Rothko Before

September 25th, 2012 Posted in Art, Galleries/Museums/Exhibits

I’ll never forget the day I first saw a painting by Mark Rothko. I stopped dead in my tracks and just stared. It drew me in. I could not look away. Analyzing why I felt compelled to stay right where I was, I told myself that it was really so simple, anyone could do it. Right? A few areas of color on a canvas. Right? Put it on, move it around. Not so easy. Not like that.

Untitled (Man and Two Women in a Pastoral Setting), 1940

I apparently am not the only one who feels this way. I am sure there are many who don’t appreciate his style, but his admirers are legendary and worldwide. Another of my favorite artists, Marcia Myers, was greatly influenced by Rothko.  I think it is the apparent simplicity and amazing depth of color that he achieved. Rothko’s works glow from within.

It was not always that way. Marcus Rothkowitz, born in Russia in 1903, emigrated to the U.S. with his mother and sister in 1913, joining his father and elder brothers. He later received a scholarship to Yale, but dropped out after two years, finding the school too racist and elitist. He was first introduced to art in 1923 while meeting a friend at the Art Students League of New York. He spent the 30′s taking classes and meeting artists who eventually formed his circle of friends in the years to come. In January, 1940, he changed his name to Mark Rothko, subtly setting the stage for his growth as an artist.

NY Subway / Untitled (Subway), 1937

The 1940s witnessed Rothko transition from traditionalist to modernist. From landscapes and portraits to multiforms and zones of color. On September 14, 2012, the Columbia (SC) Museum of Art opened Mark Rothko: The Decisive Decade 1940-1950, exploring this influential decade of Rothko’s maturation as an artist. In conjunction with the National Gallery of Art, the recipient of the Mark Rothko Foundation’s 296 paintings and more than 600 drawings, the exhibition explores the path Rothko took to Abstract Expressionism.

Untitled, 1947

Even while Rothko painted landscapes, he was attracted to shapes rather than details. Early on he was influenced by the NY subway, with its vertical lines and repetition. His work gradually morphed into shapes without sharp corners, always with vivid colors. He painted in oils, first applying a binder layer mixed with pigment, followed by many layers of paint thinned so much as to be almost transparent. These were applied by different sized brushes in different directions and then worked by rubbing and blotting to produce subtle gradations to the hues.  

Untitled, 1947

The last couple years of the 1940s saw Rothko discover the style he would stick with for years to come. The amorphous shapes transformed into two or three rectangular color blocks that did not touch the edges, but rather appeared to float. It was at this time that Rothko also ceased giving his paintings titles, but merely numbered them with dates.  

No. 18, 1948


Untitled [Violet, Black, Orange, Yellow on White and Red], 1949


The results have produced arguably one of the world’s most important artists of the 20th century. His works continue to set records at auction, with “No.1 (Royal Red and Blue)” going on the auction block for Sotheby‘s Contemporary Art Evening Auction on November 13, 2012.


No. 1, 1954

Mark Rothko: The Decisive Decade 1940-1950 will be at the Columbia Museum of Art
through January 6, 2013 and open at the Columbus (OH) Museum of Art on February 1, 2013.

 P.S. Red Maroons, 1962 is Cleveland’s only Rothko…



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