An Exploration of Mark Rothko’s Descent Into Darkness in His Personal Life and Paintings
Rothko was one of a small number of New York-based artists who started the Abstract Expressionism movement. Their work began in the midst of some of the worst horrors of the 20th century. Atomic weapons, the Holocaust and tensions between the US and The Soviet Union. They were influenced by The Surrealists and the work of Sigmund Freud. They took on the idea that true, raw creativity was accessed by going beyond the conscious mind into the unconscious. The art of the Abstract Expressionists was created as a way of making the viewer think about beauty, violence and existence.
Their ways of expressing this varied wildly. Jackson Pollock, for example, dripped paint onto the canvas in an energetic and almost frenzied way. Rothko’s work is very different. His large and very deliberate canvases have an air of calmness and tranquility which invites the viewer to stand alone and meditate on their own thoughts and existence.The forms are both ambiguous and profound and the viewer is enveloped by the interactions of colour.
Mark Rothko carried scars from his childhood. He was born Marcus Rothkovich in 1903in anti-Semitic Russia and hid family fled when he was a child. He arrived in the US at the age of 10, settling in Portland, Oregon and his father died soon afterwards. He moved to New York in 1923 and worked for the WPA (Works Progress Administration – a New Deal programme implemented by the Roosevelt administration.) He continued to paint and his career as an artist flourished. In 1945 he earned a one man show with Peggy Guggenheim.
The year 1946 marked a turning point for Rothko’s work. He began a new series of paintings called ‘multiforms’. He gradually abandoned his existing themes such as symbolism, landscapes and people and evolved his work towards an increasingly abstract style. He began painting blurred patches of colour which seemed to grow organically out of the painting itself. He achieved luminosity by applying many layers of thin paint onto the canvas. They were also often large, some standing at 3m tall. The technique became known as Colour Field Painting.
His success continued to grow throughout the 1950s and 1960s, even having his work recommended as an opportunity for investment by Fortune magazine in 1954. He moved his painting studio from the Bowery to the Upper East Side. He would begin his days with a shot of vodka, chain smoked and suffered from both depression and hypertension. Rothko was also a hypochondriac and took valium with alcohol to self-medicate. He was difficult to deal with and fussy as to who was worthy enough to own one of his paintings. In 1968 he collapsed from an aneurysm cause by hypertension. Art critic and historian Irving Sandler, who knew Rothko well, said that he fell apart as a person following this.
Rothko’s mental slide continued and came to a sorrowful end with his suicide in 1970. The connection between Rothko’s mental angst and his darker colour palette in the late 1960s was made by Anna C.Chave in her book ‘Mark Rothko: Subjects in Abstraction’ (1989). She wrote ‘His friends and acquaintances have recalled that by the late 1950s, Rothko was increasingly depressed. They have speculated, too that his beclouded emotional state was instrumental in the darkening of his palette.’
His darker work often included black and very dark purples which were almost indistinguishable from one another on the canvas. His Black Paintings are void of colour and desolate, reminding one of Rothko’s own proclamation that his paintings existed to express basic human emotions such as tragedy.