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Essay from the National Gallery of Art

Mark Rothko seated in front of painting Photograph courtesy of Kate Rothko Prizel and Christopher Rothko.


A central figure among the abstract expressionists who emerged in New York in the late 1940s, Mark Rothko brought a new sense of drama into abstract art. In his large floating rectangles of color, which seem to engulf the spectator, he explored the expressive potential of color contrasts and modulations with a rare mastery of nuance. Yet in spite of the extreme formal refinements of his paintings, Rothko refused to consider them in terms of design and color. “There is no such thing as good painting about nothing,” he claimed. “The subject is crucial and only that subject matter is valid which is tragic and timeless.”



Mark Rothko was born Marcus Rothkowitz in Dvinsk, Russia (today Daugavpils, Latvia), in 1903. At the age of ten he immigrated with his family to the United States, where they settled in Portland, Oregon. Having been awarded a scholarship, Rothko went to Yale University in 1921, but he dropped out two years later and moved to New York. He began to attend classes sporadically at the Art Students League, where his teacher, Max Weber, encouraged him to work in an expressionist manner. The modernist painter Milton Avery, who met and befriended Rothko in 1928, also made a profound impression on the younger artist through his simplified and colorful depictions of domestic subjects.

In the 1930s, while earning his living by teaching art classes for children, Rothko painted mostly street scenes and interiors with figures. Rejecting conventional modes of representation, he stressed an emotional approach to the subject—an approach he admired in children’s art—and he adopted a style characterized by deliberate deformations and a crude application of paint. An air of discomfort and tension pervades Rothko’s art from this period, even after his compositions become more structured in the second half of the decade. Spaces are often claustrophobic and figures are distorted, cramped in the corner of a room or awkwardly framed by a window. In his subway scenes the isolated and attenuated figures of passengers merge with the iron pillars of the platform on which they appear to be trapped. Street Scene of c.1937 shows three figures dwarfed by an imposing architectural element that blocks off two-thirds of the canvas. The bold division of the surface and the tension it creates between depth and flatness produce a dramatic effect and prefigure the mood and format of Rothko’s later abstract works.

Mark and Mell Rothko standing at the East Cleveland Ohio train station, summer 1949. Photograph courtesy of Kate Rothko Prizel and Christopher Rothko.


In the social climate of anxiety that dominated the late 1930s and the years of World War II, images from everyday life—however unnaturalistic—began to appear somewhat outmoded. If art were to express the tragedy of the human condition, Rothko felt, new subjects and a new idiom had to be found: “It was with the utmost reluctance that I found the figure could not serve my purposes….But a time came when none of us could use the figure without mutilating it.” Together with artists such as Jackson Pollock and Adolph Gottlieb, Rothko turned for inspiration to the myths of antiquity, especially those featured in Greek tragedy. For Rothko these myths were “the eternal symbols upon which we must fall back to express basic psychological ideas. They are the symbols of man’s primitive fears and motivations.” In his paintings of the early 1940s he combined modernist dislocations with friezes of heads and architectural motifs harking back to ancient relief sculpture from Egypt, Mesopotamia, and Greece. The hybrid figure of Untitled, 1941–1942, thus appears as a modern version of the half-human/half-beast creatures from mythology.

Rothko’s interest in myths and symbols was stimulated by the example of the surrealists, several of whom had recently immigrated to New York from war-torn Europe. Inspired by the surrealist technique of automatism—which consists in letting the brush meander without conscious control in an attempt to release the creative forces of the unconscious—Rothko loosened up his technique and developed a more abstract imagery. In remarkably free watercolors of the mid-1940s, related to the art of the surrealists Joan Miró, André Masson, and Arshile Gorky, Rothko explored the fluidity of the medium to evoke a vision of primeval life. Biomorphic forms dance before a background of horizontal bands that resemble geological strata or the layers of a submarine universe. Through their luminosity and transparency Rothko’s watercolors of this period marked a turning point in his career. The artist soon achieved similar effects in his oil paintings by diluting his pigments and applying his paint in very thin, overlapping glazes.


Between 1947 and 1950 all figurative associations and references to the natural world disappeared from Rothko’s paintings. Linear elements were progressively eliminated as asymmetrically arranged patches of color became the basis of his compositions. In these so-called multiforms the liquid paint soaks the canvas, leaving soft, indistinct edges, while whitish outlines surround some of the shapes like haloes. Rothko now relied on these shapes, which replaced the earlier biomorphic motifs, to convey emotional states. For him, eschewing representation permitted greater clarity: “the elimination of all obstacles between the painter and the idea and between the idea and the observer.”

By 1950 Rothko had reduced the number of floating rectangles to two, three, or four and aligned them vertically against a colored ground, arriving at his signature style. From then on he would work almost invariably within this format, suggesting in numerous variations of color and tone an astonishing range of atmospheres and moods. Rothko also now resisted explaining the meaning of his work. “Silence is so accurate,” he said, fearing that words would only “paralyze” the viewer’s mind and imagination. For the same reason Rothko largely abandoned conventional titles in 1947, sometimes resorting to numbers or colors in order to distinguish one work from another.


You might as well get one thing straight….I am not an abstractionist.

…I’m not interested in relationships of color or form or anything else.

…I’m interested only in expressing basic human emotions—tragedy, ecstasy, doom, and so on.


Throughout his life Rothko considered painting to be a philosophical enterprise. Visual sensations were not an end in themselves but only a means of communicating spiritual truths. A fervent of the nineteenth-century German philosophy Friedrich Nietzsche, Rothko embraced the Nietzschean vision of tragedy—and art in general—as a fusion of rational order and irrational impulses. In Rothko’s paintings, this translates into carefully calculated measures and proportions combined with the belief that expanses of color have a mysterious, mesmerizing power to move the viewer. In his unprecedented harmonies Rothko altered the traditional psychological values assigned to color. For him a painting like No. 5, in which a red band interrupts fields of yellow and orange, was not as optimistic as people were inclined to perceive it; “it is tragedy instead,” he said.

Fascinated—as was Nietzsche—by the capacity of music to arouse emotions, Rothko aspired “to raise painting to the level of the poignancy of music and poetry.” To this end he resorted to an impressive panoply of visual effects. Each canvas is composed of several thin layers of paint applied in various degrees of saturation and transparency. By letting the background show through intermittently, this meticulous application turns the top layers into luminous, translucent veils. The feathery brush strokes that blur the edges, in contrast with the bold, sweeping strokes that modulate the large surfaces, transform the rectangles into soft hovering forms. There is no traditional effect of perspective, but a suggestion of shallow space brings the colors forward as if to envelop the viewer—an impression reinforced by the absence of a frame and the large size of the canvas. “I paint large pictures,” Rothko explained, “because I want to create a state of intimacy.”

Although Rothko repudiated any single interpretation of his paintings, his large fields of color have often been associated with landscape painting, especially with the vast, awe-inspiring open spaces of nineteenth-century romantic landscape. If one focuses, however, on the structure of Rothko’s works, their rectangular forms and insistent compartmentalization also suggest comparisons with architecture—a view supported by the continuity between Rothko’s early street and subway scenes and the format of his classic paintings. Rothko was the product of an urban culture and, as such, more likely to locate the tragic element of modern life within the architectural spaces of the city.

Mark Rothko Mell Rothko and Clyfford Still in San Francisco. Photograph courtesy of Kate Rothko Prizel and Christopher Rothko.


In 1958 Rothko was invited to create a series of mural paintings for the Four Seasons restaurant in the Seagram Building in New York. Although he eventually withdrew from the commission, realizing that a dining room was not an appropriate setting for his art, he produced several sets of paintings for this project in which he experimented with a new format and darker palette. Red or brown open rectangles advance or recede on a maroon background, articulating the canvas the way pilasters and moldings define the surfaces of Renaissance architecture, a source acknowledged by the artist.

Rothko’s palette also changed in his easel paintings after 1957. He abandoned the luscious reds, yellows, and oranges that he had favored since 1950 and turned to somber tones of brown, dark reds, olive greens, blues, and blacks. White or red forms occasionally break through this darkness, as in No. 1 (White and Red), to create a strong effect of light and shade that could be likened to the works of Rembrandt, one of Rothko’s favorite old masters, in which a ray of light illuminates a dark setting.

Rothko received his most important mural commission in the mid-1960s, for a chapel at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas (now known as the Rothko Chapel). The austere black, deep crimson, and purple canvases he produced on this occasion are perhaps his most challenging works. Gone are the seductive contrasts of color, now replaced by subtle differences between matte and shiny surfaces. Gone as well as the sensuous, feathery edges; instead, forms are defined by straight borders. The large scale of these panels, their placement within the chapel, and the proportions of the forms, which Rothko determined to the eighth of an inch, increase their solemnity, creating, by the account of most visitors, a compelling atmosphere of spirituality.


Following a heart attack in 1968, Rothko gave up the physical effort required of painting large-scale canvases and concentrated on small acrylics on paper. Excited by the possibilities of this quick-drying medium, he produced a group of paintings that depart from his previous work by their vibrant, expressive brushwork and wide range of color. In some of them Rothko used a new, muted palette of pale grays, blues, and mauves, in which highlights of white make the surface flicker.

Rothko’s last great achievement is a series of brown or black and gray paintings of 1969–1970 in which he once again created variations on a single compositional structure. This time, however, he altered the format significantly, dividing the canvas into two fields surrounded by a clean white border (adapted from the use of masking tape to attach sheets of paper to the easel). This series epitomizes, in an ascetic mode, some of the contrasts Rothko had explored earlier—in a more colorful context—between light and dark, and between calm and agitated surfaces. The serenity of the dark zone, painted more evenly, stands out against the turbulent brushwork of the lower section of gray modulated by shades of ocher or blue. The sharply defined margin is a striking new feature in Rothko’s art. It establishes a more complex interplay between the work and the viewer, the latter being at once drawn into the painting by its sensuous treatment, and kept at distance by the stark framing device.

Suffering from illness and depression, Rothko committed suicide on February 25, 1970. By the time of his death, art in America had changed drastically. The formal exuberance and metaphysical anguish of the abstract expressionists had given way to the cool, impersonal approach of the pop and minimalist painters. Rothko’s role in the development of abstract art in our century was essential. In his vibrant, disembodied veils of colors he asserted with a new immediacy the power of abstraction to convey strong emotional or spiritual content.

About the author

Isabelle Dervaux, Acquavella Curator of Modern and Contemporary Drawings, The Morgan Library & Museum, and formerly associate curator, department of exhibition programs, National Gallery of Art, Washington.

Originally published as a brochure by the National Gallery of Art, Washington, for the exhibition Mark Rothko (1998). The Gallery maintains the largest public collection of art by Mark Rothko and will be publishing a digital catalogue raisonné of the artist’s works on paper. See the catalogue in progress at



♪♪ O0 C1 Auctioneer: Lot 20 is next.

The Mark Rothko 'Orange, Red, Yellow,' and $24 million starts.

$24 million, $25 million, $26 million, $27 million, $28 million, $29 million, $30 million, $31 million, $32 million, $33 million, $45 million, $53 million, $56 million... White: Typically for a high-profile lot that we sell, you're looking at two to three minutes would be sort of an average time frame, and for the Rothko, the bidding war lasted for seven minutes, with over 50 bids made.

Auctioneer: $74 million.

What's that, $75 million?

$75 million, $77-million-5, and selling to Brett Spitter.

Fair warning, all done at $77,500,000.

Brett Spitter at $77-million-5.

[ Applause ] White: Not only was this sale the world record for the artist, at the time, it was the most expensive postwar and contemporary artwork ever sold in the world.

Kate: I think he would have been appalled.

The auction prices now really reflect a culture in which paintings are considered an investment rather than something you really care about and want to live with.

He often said, 'A painting lives in the eyes of a sensitive viewer,' and I think that particular audience was what he cared about.

♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ Mancusi-Ungaro: I think Rothko is one of our great American artists.

♪♪ Fujimura: A Rothko is deceptively simple and yet profound.

♪♪ Mancusi-Ungaro: There's nothing simple about Rothko's work.

It's actually very complex.

If you think it is simple, you should try to do it yourself.

♪♪ Christopher: I think my father really communicated the seriousness of painting.

The painting wasn't something just to look at.

It wasn't something that you appreciated because it appealed simply to the senses.

Kate: I think he wanted the viewer to look inside themselves and see what the painting brought out in them.

♪♪ Fujimura: I've known few people who have sat in front of Rothko for an hour, and it has literally changed their life.

Mark Rothko's work opens you up in ways that you're not expecting.

♪♪ Bickelhaupt: I used to think that Rothko paintings were just these easy squares... ...and the longer I look at the Rothko paintings, the more I see these worlds, these kind of locations that he wants us to go to, and I like that.

Then it's open, you know?

What is my experience going to be is gonna be different than what your experience is gonna be, and both of them are right.

♪♪ Fujimura: It's very unusual that he created something cohesively.

A century later, it can expand into a language that we didn't know that we needed.

This chaotic time that we live in, the angst, the anxiety, all of that is given a framework by Mark Rothko.

Today is a great time, great context to revisit a Mark Rothko and -- and sit in front of it for hours and hours.

♪♪ ♪♪ [ Floor creaking ] Molina: Well, I've -- I've played Mark Rothko on stage a few hundred times now over the years, and I don't think I'll ever play as deep and as complicated a role again.

I think this is -- This is my King Lear.

Mark: L-Look at the tension between the blocks of color.

Molina: The first thing I connected with Mark Rothko was the fact that he was an immigrant.

My parents were immigrants to the U.K.

I think that particular mind-set of being taken away from your home and going to a new country and all the issues and problems that you have to confront with that.

♪♪ Christopher: My father was born in Dvinsk, which was then a part of the Russian Empire.

Margles: Dvinsk was part of the Pale of Settlement, which was this wide swath of land where Jews were allowed to live, and anti-Semitism was rampant.

There was an incredible military presence in Dvinsk.

His brother Moise writes about the Cossacks running through town on horseback and whipping the townspeople, and Mark actually suggests that he has a scar on his nose that was caused by such a whip.

Christopher: My father's father and his two older brothers were conscripted into the Tsar's army, and they decided that they would rather flee than fight.

It would have been very unlikely that they would have seen more than a couple of winters in the army, so they decided to emigrate to the U.S.

[ Horn blows ] Kate: My father left Dvinsk in 1913.

Christopher: And they came by steamer to the U.S.

and landed at Ellis Island.

Margles: Between 1880 and 1924, 2.5 million Jews came to the United States from Imperial Russia.

Kate: They fairly immediately got on a train to Portland, Oregon.

[ Train whistle blows ] There was a relative, the Weinsteins, who had already settled there, and therefore it seemed like a likely place for my grandfather to decide to try to settle.

Molina: 'My mother fixed me up with one of those Buster Brown suits.

You don't know what it's like to be a Jewish kid dressed in a suit made in Dvinsk, not an American idea of a suit.

Traveling across America, not able to speak a word of English, I could never forgive transplantation to a land where I never felt at home.'

Guenther: Rothko arrives in this country as Markus Rothkowitz.

[ Bell dings ] It's an event that shapes his being his entire life.

Kate: And within less than a year of my father's arrival, my grandfather died, quite young, of cancer.

Rabin: And Mark had to raise money for the family by selling newspapers.

This was something that a lot of the immigrant kids did and would come home beaten up because the other guys didn't want another corner taken up.

♪♪ He also got a job in his uncle's store, the New York Outfitting Company in downtown Portland.

Things sometimes got quiet, and Mark would doodle or draw on New York Outfitting wrapping paper.

His uncle happened to come by one day and say, 'Mark, what are you doing?'

and Mark would show him.

He says, 'Uh-uh, you're not gonna be able to earn a living that way.'

Guenther: In high school, Markus Rothkowitz is a bit of a troublemaker, moody, intellectual, politically interested.

He's very aware of workers' rights, fair salaries, decent housing, and he becomes known as a mouthy young man.

Mark Rothko graduated in three years from Lincoln High School, and there was an article in 'The Oregonian' that noted that three young men had gotten full scholarships to go to Yale University from the graduating class of Lincoln High School.

The scholarships are withdrawn the second year because Yale wasn't ready to have verbal, accomplished, politically inclined Jewish students in the middle of the bastion of WASP culture.

The second year, he supports himself by working in a laundry downtown, and he works in a dining hall with all the swells.

He gets through his second year and decides that he can't go on, and instead of coming home, he goes to New York.

♪♪ ♪♪ Cooper: In the art scene in New York in the '20s, it's unimaginably small.

♪♪ I think everybody knew everybody, and to study modern art in any sense, you really went to the Art Students League.

♪♪ It's a place where there were open studios and modeling sessions, and artists dropped in and connected, got to know everybody on the scene.

♪♪ Molina: 'I went to New York to wander around, bum about, starve a bit.

Then one day, I wandered into an art class.

All the students were sketching this nude model.

I thought it was marvelous.

I was intoxicated by it, and right away I decided that was the life for me.'

Kate: I think my father's approach was really a philosophical one when I look back at how he made his decision to become a visual artist.

I think he was really searching around to look for what medium he could use to express the ideas and the emotions he wanted to convey to the public.

Christopher: My father became very friendly with Milton Avery, starting in the 1920s, which was essential for him both to have a mentor, as an artist, someone he could really look up to and learn from and spend time in their studio because he'd had no experience with that.

The Averys actually fed him a great deal when he really had barely 2 cents to scrape together in those early years and particularly during the Depression.

♪♪ I think that if you look at my father's figurative work from that period, you can see a lot of indebtedness to Avery, who was painting figurative paintings, but highly abstracted, highly stylized, not looking to depict visual reality as we see it, but to capture a feeling and emotion of time and place.

There are hundreds of early figurative works by my father, both on canvas and on paper.

♪♪ ♪♪ Cooper: His first paintings, that we know of are from those early years, were not terribly promising.

He doesn't seem to have a lot of facility right out of the gate.

He sticks with it for some reason, and it's a long career with wonderful twists and turns until he -- he becomes Rothko, until he finds himself, you could say.

♪♪ Rabin: In the summer of 1933, Mark and his new wife, Edith, hitchhiked across the country to visit with family in Portland.

And where did they stay?

Not with his mother, no.

With his sister? No.

They camped in the West Hills, somewhere in the West Hills, overlooking the Willamette to the east side.

While they were up there, Mark painted the landscape.

We saw an east side that had trees, and he gave these very sweet watercolor paintings to members of the family.

Reiter: My family thought he was a little crazy [chuckles] sleeping out on the hillside and hitchhiking across the country.

[ Indistinct conversations ] Rabin: Whenever they came, I would have a brunch.

We had a deck outside of the house, and I'd gather all the family that I could, and it was just a nice warm gathering.

♪♪ Christopher: I think my father's family never quite understood this whole idea of being an artist or certainly what his artwork was about, and yet he remained very close to them.

They were central to his life.

♪♪ Reiter: That's my father, Moise.

This is Albert, and this is Mark.

I felt very close to him, even though I didn't see him very often because he lived in New York, but I used to write letters to him.

My mother used to complain that he never sent home any money.

[ Laughs ] But he was a poor starving artist.

Christopher: My father's brothers were far more practical than he was, and they went on to pursue careers as pharmacists, which was the family -- the family business for a few generations, and they were sometimes resentful that the youngest child went off in pursuing this crazy career as an artist when he had a mother to support.

Reiter: Part of the family used to make fun of his paintings.

Rabin: His eldest sister honestly said to him at that time, 'I don't understand a thing about your art.

Mark, paint me a picture that I can understand.'

So, as a dutiful brother, he did paint her a picture that she could understand, a small picture.

[ Indistinct conversations ] Christopher: It's always been remarkable to me that for the first 25 or 30 years of his career, my father created so much artwork, but it was all done nights and weekends because he had a day job as a teacher, and he was selling essentially zero paintings.

I think he must have questioned many times whether making art was going to be the answer to what he was gonna do with his life.

Kate: We believe he struggled with depression, from everything we can piece together, in the very early 1940s.

We know he had a period, really at least a year, when he did not really paint.

We also know at that time that his first marriage was not going well.

She viewed herself as a jewelry maker, as an artist.

I don't think my father really considered her an artist, and I think that was actually a source of a fair amount of tension between the two of them.

She wanted him to help her with her arts, and she felt she was the one who was supporting the family, and he was set in pursuing exactly what he was doing.

So I think it was a tumultuous relationship, but his level of depression seems to have gone beyond just being a reaction to what was going on around him.

[ Indistinct conversations ] ♪♪ ♪♪ Well, in the late '30s, my father was working on a series of paintings related to the New York subway.

It's a very strange and lonely scene in many ways, and, you know, that may reflect how he felt.

In one way, New York was treating him well, but in another way, it was a place where he was really struggling at the time.

♪♪ Cooper: They are very moving and disturbing images... ...figures almost hiding between and behind the columns, very elongated, emaciated.

There's a sense of maybe being in a catacomb.

Christopher: And you can see almost the geometric configurations that he's looking at and playing with, that he will be doing in a purely abstract way 15 years later or so.

♪♪ ♪♪ Krueger: What we do here at the National Gallery, we're caring for handmade objects that have ended up here in Washington, D.C.

This incredibly rare treasured collection is ours to learn about, to study, and to take care of.

♪♪ The challenge of working with masterpieces is that they're irreplaceable.

There's a lot of responsibility on the conservator making right decisions, using the right materials.

The picture I'm working on today is a late picture of a Rothko, late 1969.

Picture sustained a few impact cracks from the reverse, so the canvas was flexed and the slightly more brittle paint on the surface cracked.

The cracks have slightly raised, and you can begin to see the white ground below this dark black paint.

What I am doing is just flowing the right black color into these cracks so that you don't see them anymore.

The cracks just -- I mean, they haven't physically closed, but you no longer see the white of a crack.

Reversibility is a key tenant of modern conservation, with the idea being that everything we do can be safely undone.

So if you apply retouching for a loss, you want that material to be very soluble 50 years from now if somebody ever needs to remove it.

A lot of what we do is, if you can get a picture to present well in the gallery so that your eye keeps moving across the surface and doesn't stop, you've accomplished a lot.

You've probably accomplished all you need to do.

♪♪ Pretty much by the mid-'40s, Rothko evolved a way of painting with very, very thin paint layers.

He stretches cotton duck canvas, and he seals it with rabbit-skin glue, but he pigments the glue first, and then on top of that colored layer, then he'll work with very, very thin layers of oil paint, very thin layers of handmade paints, where he's mixing pigment in damar resin or he's mixing pigment in eggs.

If you look at any Rothko very carefully, you'll start to see variations in matte and gloss, variations in opacity, and these all had to do with how he changes media.

Mancusi-Ungaro: I think the layering creates an aura about them.

I think they enticed us visually to enter them.

The oil surface can almost push you away, the viewer, whereas these layers that incorporate different materials invite you in because some are shiny and some are not and some are moving and some are not, and it's a -- it's a much more engaging surface than something that's just flat.

Krueger: For me, the best thing about working on Rothko is having developed this connection over many, many years, things I've worked on, things I've instructed fellows and interns on.

He's a very special painter to me.

♪♪ Guenther: Rothko changed his name in 1940 because of an offhand comment by his dealer, who observed that she had too many Jewish artists, and she couldn't offer him a show, and he realized that he could solve this problem by shortening his name to Mark Rothko, American citizen.

Kate: My father and an Adolph Gottlieb began to work on a series of paintings which were highly influenced by Greek myth.

♪♪ Guenther: Whereas traditional American painting wanted to create the sense of depth, the space of the real world on the canvas, Rothko and Gottlieb abandoned that, and they, in very modern, contemporary voice, create a flat picture.

♪♪ ♪♪ In 1943, there's a major exhibition in which Adolph Gottlieb and Mark Rothko participate.

It is the first foray by the modern painters of New York.

It is a gauntlet thrown down against the establishment of American art.

It's reviewed in 'The New York Times' by Edward Jewell, a conservative art critic, who pans the exhibition, who finds in these fledgling modernists the immigrant voice, the non-American voice, and he's very critical.

Cooper: Rothko and Gottlieb write a letter to 'The New York Times,' which has now gone down in history because it's really a manifesto and it's not just a complaint.

Molina: 'We salute this honest, we might say cordial, reaction to towards our obscure paintings, and we appreciate the gracious opportunity that is being offered us to present our views.

We do not intend to defend our pictures.

They make their own defense.'

Cooper: 'Times' publishes the whole thing, and midway through, they articulate these five points.

Number one, 'To us art is an adventure into an unknown world, which can be explored only by those willing to take the risks.'

Christopher: Number two, 'The world of the imagination is fancy-free and violently opposed to common sense.'

Mancusi-Ungaro: Three, 'It is our function as artists to make the spectator see the world our way, not his way.'


Cooper: Number four, 'We are for flat forms because they destroy illusion and reveal truth.'

Christopher: Number five.

Mancusi-Ungaro: 'There is no such thing...' Cooper: ' good painting about nothing.'

Christopher: 'We assert that the subject is crucial...' Cooper: '...which is tragic and timeless.'

Mancusi-Ungaro: 'Sincerely yours, Adolph Gottlieb...' Molina: '...and Markus Rothko.'

Cooper: It's wonderful. [ Laughs ] I think it tells a lot about that particular time that it was written.

It introduces language which will become the common language of art studios in New York.

Mancusi-Ungaro: They were breaking away from a tradition, and in so doing, you almost have to destroy the tradition you're breaking away from.

♪♪ It makes perfect sense to me that they would feel the way they did because they were striking out, doing something new and different.

They knew it, too.

Guenther: In the mid- to late 1940s in New York, there was a new artistic movement emerging that was uniquely American, and it came to be known as abstract expressionism.

A group of artists that included Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Lee Krasner, Joan Mitchell, Clyfford Still, along with Rothko and Gottlieb, and they were experimenting with the voice and the look of art.

Cooper: Before this time, American painters, they traveled to Europe, then they went home, and nobody really heard of them again.

Right after World War II, all of that changes.

Mancusi-Ungaro: I think the abstract expressionists were interested in big ideas, big concepts based in human energy and human response.

They launched into the abstraction.

You're standing in front of a color or standing in front of an abstract form and standing in front of large paintings, I mean, very large paintings.

I mean, it was just such a huge achievement or a challenge, excitement to paint something that large.

Guenther: And this is the great moment for Rothko in which the physical act of painting becomes the picture the viewer experiences, floating color, wiping it, re-layering it to discover the elegance of reflected light and color.

♪♪ Cooper: These painters are the talk of the world, and, in some sense, the center of the art world shifts from Europe, from Paris in particular, to the U.S. and to New York.

It's a huge moment that we're -- we're still dealing with.

♪♪ Christopher: In the mid-1940s, my father moves into his first purely abstracted style, which has come to be known as the Multiforms.

♪♪ Kate: I believe my father in some way began to feel that the human figure interfered with his ability to directly connect with his viewer.

♪♪ Molina: 'It was with the utmost reluctance that I found the figure could not serve my purposes, but a time came when none of us could use the figure without mutilating it.'

Mancusi-Ungaro: There were a lot of ideas that he was playing out with the Multiforms, and I feel a certain exuberance, in a refined way.

I mean, I don't think he was an exuberant person, but I-I feel a sense of excitement in them, that he -- he was getting into something that was beginning to work.

♪♪ ♪♪ Fujimura: There's a technical term called Nihonga, which is Japanese-style painting.

Feel the paintings done on paper, stretched over canvas, starts with 80 to 100 layers of very thin mineral pigments, just to get it started, and, yes, I am directly quoting Rothko when I'm layering.

I think he would have loved the material of Nihonga.

[ Water splashing ] It is slow art and slow work, but I think part of the layering is to capture that sense of time in the layers.

♪♪ Mark Rothko -- he not only painted in layers, but he thought in layers.

It's very clear from his writings.

He was able to integrate and even construct a way the color fields work, and these layers work in very subtle ways that allow for a new world to open up.

Just magical to me.

That doesn't make sense, but that's what you experience.

Mark Rothko painted the abyss, and he's inviting us to stand on that abyss.

Now, you can say that is a despair-filled experience, but I think it's also an invitation to hope.

I don't mean this sentimental feeling of hope, but I mean that it makes me want to go into my studio and paint, and that is my act of hope.

♪♪ ♪♪ Christopher: My father met my mother shortly after his first marriage ended.

♪♪ Kate: Well, this photo, it's actually one of the few pictures I have as a baby with my father, and there he certainly looks like a pretty doting father.

Maybe even at the age of 47, 48, he enjoyed having one of his own instead of just teaching children.

I would consider my father a very concerned father, certainly a very loving and involved father.

In some ways, he is my vision of the classical father, who was gone 9:00 to 6:00 and, you know, came home for dinner and spent a little time with me in the evening.

Some of my fondest memories are actually Sunday mornings with him.

♪♪ Christopher: My primary memories of them are sitting in bed, reading the paper, always smoking, always smoking, and their sheets had multiple, multiple cigarette burns and holes in them.

It's just -- It's, like, that's literally burned into my memory.

[ Chuckles ] ♪♪ ♪♪ Krueger: In 1949, Rothko develops the style that will make him one of the most recognized artists of the 20th century.

♪♪ Christopher: He finds a format where he can make full and direct expression of the ideas he's wanted to express for so long.

Guenther: For me, the excitement in '49 to '50 are the way he celebrates the edge.

♪♪ Color blocks come together, and they begin to sit in relationship to each other.

It is that gap between in which the magic begins to develop.

Fujimura: There's a turning point in your life that you can just mark and say, 'This is when I found my voice,' voice that is a destination of everything that you've done in the past, and that is a fertile place for an artist.

♪♪ He was always in self-doubt mode, always struggled with his own internal voice.

So when Rothko found his style, he settled in that place of belonging.

Guenther: It represented the penultimate expression of that thing that Rothko had looked for his entire life.

He found a place to live and celebrate and a vehicle for his anguish.

♪♪ ♪♪ Christopher: My father and Pollock and de Kooning and Motherwell quickly become household names through articles in places like Magazine.

Suddenly, these were the wunderkinds at age 50 of the art world.

Guenther: By the '50s, when Rothko hits his stride, he starts to sell.

Betty Parsons Gallery represents him, and she does a series of five shows, each of them more and more successful.

Mark: I was walking up to my house last week, and a couple was passing.

The lady looks inside my window and says, 'Ooh, I wonder who owns all those Rothkos.'

[ Laughter ] Just like that, I've become a noun -- a Rothko.

Ken: A commodity.

Mark: An overmantel. Ken: A what?

Mark: The overmantels, you know, those paintings doomed to become mere decoration over the fireplace in the fancy-schmancy penthouse.

Oh, they say to you, 'I need something to work with the sofa.'

You understand?

'Something bright and cheery for the breakfast nook, which is orange.

You got something in orange or burnt umber or seafoam green?

Here's a paint chip from the Sherwin-Williams.

Oh, and can you chop it down to fit the sideboard?'

[ Horns honking ] [ Siren wailing in distance ] Logan: In 1958, the Seagram's Corporation finished constructing an amazing modernist building on Park Avenue, and within this modernist masterpiece, there's going to be a beating heart and it's gonna be a restaurant called The Four Seasons.

And architect Philip Johnson went to Mark Rothko and said, 'Why don't you create a series of murals that could go in our dining room?'

The commission was $35,000, and in 1958, that was a huge amount of money, reputed to be the most an artist had ever been paid in America for a series of works.

Mark: My first murals.

Imagine a frieze all around the room, a continuous narrative filling the walls one to another, each a new chapter, the story unfolding.

You look, and they are there, inescapable and inexorable.

Logan: I mean, of all the patrons who could have approached Mark Rothko, Philip Johnson was unique because he was a provocative voice in American design and American art, and Rothko admired him greatly.

So for him, it was the perfect combination of voices creating modern art.

♪♪ ♪♪ Mancusi-Ungaro: The Seagram paintings, they're an artist experimenting with much less color.

♪♪ This is an enormous challenge for an artist to take on, an artist that's known primarily for color.

He's doing something very different, and I think they must have been very hard for him.

Christopher: There is some question about what he was told, what he understood about what the nature of that restaurant was going to be.

Kate: His story was that he would be painting for an employees' dining room and, as an old Socialist, that made him feel, you know, reasonably comfortable, but I think he may have known more than that.

In the fall of 1959, they were invited to dinner at the restaurant, which since then had been completed, but I remember their coming home.

My father was so upset by his visit to the restaurant that he came in yelling, you know, that he was absolutely going to withdraw from this, and I'm sure my mother was trying to calm him down.

Mark: Philip?

This is Rothko.

Listen, I went to the restaurant last night, and let me tell you, anyone who eats that kind of food for that kind of money in that kind of joint will never look at a painting of mine.

Now, I-I-I'm sending the money back, and I'm keeping the pictures.

Ye-- No offense.

Yeah, well, this is the way it goes.

Good luck to you, buddy.

Logan: I think there must have been a liberation in that call, in realizing it was the truest version of himself.

♪♪ Christopher: My father was nothing if not principled, and ultimately he cared more about the well-being of his artwork and the expressive message that he was trying to bring than the prestige of having the Seagram commission and even the $35,000, which he sorely needed.

Guenther: And so those murals, which he had labored on for months and started again and rebuilt just went into storage.

They effectively were hidden.

I think the Seagram mural process helped define Rothko as an individual.

It comes back to his questioning his politics, and his reality as an artist, the artist as underdog, as thorn in the side of society, as observer.

♪♪ ♪♪ Christopher: In 1964, my father was commissioned by the de Menil family of Houston to create what was then going to be a Catholic chapel on the University of St. Thomas campus in Houston.

I think my father felt that John and Dominique really understood his seriousness as an artist and the -- the deeper meaning or the deeper content behind his paintings.

♪♪ Molina: 'The magnitude on every level of experience and meaning of the task in which you have involved me exceeds all my preconceptions, and it is teaching me to extend myself beyond what I thought was possible for me.

For this, I thank you.'

♪♪ Mancusi-Ungaro: It must have been a huge compliment to him.

Not only, in this case, was he given a space as he was at the Seagram's, here he had an opportunity for the space and the paintings to work together, to take the works of art to another dimension.

Kate: In order to create this space, he found a carriage house on 69th Street in New York.

It allowed him to re-create three walls of the chapel.

[ Hammering ] I frequently saw him sitting and agonizing about the paintings, and I mean down to the inch, down to every layering of paint, the exact heights of the different panels.

Christopher: I visited my father in the studio many times as a child, and although I never saw him paint, because he really did not like people to watch him paint -- it was really a solitary journey for him -- he set up long rolls of paper for me to paint on and was very encouraging, and I was just thrilled to be in that space and spending time with him.

I remember his warmth and his enthusiasm about me being there with him.

♪♪ Mancusi-Ungaro: The Rothko Chapel is very much dark paintings.

An urban legend is that he painted these paintings 'cause he was so depressed.

They were a sign, an omen of his upcoming death.

♪♪ I don't think it was that at all.

I look at it that it was a natural progression of where he was going.

He had done so much with color.

He was a master of color and its ability to affect the viewer.

His next step was to take the challenge to eliminate it.

Could he still make paintings?

Could he still make works of art that had that effect?

♪♪ Fujimura: To enter into Rothko Chapel is to enter into a person's soul.

It's kind of a Zen experience.

♪♪ To be surrounded by these works... and feel your way into a painting rather than seeing them, you can directly go to the emotions, the feeling, and that's a contribution that I think very few artists have ever reached.

♪♪ Christopher: The Rothko Chapel remains, I think, a very difficult space for me.

It's one that I don't walk into without thinking that I'm going to spend some time there.

The chapel doesn't just invite.

It really demands the viewer to spend time and think about the big questions.

Mancusi-Ungaro: I like being in the chapel because I like the sense of being with self, and it's really a remarkable sensation to go in the chapel that's quiet and cool and to sit and to just look at these paintings and to see the daylight moving through it.

They're not individual paintings.

The work of art is the entire experience.

It's the space. It's the light.

It's the paintings.

♪♪ It's a wonderful experience.

I encourage everyone to do it.

♪♪ Guenther: Rothko finishes the chapel murals in 1967, and they go into storage.

The chapel won't open until 1971.

It was a moment at which he had completed the most important work of his life, in his mind, and then in April 1968, he suffers a dissecting aortic aneurysm.

It is one of the most serious things that can happen to you, short of a heart attack or stroke.

And for the next year and a half, he struggles.

His doctor doesn't want him to work on canvas.

Physically, he can't lift his arms over 40 degrees.

Christopher: It's actually a small miracle that he -- he survived this because it was a significant -- It was a large rupture.

Kate: Only mode of treatment was to lower the blood pressure fairly extremely, and I think, you know, that not only exhausted him, but, you know, may have contributed in itself to his depression, as well.

♪♪ After that time, he really was limited in what he could do with his paintings.

However, it's interesting because that was perhaps his -- one of his most prolific six to eight months of his entire career.

Christopher: He starts what have become known as the Black on Gray canvases, as well as a series of ambitious large-scale works on paper.

Kate: And then, surprisingly, a group of large papers in pastels, which is perhaps the most amazing, a real departure also from what he had ever done.

I believe now, looking back, that he was struggling with an underlying depressive illness.

Certainly there were family problems.

He had separated from my mother, which was difficult.

He was living in the studio, which must have been a difficult setting, I think a depressing setting in a lot of ways.

On February 25, 1970, some time in the early hours of the morning, as far as we know, my father took his own life, um... and he was found the next morning by a young man who had been assisting him in the studio during that period, and, um... only subsequently did my mother come to the studio and see him.

I was surprised, but not as devastated as when my mother told me how it had happened.

My first reaction was that he had died of something related to his illness.

Christopher: My father had worked for four years exclusively on the chapel commission.

He did not live to see it.

He died just as construction was beginning.

So all plans had been completed, but he never was able to see the space himself.

Mancusi-Ungaro: But he did have the experience of the mural in his studio, so he certainly had a sense of it, and he was very proud of it.

He had his official portrait taken, obviously satisfied with them.

♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ Gale: People definitely seek out the Rothko room here at Tate Modern.

I think we can confidently say that it's seen by millions of people every year.

♪♪ I think one would like to believe that there is a sense of the longevity of the artist through this room.

It did become a space which is in tune with Rothko's own wishes about it.

It is a place to decompress and to think about bigger issues in life.

♪♪ Molina: People are still obsessing about his work, and his work is still being analyzed and -- and re-evaluated.

I think he would have been very happy with that.

I mean, I think the fact that people are still engaged in a dialogue, in a relationship with his work probably the best thing any artist could wish for.

♪♪ Fujimura: Part of what he wanted was future generations to find his work so inspiring and challenging.

♪♪ And that impossibility of Mark Rothko is a puzzle that I want to be part of, to open up, not to solve, but to open up to the next generation and beyond.

♪♪ Molina: 'The most important tool the artist fashions through constant practice is the faith in his ability to produce miracles when they are needed.

Pictures must be miraculous.'

♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ Announcer: To order 'Rothko: Pictures Must Be Miraculous' on DVD, visit Shop PBS, or call 1-800-PLAY-PBS.

This program is also available on Amazon Prime Video.

♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ---


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