Mark Rothko was born in Dvinsk, Vitebsk Governorate, in the Russian Empire (today Daugavpils in Latvia). His father, Jacob (Yakov) Rothkowitz, was a pharmacist and an intellectual who initially provided his children with a secular and political, rather than religious, upbringing. According to Rothko, his pro-Marxist father was "violently anti-religious". In an environment where Jews were often blamed for many of the evils that befell Russia, Rothko’s early childhood was plagued by fear.
Despite Jacob Rothkowitz’s modest income, the family was highly educated ("We were a reading family", Rothko’s sister recalled), and Rothko was able to speak Russian, Yiddish, and Hebrew. Following his father’s return to the Orthodox Judaism of his own youth, Rothko, the youngest of four siblings, was sent to the cheder at the age of five, where he studied the Talmud, although his elder siblings had been educated in the public school system.
Emigration from Russia to the U.S.
Fearing that his elder sons were about to be drafted into the Imperial Russian Army, Jacob Rothkowitz emigrated from Russia to the United States. Markus remained in Russia, with his mother and elder sister Sonia. They arrived as immigrants, at Ellis Island, in late 1913. From that point, they crossed the country, to join Jacob and the elder brothers, in Portland, Oregon. Jacob’s death, a few months later, from colon cancer, left the family without economic support. Sonia operated a cash register, while Markus worked in one of his uncle’s warehouses, selling newspapers to employees. His father’s death also led Rothko to sever his ties with religion. After he had mourned his father’s death for almost a year at a local synagogue, he vowed never to set foot in it again.
Rothko started school in the United States in 1913, quickly accelerating from third to fifth grade. In June 1921, he completed the secondary level, with honors, at Lincoln High School in Portland, at the age of seventeen. He learned his fourth language, English, and became an active member of the Jewish community center, where he proved adept at political discussions. Like his father, Rothko was passionate about issues such as workers’ rights, and women’s right to contraception. At the time, Portland was the center of revolutionary activity in the U.S., and the region where the revolutionary syndicalist union Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) was strongest.
Rothko, having grown up around radical workers’ meetings, attended meetings of the IWW, including anarchists such as Bill Haywood and Emma Goldman, where he developed strong oratorical skills he would later use in defense of Surrealism. He heard Emma Goldman speak on one of her West Coast activist lecture tours. With the onset of the Russian Revolution, Rothko organized debates about it. Despite the repressive political atmosphere, he wished to become a labor union organizer.
Rothko received a scholarship to Yale. At the end of his freshman year in 1922, the scholarship was not renewed, and he worked as a waiter and delivery boy to support his studies. He found the Yale community to be elitist and racist. Rothko and a friend, Aaron Director, started a satirical magazine, The Yale Saturday Evening Pest, which lampooned the school’s stuffy, bourgeois tone. Rothko’s nature was more that of a self-taught man than a diligent pupil: "One of his fellow students remembers that he hardly seemed to study, but that he was a voracious reader." At the end of his sophomore year, Rothko dropped out, and did not return until he was awarded an honorary degree, forty-six years later.
In the autumn of 1923, Rothko found work in New York’s garment district. While visiting a friend at the Art Students League of New York, he saw students sketching a model. According to Rothko, this was the beginning of his life as an artist. He later enrolled in the Parsons The New School for Design, where one of his instructors was Arshile Gorky. Rothko characterized Gorky’s leadership of the class as "overcharged with supervision." That same autumn, he took courses at the Art Students League taught by Cubist artist Max Weber, a fellow Russian Jew who had been a part of the French avant-garde movement. To his students eager to know about Modernism, Weber was seen as "a living repository of modern art history". Under Weber’s tutelage, Rothko began to view art as a tool of emotional and religious expression. Rothko’s paintings from this era reveal the influence of his instructor. Years later, when Weber attended a show of his former student’s work and expressed his admiration, Rothko was immensely pleased.
Rothko’s move to New York landed him in a fertile artistic atmosphere. Modernist painters were having more shows in New York galleries all the time, and the city’s museums were an invaluable resource for a budding artist’s knowledge and skills. Among the important early influences on Rothko were the works of the German Expressionists, the surrealist art of Paul Klee, and the paintings of Georges Rouault.
In 1928, with a group of other young artists, Rothko exhibited works at the Opportunity Gallery. His paintings, including dark, moody, expressionist interiors and urban scenes, were generally well accepted among critics and peers. To supplement his income, in 1929 Rothko began instructing schoolchildren in drawing, painting and clay sculpture at the Center Academy of the Brooklyn Jewish Center, where he would remain active in teaching at that location for twenty-two years, until 1952.
During the early 1930s, Rothko met Adolph Gottlieb, who, along with Barnett Newman, Joseph Solman, Louis Schanker, and John Graham, was part of a group of young artists surrounding the painter Milton Avery. According to Elaine de Kooning, it was Avery who "gave Rothko the idea that [the life of a professional artist] was a possibility." Avery’s abstract nature paintings, utilizing a rich knowledge of form and color, had a tremendous influence on Rothko. Soon, Rothko’s paintings took on subject matter and color similar to Avery’s, as seen in Bathers, or Beach Scene of 1933–1934.
Rothko, Gottlieb, Newman, Solman, Graham, and their mentor, Avery, spent considerable time together, vacationing at Lake George, New York, and Gloucester, Massachusetts. In the daytime they painted, then discussed art in the evenings. During a 1932 visit to Lake George, Rothko met Edith Sachar, a jewelry designer, whom he married later that year. The following summer, his first one-person show was held at the Portland Art Museum, consisting mostly of drawings and aquarelles. For this exhibition, Rothko took the very unusual step of displaying works done by his pre-adolescent students from the Center Academy, alongside his own. His family was unable to understand Rothko’s decision to be an artist, especially considering the dire economic situation of the Depression. Having suffered serious financial setbacks, the Rothkowitzes were mystified by Rothko’s seeming indifference to financial necessity. They felt he was doing his mother a disservice by not finding a more lucrative and realistic career.
First solo show in New York
Returning to New York, Rothko had his first East Coast one-person show at the Contemporary Arts Gallery. He showed fifteen oil paintings, mostly portraits, along with some aquarelles and drawings. Among these works, the oil paintings especially captured the art critics’ eyes. Rothko’s use of rich fields of colors moved beyond Avery’s influence. In late 1935, Rothko joined with Ilya Bolotowsky, Ben-Zion, Adolph Gottlieb, Lou Harris, Ralph Rosenborg, Louis Schanker and Joseph Solman to form "The Ten" (Whitney Ten Dissenters). According to a gallery show catalog, the mission of the group was "to protest against the reputed equivalence of American painting and literal painting."
Rothko was earning a growing reputation among his peers, particularly among the group that formed the Artists’ Union. The Artists’ Union, including Gottlieb and Solman, hoped to create a municipal art gallery, to show self-organized group exhibitions. In 1936, the group exhibited at the Galerie Bonaparte in France, which resulted in some positive critical attention. One reviewer remarked that Rothko’s paintings "display authentic coloristic values." Later, in 1938, a show was held at the Mercury Gallery in New York, intended as a protest against the Whitney Museum of American Art, which the group regarded as having a provincial, regionalist agenda. Also during this period, Rothko, like Avery, Gorky, Pollock, de Kooning, and many others, found employment with the Works Progress Administration.
Development of style
In 1936, Rothko began writing a book, never completed, about similarities in the art of children and the work of modern painters. According to Rothko, the work of modernists, influenced by primitive art, could be compared to that of children in that "child art transforms itself into primitivism, which is only the child producing a mimicry of himself." In this manuscript, he observed: "Tradition of starting with drawing in academic notion We may start with color." Rothko was using fields of color in his aquarelles and city scenes. His style was already evolving in the direction of his renowned later works. Despite this newfound exploration of color, Rothko turned his attention to other formal and stylistic innovations, inaugurating a period of surrealist paintings influenced by mythological fables and symbols.
Rothko’s work later matured from representation and mythological subjects into rectangular fields of color and light, culminating in his final works for the Rothko Chapel. Between his early style of primitivist and playful urban scenes, and his later style of transcendent color fields, was a long period of transition. This development was marked by two important events in Rothko’s life: the onset of World War II, and his reading of Friedrich Nietzsche.
Rothko separated temporarily from his wife Edith in mid-1937. They reconciled several months later, but their relationship remained tense. On February 21, 1938, Rothko finally became a citizen of the United States, prompted by fears that the growing Nazi influence in Europe might provoke sudden deportation of American Jews. Concerned about anti-Semitism in America and Europe, Rothko in 1940 abbreviated his name from "Markus Rothkowitz" to "Mark Rothko". The name "Roth", a common abbreviation, was still identifiably Jewish, so he settled upon "Rothko."
Inspiration from mythology
Fearing that modern American painting had reached a conceptual dead end, Rothko was intent upon exploring subjects other than urban and nature scenes. He sought subjects that would complement his growing interest with form, space, and color. The world crisis of war gave this search a sense of immediacy. He insisted that the new subject matter have a social impact, yet be able to transcend the confines of current political symbols and values. In his essay "The Romantics Were Prompted," published in 1949, Rothko argued that the "archaic artist … found it necessary to create a group of intermediaries, monsters, hybrids, gods and demigods," in much the same way that modern man found intermediaries in Fascism and the Communist Party. For Rothko, "without monsters and gods, art cannot enact a drama".
Rothko’s use of mythology as a commentary on current history was not novel. Rothko, Gottlieb, and Newman read and discussed the works of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung. In particular, they took interest in psychoanalytical theories concerning dreams, and archetypes of a collective unconscious. They understood mythological symbols as images, operating in a space of human consciousness, which transcends specific history and culture. Rothko later said that his artistic approach was "reformed" by his study of the "dramatic themes of myth". He allegedly stopped painting altogether in 1940, to immerse himself in reading Sir James Frazer’s study of mythology The Golden Bough, and Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams.
Posted by >quadralectics on 2019-06-28 17:14:22