Mark Rothko

Mark Rothko……the color and the absolute.


Well, how can you cry in front of Michelangelo’s Mercy, who sculpted it at the age of 24, taking it off a mountain and then feel equally small in front of expanses of color that “everyone” would know how to do?

Art is inside the mind of those who make it because it captures it in the soul and gives it in the best and closest image to its time to make it become immortal!

A child in front of a work by Rothko who will think? How many perplexities do you have when you look at a Mark Rothko’s work live and feel inside what is happening? The pure color that becomes total space, that envelops and leads to hypnotic sensations, to new visual shores, to fantastic paths.

There is a spiritual, mystical cerebral relationship in the abstraction of this artist, everything is nothing and nothing is everything. A touch where you see the immaterial and the sublime that gives painting an immortal carat, color backgrounds in which the limits and shades are the detail of a movement, something unconsciously basal and vital but strongly existential.

Everyone’s life is an inexorable flow where inner space and mental space try to find a hermitage where happiness and probably perfection dwell.

So when we chase values that come to us from the awareness of ourselves in reality we need our senses and beauty, aesthetics, shapes, colors become fundamental coordinates.

Being in front of a color field evokes a deep introspective action because there is a strong emotional involvement, the parameters on what is beauty certainly suffer a destabilization, inside us opens or closes the unimaginable.

Here, Rothko gives us a new possibility, it’s like proposing the deep interstellar space that we don’t really know. We imagine it on what science can calculate and can best represent us for our perceptive abilities, but we will never touch that space, it is unfathomable!

To look at the work of our master is therefore to touch directly the infinite perception of the colors of the soul, to feel that those colors have their own dimension.

Rothko can certainly be compared with other artists because art is an evolution, within which there are continuous revolutions, and one can draw a parallel with Mondrian because he too used surfaces of color. The substantial difference, however, is that Mondrian looks at an environmental spatiality reduced to essence, Rothko does not probe the measurability of space is the painting that spatially “embraces” the viewer, that envelops and involves him.

Rothko (1903-1970) belongs to that generation of artists, the irascibles of the New York School, who radically changed the history of post-war abstract painting.

He is not American, although he came to America as a child. He was born into a Jewish family in Dvinsk, Russia: at that time his name was Marcus Rothkovitz.

Between 1921 and 1923 he attended Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut. He was not yet interested in art. He frequented the library a lot and his favorite readings were Nietzsche, Scopenhauer, Shakespeare, Aeschylus, Mozart, Dostoievsky and Kierkegaard. He was and will always remain an intellectual, an educated man. His first exhibition dates back to 1928 at a group show at the Opportunity Galleries in New York.

In 1935 he was one of the founders of the group The Ten, mainly devoted to research in abstraction and expressionism. Between 1936 and 1937 he painted on easel for the Federal Art Project (FAP).

The FAP was created not as a cultural activity, but as a rescue measure to employ artists and craftsmen to create murals, easel paintings, sculptures, graphic arts, posters, photographs, theater sets. The WPA Federal Art Project created more than 100 community art centers across the country, studied and documented American design, commissioned a significant body of public art without restriction of content or subject matter, and supported approximately 10,000 artists and artisans during the Great Depression.

Together with Pollock, Gottlieb, de Kooning, Still, Kline, Newman and Motherwell we can place him in the current of abstract expressionism, where feelings are expressed through pictorial action.

In the context of the New York School it is possible to identify three different artistic orientations: Abstract Expressionism, Color Field and Post painterly abstraction. Colorfield Painting is the cultural movement to which Rothko belongs, i.e. painting of backgrounds, in which it is the force that takes on the role that is mastered by the color arousing emotions.

The poetics of our great artist can be identified on a plane of tragic vision of existence, it is the representation of drama, it is the tragedy of being born, living and dying to be expressed by Rothko.

Color is light and tonality in a sublime atmosphere beyond the representation of natural elements.

The historicity of art is a condition that is expressed through the works that an artist carries out over time and explains how personality manifests itself in its different facets, it is nothing more than individual growth, it is nothing more than the unfolding of life.

Rothko therefore shows us how his painting changes, how it matures and how it responds differently to a worldview.

His early works are figurative and they tend to be a melancholic representation of reality because there is in the artist what is his primordial marker, that is, a chronic depression that will always accompany him due to the uprooting suffered by his family after their departure for the United States of America.

Subway entrance, 1938, Rothko collection – New York City
Slow whirlwinds on the seashore, 1944. MoMa, New York.

The years ’48-’49 marked the turning point of his artistic expression, he definitively abandoned what in one of his brochures he called the “middle ground between abstraction and surrealism”, finding his definitive style.


He had lived his youth, until he was 10 years old, in Daugavpils in Russia, surrounded by nature that in America he would refuse. He came from a Jewish family with a strongly Social Democratic father who opposed the Tsar’s policy, hence the decision to expatriate after the 1905 repression.

Rothko was uprooted, like Marc Chagall, like Chaïm Soutine, like Chaim Jacob Lipchitz.

Everything they had lost was preserved in their memory expressed visually in their works.

Art, therefore, always sets a confrontation and a fundamental reflection on the complex universe of humanity, each artifact is a motivating act, it is a thought, a warning, a legacy, a teaching, a mirror of what is the general action of an entire society.

Rothko dedicated his entire life to infinite and ideal space. The perceptive values of his paintings are not only aimed at creating a new aesthetic but also at provoking emotional and unconscious reactions. There is hope in the divine, as a spasmodic search for a higher motivation, an element that transcends into a mystical mink. He doesn’t go out of balance from a religious point of view and says “If people want sacred experiences, they will find them. If they want a profane experience, they will find it too. I do not take any position.

The works take place during a life that has different motivations, and we have at the beginning flashes of light in the colors but then in the end the absolute remains stuck beyond the canvas and everything is like the silence that at a certain point has a voice, the presence of something becomes deep absence and his last paintings will become the darkness that will prevail.

Rothko has always been inclined to endorse the causes of those who were on the margins of society and strongly criticized the American environment where he had always felt excluded, where even in his success he had always brought a sense of demarcation, that line that can be seen in the juxtaposition of the contiguous colors of his canvases.

There is a fact in Rothko’s life that makes us understand a lot about his state of mind and his inner movement with respect to his social reality and about the nervousness that came over him at the thought of entering the mechanisms of capitalism. In his biography, Writings on Art, a chapter analyzes what happened for the commission of a series of paintings to decorate the luxurious Four Seasons restaurant, part of the project for an imposing 34-storey skyscraper, headquarters of the Seagram Company, at 375 Park Avenue, symbol of New York’s wealth, a symbol of the success of the United States.

He confided in his writer friend John Fischer:

“A place where New York’s richest bastards go to eat and brag.” He had accepted the assignment as “a challenge, with the worst intention, with the hope of achieving something that would ruin the appetite of all the sons of bitches who would eat in the room” and to achieve this oppressive effect he used “darker tones, darker than anything he had achieved before”.

Rothko therefore feels like a shaman, a demiurge who wants to aesthetically upset those in a room and condition them inwardly.

The direct relationship with the workmanship of the paintings is fundamental because we want large drafts, and this is because the surface becomes totalizing when it overwhelms the spectator who becomes an integral part of the scene.

A painting by Rothko and like a scuba dive, like a walk in the desert, like climbing a mountain, is an experiential dimension that takes a spiritual path, there is a total sensory involvement that reverberates on the emotional sphere and from here on the behavioral level, on the level of memory, it becomes a creative act towards oneself.

The freedom of those who look at an artist’s work is inherent in the workmanship of the work itself and what gives it life.

The colors are fundamental and with abstraction are the true actors of a composition already Wassily Kandinsky, who painted the first abstract paintings in the history of art, has linked the expressiveness of color to music, to the

perfumes and tactile sensations. The expressive possibilities of color are endless because they are linked to the psychology and the different character of each man. Color is capable of representing thoughts and situations.

The fascination of Rothko’s works lies in their evocative capacity, in their transdimensional aniconic value, in the migratory psychological induction that leads to full inner sensitivity and a strong imaginative essence for a different and totalizing experience.

Light Red Over Black 1957

With such a high-performance base for the operativeness of an artist with a strong inner marking and an evidently very sensitive personality, the outcome of his artistic career can be seen, between 1967 and 1969, in the fourteen large panels made especially for an undenominational chapel commissioned by the de Menil couple in Huston, Texas. The pictorial ensemble of these last works has very dark, enveloping and seductive chromatic effects like an intimate and direct dialogue between the work and the viewer. This series, considered by the artist himself the final chapter of his poetic research, will then be perceived as a prelude to his tragic end. In 1970, in fact, Rothko dies suicide in his home in New York.

It is a place that National Geographic has reported as one of the top ten most peacemakers in the world.

The paintings in the chapel, however, fall into the generic pictorial category of black, of total absence of light, of total absence of God. However, it is not the meaning of the denial of God that is manifested but the sense of the mystery that can also lead deeply to God. Rothko’s light is transcendence that can be understood with closed eyes, and this is how the total work of the chapel can be interpreted.

It is a chapel consecrated to Catholicism but it contains the codes of various religions, therefore for every creed, for every man. What has not left thousands of years of men of the church and politics has left an artist!

Compared to the restaurant in NY here Rothko finds his ideal place where he can best express his concept of art linked to an enveloping spirituality and collaborates immediately with architects.

We arrive at an irregular octagonal shape that reminds us of another mystical and spiritual building more ancient but aimed at meditation and that is Castel del Monte di Andria wanted by Frederick II of Swabia, a hymn to ancient settings where for religious architecture the circle or in any case what alludes to circularity is a symbol of perfection and universality.

Here wins the contemplation where the canvases are the scenic layout of the rooms where the soul lives, and here silence becomes a concrete effect almost three-dimensional while what is three-dimensional becomes indefinable space, becomes inner expansion, becomes a place of Humanity and for Humanity without distinction of language, ethnicity, color or creed.

It is the final work, the touch of genius, the touch that can be compared to places of art such as the Sistine Chapel or the frescoes of Assisi without falling into a sin of injured majesty!

Rothko Chapel in Houston



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