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Rothko: A Trailblazer in American Expressionism

Scarlett Kopp

Staff Writer

November 30, 2023

Mark Rothko, a leading American artist paved his own path in art expressionism and achieved the purest expression of human emotions.


Mark Rothko was born Marcus Rothkowitz in Russia(now modern day Latvia). At age 10, he and his family fled to the United States to escape the anti-semitism in Russia. He attended Yale, studying law, but dropped out to become an artist.

As an artist in 1929, he got a job teaching art to kids at the Center Academy of the Brooklyn Jewish Center. Here he was inspired by the simplicity of children's art and how representing something even if it’s not exact still brings emotion. The freedom of the variety of interpretations was unique and simple, treasured like the simplistic cave paintings of our human ancestors.

By the 30s he moved on to abstractions as he sought to throw off the shackles of conventional “beauty” art, a type of art for the purpose of beauty or visual pleasure with no actual emotion or deeper meaning.

World War Two:

Then the second world war began, bringing a time of stress and horror. Similarly to the terrors of the battlefield, art was greatly warped; Rothko’s wasn’t an exception. His art was typically mythically and biblically inspired and had shifted to a surrealism-- warped, disordered jumbles that vaguely look like their original inspiration. He believed beauty should be disregarded as this is a time of suffering.

“A Painting is not a picture of an experience, but is the experience,” Rothko said.

- Untitled Blue Green and Brown 1952 - No 12 1954 Yellow Orange Red on Orange

By the 1950s Rothko's art style had shifted again to the style he is most known for. His series of “colored rectangles'' is surrounded by a border of another color. Rothko felt that the purpose of art was to take the viewer through a journey of emotions and this is what he was accomplishing with these pieces. Other subjects in a piece were a distraction from the true meaning and emotional depth of a piece, Rothko sought to remove these from his paintings.

An image from the Rothko Chapel, a place to celebrate human rights and for all religions, where Rothko’s last paintings before his death are housed. Such powerful pieces of doom and darkness.

Final Days:

By the 1960s Rothko had gone to the dark side. His rectangles had evolved into ominous squares and loosely related shapes. No more bright colors, it's all darker tones, a shadow of his legacy. By the late 60s Rothko went all black in a final series. Mysterious and full of misery, these last pieces are dark as these were the last thing Rothko would leave in the world.

“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,” Rothko said.

Rothko and others alike were attempting to find the true meaning of art. Down to the basics, art is all about expression and making people feel these emotions through this image. What Rothko achieved through making others feel deep emotions through such simplistic designs and colors is fascinating and other worldly. Staring at a Rothko long enough accomplishes this goal and that's what makes Rothko so ubiquitous and unique.

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