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Rectangles after rectangles after rectangles. Rothko was a truly prolific artist who found his groove painting hazy swatches of color and stuck with it until the very end. Maybe you've wondered what the point of it all is, or why he did seemingly the same thing over and over again.

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(intro music)
Sarah: You see a painting of a hazy rectangle of color stacked on top of another hazy rectangle of color and you think to yourself "Oh, right. A Rothko. I know that guy," but do you know that guy? Why those hazy rectangles? And why should I care? This is the case for Mark Rothko.

Marcus Rothkowitz was born in 1903 to a Jewish family in Dvinsk, Russia. They immigrated to Portland, Oregon in 1913, but his father died just months after. Marcus was a good student and won a scholarship to Yale, where he did well and discovered his leftist political leanings, but he dropped out in his second year and moved to New York. It was there he set his mind to becoming an artist, and studied at the Art Students League under Max Weber, and learned about cubism, and Matisse, and the German expressionists.

In the 1930's he made paintings influenced by Milton Avery and Matisse. He changed his name to Rothko in 1940, and by the mid 40's was trying out a little surrealism with works like this and this, that drew from classical myths, tapping them as symbols to discuss human tragedy. He also copied Joan Miró a bit, by making pieces like this, and Max Ernst a bit with pieces like this.

He and his buddy Adolph Gottlieb were reading a bunch of Nietzsche and Jung at the time and thinking about the unconscious. With fascism rampant in Europe, and World War II underway, Rothko and other artists at the time thought that following artistic traditions was not only irrelevant, but irresponsible. He and Gottlieb wrote a letter to the New York Times in June of 1943 saying, "There is no such thing as good painting about nothing... we favor the simple expression of complex thought."

Rothko wanted to answer the big questions, and he was trying to find his own way to do that. Large, flat, misty areas of color started appearing in his paintings. The works became more and more reduced, and simplified, and geometric, until he went completely abstract in 1947. By 1950, he had found his jam and then he just kept on doing it.

At the time Rothko's paintings were utterly new. Before then, color was usually tied to narrative content, but Rothko was asking color alone to draw out emotion. yes, he did basically the same thing again and again from 1949 until his death in 1970, but for him it was an extremely useful and seemingly inexhaustible structure, within which he said he could deal, "...with human emotion; with human drama, as much as I can possibly experience it." He said the style offered him, "...the elimination of all obstacles between the painter and the idea, and between idea and the observer."

By getting rid of anything that triggered history, or memory, or narrative, or even geometry, he was trying to create an overwhelming sensory experience for the viewer through monumentality, simplicity, and stillness. Many have described standing before a Rothko as a religious experience. He would layer glazes of color to build hues so deep and rich that they seemed to glow, something renaissance artists like Titian and Giorgione also did to great effect.

The symmetry of Rothko's work also connects it to religious painting. Collector Dominique de Menil said that Rothko's paintings evoke, "...the tragic mystery of our perishable condition. The silence of God. The unbearable silence of God." In 1964, de Menil and her husband John commissioned Rothko to paint a set of murals for an octagonal chapel in Houston, Texas, which you can visit today. The murals are somber, using dark maroon, purplish-red, and black. With these, he wanted to create a sense of enclosure and a space for meditation.

Rothko was a deeply troubled and depressive man. He took his work very seriously and spent a great deal of time and focus and angst in creating each of them. In 1958, he was asked to create a set of murals for the Four Seasons restaurant in the new Seagram building in New York, calling it a, "a place where the rightest bastards in New York will come to feed and show off."

He set to his task using a dark palette and planned for the enormous paintings to hang oppressively overhead, wanting to make the viewers feel they are trapped in a room where all the doors and windows are bricked up, so that all they can do is butt their heads forever against the wall, but he eventually decided to hold back the paintings, and instead gave them to the Tate in 1969 where they still hang today.

Rothko strictly controlled the environment of his paintings, demanding they be shown in low light, in groups, encountered at close quarters, and never mixed with work by other artists. He did this not to be difficult, but because he cared deeply that you have an immersive, transcendent experience. You're not looking at the paintings, you're with them and within them.

More than anything, Rothko wanted to make you feel something, to encounter the undefinable, to stare into the void, to confront universal human tragedy. This isn't painting about nothing. It's painting about everything.