Mark Rothko (1903-1970)

The artist was born in Dvinsk, Russia and named Marcus Rothkowitz in 1903. He emigrated to the United States in 1913 with his family. He adopted the name Rothko in 1940, legally changing it in 1958.

In learning about this artist it is important to realize that this painting--totally abstract as it is--did not just suddenly come about one day as the result of a single idea. Rather it was the result of many, many years of looking at other artwork--including Greek vases with their horizontally arranged bands of figures--analyzing the content of not only other artists' work, but also that of the European Surrealists, Northwest and Native American art with its transcendental and/or spiritual qualities. Its totally consuming presence is a result of years of painting, growth in his chosen medium, his studies of philosophy and psychology, primitive art and mythic themes, all united in his mature work, such as the one on view at Sheldon.

As a student of Josef Albers, Rothko's work may seem at first glance much like that of his mentor. However, in fact, "the two artists' paintings have very little in common. Rothko's canvases are huge, Albers' quite small. Rothko's edges are soft and blurred, Albers' precise. Most important, Rothko's expression is emotional, Albers' more intellectual."1

"In 1964, eight years after Mark Rothko painted the Sheldon Gallery's Yellow Band, the artist shrouded his studio skylight with a parachute, creating a dimly lit gloom he found ideal for his work. Increasingly, if not systematically, his work darkened. His last paintings and large works on paper are his simplest; divided approximately in half, the works are executed in black over blackened brown or gray.

"Given the widely published perception of Abstract Expressionist works as recording the artist's creative struggle, in which the process of creating involves an acutely felt, private existential drama, the somber course of Rothko's art seems a metaphor for the artist's approaching decision to end his own life. Perhaps it is. But Rothko's work involves much larger and more general intentions. . . . Rothko looked inward to find his own art; his search was not for simply a means of self-expression but for a timeless and spiritual image that captured the mythic power of primitive art.

"At first, his floating blocks of color were arranged in a soft-edged geometric arrangement, but later these were swiftly aligned in parallel bands of color, no longer in any way emblematic of totemic or pictographic imagery. They were wholly abstract, resonant forms with 'the impact of the unequivocal.'2

"Thus, the yellow band of the title is hardly a band at all, but a zone of intense color that feathers into bands above and below of a rich orange. All three strata of intensity fade, close to the framing edge, into a surround of thinly brushed pink. It is an image that has dissolved all of Rothko's earlier, more specific references to archaic art into unbounded, floating color. The subject matter, however, remains crucial. For Rothko, the meaning of his work remained fundamentally religious, although without any identifiable object or symbol of worship."3


1. Rita Gilbert and William McCarter, Living with Art, 2nd ed. (New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1988), 443-44.
2. Diane Waldman, Mark Rothko 1903-1970: A Retrospective, exhibition catalogue (New York: Harry N. Abrams, with the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, 1978), 39.
3. Donald B. Doe, "Mark Rothko," in The American Painting Collection of the Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1988), 158.


Mark Rothko, Hatje Cantz Verlag