There are no edges in Rothko’s sublime abstractions, only liminal spaces. The boundaries between the multiforms1 for which he is most well known are unfixed, allowing colors to softly blend into each other much the same way that smoke gently fills and empty room. Could it be that because Rothko never fully belonged anywhere or to any group that his work is subconsciously ambiguous? Like his feather-edged paintings, the contours of his own life aren’t sharp, but indistinct.
Of course, Rothko did not start out painting these sublime works. His early work was figurative, before evolving into surrealism and abstraction. But as we shall see, it didn’t take him long to uncover the inner tendency toward his blurred forms, where shapes are discernible but unclear and boundaries dissolve at the edges of the canvas. The uncertainty is purposeful; the effect on the viewer is unsettling:
The first problem the observer encounters when standing before Rothko’s paintings is the impossibility of locating the precise contours of the form, making it difficult, if not impossible, to discern where precisely it begins and the background ends. This problem entails another: the number of forms actually depicted in the paintings is uncertain. Thus, the forms depicted on the canvas evade the grasp of our perception and create the impression that they are slipping away from us.2
Rothko’s life was an enduring identity crisis. Born in 1903 in Dvinsk, Russia, Markus Rotkovich didn’t even keep his given name. At the age of 10, Rothko left Russia with his family to join his father, who had emigrated to Portland, Oregon three years previously, in 1910. Rothko grew up there, an immigrant with competing impressions: the formidable memories of an early childhood in Russia and an American adolescence. Here we see the emergence of a life lived between states. Today Dvinsk, Russia no longer exists—it’s now Daugavpils, Latvia. Not only has the city changed names and countries, but also the language in the city, Latvia’s second largest after Riga, is different, with Latvian being the country’s official language. Rothko was a man from a place that has been literally erased from maps.
Of Jewish descent, Rothko was secular. Even though his siblings were sent through the public school system, Rothko was educated in a Jewish school where he had to study the Talmud. What lasting effect this had on his faith is difficult to tell. Throughout his adult life Rothko expressed no emotional attraction to the Jewish religion or any other faith. Ironic, then, that for many viewing his art is a spiritual experience. This is intentional, as witnessed by the Rothko Chapel, a non-denominational sanctuary that is the crowning achievement of his career. Rothko was deeply engaged in designing the refuge, where 14 muted murals embrace visitors. The experience is consuming: “[B]y obliterating the forms in the chapel paintings, Rothko creates an example of what Friedrich Nietzsche called Dionysian art, in which one’s individuality is lost as the borders that constitute the individual by differentiating it from its environment collapse.”3
Poor, but educated, Rothko was granted a scholarship to Yale where (now on the American east coast) he started a satirical magazine with a friend. His college career was to last two years. Rothko never fit in with the moneyed class by which he was surrounded in Connecticut. The magazine he co-founded parodied the elitism and bourgeois attitude of his peers. So in his sophomore year, Rothko split and headed for New York City, where he’d receive a different kind of education. Having not studied art—though fond of sketching and scribbling at Yale—Rothko only discovered art when he “happened to wander into an art class, to meet a friend.”4 This was Rothko’s exposure to the power of self-expression. It was in 1924—at the age of 21—that he enrolled in his first art class at the Art Students League. He was soon exposed to Modernism and Cubism, Cezanne and Picasso. Unlike many of his soon to be contemporaries—de Kooning, Pollock—Rothko had not been studying and appreciating art all his life. Taking inspiration from many artistic sources and riches, Rothko was as enamored by the motifs discovered at 12th century Pompeii as he was with the work of Rembrandt and Rothko’s friends, like Henri Rousseau. He was, as he described, “self-taught.” By 1949, 25 years after he walked into that art class, Rothko had arrived at his mature style, the subliminal abstractions that have yielded experiences ranging from spiritual to anxiousness in viewers the world over.
Through the 1920s, Rothko held many odd jobs before finally landing a position as a children’s teacher in 1929. He would hold that position for more than 20 years, when his art could finally sustain him. Teaching was somewhat of a calling for Rothko, which included a professorship at Brooklyn College in the 1950s. As much an intellectual as he was an artist, Rothko lived a life distinct from his bohemian contemporaries. Again we see the blending of personalities—uninhibited artistry existing alongside the discipline needed to teach. He was a man with both left and right brain tendencies, a man who was not fully an artist (though he took himself seriously as a painter) and not fully an ordinary citizen (in this case, teacher).
Even cultural achievements confused Rothko, for “every step he took to fulfill a successful career as an artist only put him at odds with his own inner beliefs.” Friends testified that “Rothko’s success brought him at least as much torment as comfort.”5 For one, Rothko felt those who purchased his art misunderstood the work; he bemoaned that they acquired his paintings out of fashion, not understanding. That emotional reaction was displayed famously in his pulling out of the first of his major commissions. In 1958, the Joseph Seagram’s and Sons company contracted Rothko to paint site-specific murals for the Four Seasons restaurant located in their new headquarters on Park Avenue (the Seagram Building). Rothko set to work, creating approximately 40 murals for the space; he rotated the abstractions so their vertical orientation would complement the interior structure (columns, windows). During a trip to Europe Rothko confessed to a Harper’s magazine writer that in truth, he wanted to paint "something that will ruin the appetite of every son-of-a-bitch who ever eats in that room...."6 Soon after his return, Rothko pulled out of the contract and denied Seagram’s the artwork. His actions caused a stir in the art world, and some point to his temperamental personality as the reason behind the move. Others contend that he couldn’t stomach the fact that his art was being purchased by members of the very economic class he despised.
Not from or of any particular place. Both intellectual and artist. Jewish and secular. Misunderstood but adored. Sustained by an economic class he despised. Having no clearly defined lines of his own, maybe Rothko unconsciously settled on the cloudy delimitations of his abstractions as a reflection of the blurred boundaries of a prolonged identity crisis. Whatever the reason, a prolonged exposure to one of his masterpieces has the sublime effect of centering the viewer—there’s nothing blurry about that.
- 1. The term comes from critics, not Rothko.
- 2. Natalie Kosoi. “Nothingness Made Visible: The Case of Rothko’s Paintings,” Art Journal 64, No. 2 (Summer 2005): 28.
- 3. Ibid, p. 26.
- 4. This detail and other biographical elements are plucked from the biography page on markrothko.com, which is extremely spare on his life prior to his arrival in New York City. Other details emerged in a talk given by Annie Cohen-Solal at the 92Y on January 11, 2016. She is the author of Mark Rothko: Toward the Light in the Chapel (Yale University Press, 2016).
- 5. markrothko.com
- 6. James E. B. Breslin. Mark Rothko: A Biography (University of Chicago Press, 1998): 376.