Mark Rothko: Expressing the Human Emotions of Tragedy, Ecstasy and Doom

Mark Rothko (1903-1970)

Rothko Painting at 2007 Auction: Sotheby’s, New York

Mark Rothko: White Center

Mark Rothko: The Tate Museum Documentary

On May 15th, the 2007 spring evening sale of contemporary art at Sotheby’s in New York made auction history, bringing in $254,874,000, the highest total ever for a sale of contemporary art (two masterpieces shattered the previous record for a contemporary work of art at auction). At least five bidders competed for Mark Rothko’s White Center (Yellow, Pink and Lavender on Rose) from the collection of David Rockefeller, which sold for $72,800,000 to an anonymous buyer over the telephone to a wave of applause, setting a new record for a contemporary work of art at auction, as well as for the artist (estimated to be in excess of $40 million).

Mark Rothko was born in Daugavpils, Latvia, at that time part of the Russian Empire. His father Jacob was a pharmacist and an intellectual, who provided his children with a secular and political, rather than religious upbringing. However, following the Russian pogrom against Jews, incited by the 1905 revolution, in an environment where Jews were often blamed for many of the evils that befell Russia, Rothko’s early childhood was plagued with fear, as he witnessed the occasional violence brought down upon Jews by Cossacks attempting to stifle revolutionary uprisings. An image that remained with him throughout his adult life was that of open pits, where Cossacks buried Jews they kidnapped and murdered. Some critics interpret Rothko’s later use of rectangular forms as a formal representation of these graves.

The family managed to immigrate to America, where Rothko eventually enrolled in New York’s New School of Design, where one of his instructors was the artist Arshile Gorky, probably his first encounter with a member of the avant-garde. That Autumn, he took courses at the Art Students League of New York taught by still-life artist Max Weber, another Russian Jew. It was from Weber that Rothko began to see art as a tool of emotional and religious expression and Rothko’s earliest paintings portray a Weberian influence.

Rothko eventually came to feel that if art were to express the tragedy of the human condition, new subjects and a new idiom had to be found. He said, “It was with the utmost reluctance that I found the figure could not serve my purposes….But a time came when none of us could use the figure without mutilating it.” Rothko largely abandoned conventional titles for his paintings in 1947, sometimes resorting to numbers or colors in order to distinguish one work from another. The artist also came to resist explaining the meaning of his work. “Silence is so accurate,” he said, fearing that words would only paralyze the viewer’s mind and imagination.

For interested readers, an excellent, detailed biography of Rothko’s life can be accessed here.

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One Response to “Mark Rothko: Expressing the Human Emotions of Tragedy, Ecstasy and Doom”

  1. cossacks Says:

    Mark Rothko: Expressing the Human Emotions of Tragedy, Ecstasy and Doom « Et Cetera: Publick and Privat Curiosities great article thank you.


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