multiform” style in the late 1940s – a signature style that would go on to define the rest of his artistic career. It’s the ethereal, color-blocked tones that probably come to mind when you think about Rothko. He achieved this with oil paints that he mixed himself, applying them in broad strokes and thin layers on a large canvas. ““I realize that historically the function of painting large pictures is painting something very grandiose and pompous,” he said about his large-scale works, “…you paint the larger picture, you are in it. It isn’t something you command.”

2. Portrait (1939)

Portrait (1939), Mark Rothko.
Portrait (1939), Mark Rothko.

Before he became “Rothko” in the 1940s, this abstract impressionist was Mark Rothkowitz, a young artist born in Russia and raised in Portland, Oregon. His earlier work – although it exhibited abstractionism and surrealism – was a little more straight-forward than his literal pieces, featuring urban scenes and human figures painted in watercolor.

3. The Ten (Who Are Nine)

clockwise from top left: Ben-Zion, Louis Schanker, Nahum Tschacbasov, Ilya Bolotowsky, Adolph Gottlieb, Mark Rothko
clockwise from top left: Ben-Zion, Louis Schanker, Nahum Tschacbasov, Ilya Bolotowsky, Adolph Gottlieb, Mark Rothko

In 1934, Mark Rothko – along with artists Ben-Zion, Ilya Bolotowsky, Adolph Gottlieb, Louis Harris, Yankel Kufeld, Louis Schanker, Nahum Tschacbasov, Marcus Rothkowitz, Joseph Solman – founded their own association of abstract painters after being dissatisfied with the “silly Surrealist painters” displayed at the galleries they were presented in. They dubbed themselves “The Ten” – nine artists, with one extra spot for a rotation position.

4. A “Color Field” Painter… Who Interested in Color

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Rothko was considered one of the primary painters of the Color Field movement – a style of abstract painting that was marked by large, monochromatic fields of color – but he famously refused to attach himself to any movement, label, or category when it came to his artwork. “I’m not an abstractionist,” he said. “I’m not interested in the relationship of color or form or anything else. I’m interested only in expressing basic human emotions: tragedy, ecstasy, doom, and so on.”

5. Later period = Darker Colors

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No. 7 (1964), Mark Rothko.

Towards the end of Rothko’s career in the 1960s, the painter stepped away from his usual bold colors and opted for darker, moodier tones, which many now see as an omen of his suicide in 1969. Still, when Rothko painted with darker tones, he rarely painted with a true black – what appears as black is often the layering of one dark color over another.

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