Sometimes we think we know someone only to realise there is much more to discover, and so it is with Mark Rothko’s voyage as a painter. Like so many other great artists (Mark Chagall, Ossip Zadkine, Chaim Soutine), Mark Rothko, born Markus Yakovlevich Rothkowitz, emigrated from Russia (from Latvia). He settled in the USA in 1913, becoming a citizen in 1938 and changing his name out of fear of antisemitism and deportation. In the 1940s, he became an American name and, with his unique abstract colour fields, in the late 1940s onwards, of international fame.
Anyone who likes art “knows” Rothko. But an artist is more than what they are famous for – the recognised unique visual voice that contributes to the canon of art and place in art history. The voyage that led to “Rothko becoming Rothko” is arguably as interesting. And nothing is inevitable. Given his talents and inquisitive mind, it is also worth considering what other paths he could have trodden.
In the late 1930s and early 1940s, he painted narrative figurative art – portraits, scenes in the underground from New York. These are not realism, impressionism, or expressionism, but an attempt at something new, trying to not be tied down to the reality of the form, but to communicate a feeling. The crowd coming down the stairs, blue New York sky above, is interesting – as their bodies merge into a single brown mass. A crowd is no longer a group of separate entities but a joined unit, an existential change.
However, Rothko wasn’t satisfied with these life scenes and felt that he was doing a disservice to people and moved on. But before we move on, look again – at the blue rectangle of the mouth to the underground and at the pink, green and blue rectangles in the portrait. Their form and texture give a hint as to his future focus. When Rothko rejected the narrative representative art, he didn’t reject texture and form or his desire to communicate emotion.
Had he built on the narrative figurative but gone more abstract, he could have moved in the direction taken by the great Mexican painter Rufino Tamayo. Building on the crowd could have led toward elements of Max Ernst (who exhibited in New York in 1942). But these are roads taken by others. He explored Greek myths and took, it seems, inspiration from Picasso in his 1941 “Untitled” work (below). He experimented with symbolism and surrealism in a number of his 1940s creations – the central painting with two figures and the right hand more organic symbolic one make me think of Tanguy and Salvador Dalí and in some elements of Juan Miró – who had incidentally emigrated to the US because of the war. Rothko was thinking of creating a new mythology inspired by the growing pool of immigrant talent, but with time, rejected that direction too and engaged in abstract expressionism.
His abstract expressionistic paintings from 1946 and 1947 (below) were attractive, organic paintings that may or may not have had narrative figurative elements behind them, creating a hidden structure. Perhaps the one on the left includes a woman and baby in the middle right opposite a robed figure. The painting on the right could be a landscape. Alternatively, it could be sanded down painted wood, exposing different levels and hence different colours, and an exercise in appreciation of organic forms and colours. I would have been intrigued by what Mark Rothko would have produced had he continued with this more organic abstract expressionism.
However, he took another route – towards the Rothko works that have become iconic Rothko – the core composition of two or three juxtaposed coloured rectangles within a wider rectangle – with each colour space eliciting a different emotion in the viewer: stand close, stare at the colour space, allow yourself to fall into it, and feel. He would explore this for the next two decades, exploring and eliciting different emotions through his work.
What do you feel when you see these? Rothko intentionally kept many of his works “Untitled” as he recognised that his creations would elicit different emotions and have different meanings depending on the viewer and probably how long they immerse themselves in the colour field. For me, the yellow presents a “good morning energy”, orange represents the warm joy of being alive (especially in the second one), the red is more an urgent, driving energy, while the pink is a slightly melancholy reflective state, still feeding us energy.
The ones below are more sobre, reflective pieces. I like the infinite unknown of the dark green that is almost black, and opportunity of the white, and the intriguing potential of the blue that borders on purple. The thin sliver seems to feed into the white, making it bulge with opportunity, and all of this is placed in a reflective light blue colour field. On the right, the green pushes me into a landscape, and I feel as if on a boat in the dark seas, again with reflective hope. Go to the exhibition and see the original, not reproduced colours, and get the real feeling.
Mark Rothko also explored with more melancholic colours – maroons, blacks – pushing his exploration of form and texture to the extreme. Now it become close to purely abstract colour spaces; nothing obviously representative, bar the lingering temptation to seek a landscape and make sense of the painting. Ignore that. Just see the colour and wait for the emotional reaction to emerge. What do you feel? Give yourself the time; a glance at the painting and then at the label won’t trigger the emotion. Choose a calm day, stand there, and lose yourself in his colour fields. Some have been known to weep in front of the more sombre ones. Reflective catharsis, hopefully.
These last two (and the others in the series in the exhibition) fill me with melancholy, foreboding, despair in the black, a weight, an invitation to sense doom. We live in close to apocalyptic times with, it seem, wars again the norm, with antisemitism and islamophobia on the rise, racism, authoritarian regimes multiplying, antagonistic global competition for primacy, and with the threat of uncontrolled climate breakdown and species loss and planetary degradation at our unfettered economic development. This is dark. Not civilisation’s crowning glory. But then I manage to step back, and my mind pushes a different image – of walking at night and seeing the landscape, a seascape. Sometimes it is best to walk at nightfall and contemplate our future. Maybe we can choose not hate and doom but hope and a new dawn. Many of Rothko’s final pieces were in black and white, giving us the choice. Rothko himself fell into despair, but in his last years, he painted some beautiful positive colour fields, reminding us of what we have.
Go to the exhibition at the impressive Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris (until 2 April 2024, or if in Latvia, to the Mark Rothko Museum from 28 April 2024 to 24 April 2026 in Daugavpils) to appreciate the emotions he elicits through abstract expressionism. See also Rothko’s voyage and choices and wonder what he could have painted had he chosen other routes. An artist is more than just the choices, but the echoes of other potential. That said, choice is important – and Rothko’s focus and determination to keep asking questions about what emotions colours can imbue us with, was far from cold intellectual questioning but an admirable insistence on finding a colour language of emotion. His paintings also offer viewers helpful windows for us to contemplate the now and the future and what choice we choose.