Mark Rothko was one of the artists who shaped a revolution in American painting that took place, historically speaking, in the blink of an eye. In the 1940s in New York, he and his cohorts—Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning and Barnett Newman among the best known—absorbed and transformed the influence of European artists to forge a new visual language and form what many consider to be the first internationally recognized American avant-garde movement. They were called "Abstract Expressionists," but none of them had patience for the label. "Define Abstract Expressionism? I don't know what it means," Rothko said. "I don't get it and I don't think my work has anything to do with Expressionism, abstract or any other."
The artists resisted the label in part because it was vague, but primarily because their work could not have been more different and hardly formed a "school." Pollock and de Kooning favored an aggressive approach described by the critic Harold Rosenberg as "action painting." They were extremely physical with their canvases—de Kooning's nearly violent abrasions and scrapes, Pollock's paint-flinging dance across his compositions—and occupied the opposite end of the spectrum from the more cerebral Rothko and Newman. But the four artists are seen as the nucleus of the generation of American painters who digested the lessons in formal abstraction of Picasso and Kandinsky, passed it through the lens of Surrealism, and emerged on the other side with a monumental style based in color and line that reflected nothing less than the condition of being human.
Rothko's art education, like that of his fellow artists, came primarily from the Art Students League in New York, a loose and curriculum-free institution that provided teachers to artists for a nominal fee, functioning more as an adult education program than an art school in the traditional sense. Though the Art Students League had a wide variety of teachers, the education offered there was rooted in the Realist tradition, and this tradition shaped Rothko's early efforts as a painter. His first subjects were people—his family, groups of figures in urban settings, even the occasional self-portrait. One of these early Realist works, Underground Fantasy [Subway], from 1940, depicts six people on a subway platform. Their bodies are elongated to match the structural columns of the subway station, and each figure occupies its own compartment, separated from each other by the columns. While the spatial treatment suggests a certain psychological component to the painting, the fact that Rothko was still depicting figures 15 years after his enrollment at the Art Students League shows how deeply Realism was entrenched in American artists.
Underground Fantasy [Subway] also reflects a burgeoning interest in the theories of the Surrealists, European artists who were beginning to arrive in New York in the late 1930s and early 1940s as refugees from an increasingly intolerant and conflict-filled Europe. The Surrealists, led by André Breton, Max Ernst and Yves Tanguy, introduced American artists to the belief that interior states—dreams, desires, repressed thoughts—deserved representation after centuries of paintings of the external world. They were well versed in the work of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, and they plumbed the depths of their own psyches with spontaneous drawing games, word associations and outlandish behavior. In New York, they displayed their work in outrageous exhibitions filled with miles of string and moving furniture. Deeply inspired by these artists, Rothko, as well as Pollock and Newman, filled their early sketchbooks and canvases with totemic figures, mythical subjects and dream imagery.
Rothko's works from the early 1940s show the prevalence of the Surrealist influence. He painted works with fantastical subjects and operatic titles—The Syrian Bull and The Omen of the Eagle—and drew directly from Surrealist imagery in works such as Slow Swirl at the Edge of the Sea. Painted just four years after his isolating and claustrophobic subway platform, Slow Swirl demonstrates a definitive shift in Rothko's work as his human figures evolved into biomorphic creatures. Though the painting still clearly references a landscape with a legible foreground, middle ground and background, the composition is given over to two forms composed primarily of lines and suggestions of organs and bones, all organized into human shapes defined by necks and hips. Around them the landscape is punctuated by bursts of line and color, symbols that don't symbolize anything. Slow Swirl at the Edge of the Sea is the result of a figurative painter working his way through the Surrealist language.
Rothko's Surrealist phase was relatively brief, and he would spend the next few years slowly divesting his paintings of any suggestion of symbols or hints of figures to arrive at what we now recognize as his signature style, the idiom that occupied him until his death in 1970. And though he eliminated his explicit Surrealist-derived language, he retained the interest in psychological states that he initially explored through his early figurative work. "I'm not an Abstractionist," he would say later. "I'm not interested in the relationship of color to form, or anything else. I'm interested only in expressing basic human emotions: tragedy, ecstasy, doom and so on. And if you are moved only by their color relationships, then you miss the point!"
His paintings from 1948 until his death—the "Rothkos"—are large square or rectangular works in which loosely defined fields of color, also square or rectangular, emanate from a shallow background, creating the impression that these fields float or hover over the surface of the canvas. For the rest of his life Rothko would work with this same structure while introducing variations—in the colors themselves, the shape and number of the fields, and vertical or horizontal orientations. The paintings, mostly done in oil paint with late, brief excursions into acrylic, are rich and luminous, and descriptions of the paintings—"a loosely defined red square sits on top of a purple rectangle, all in front of a yellow background"—fall far short of the experience of standing in front of them.
Central to the experience is the size of the paintings. These mature works are quite large, compared by some art historians to doorways or large windows. For the artist, the size was used as a primary means to surround the viewer. "I paint large pictures because I want to create a state of intimacy," Rothko said. "To paint a small picture is to place yourself outside the experience. Paint the larger picture and you are in it. It takes you with it. It isn't something you control." To further shape the experience of the viewer, Rothko was meticulous about the presentation of his canvases, specifying down to the inch the height at which his paintings should be hung and the amount of space needed between his works and others. On more than one occasion, he even withdrew from exhibitions because his conditions were not met, and he felt his paintings were either not shown to their full advantage or were too close to those of another artist.
These conditions were of utmost importance to Rothko because he had a heightened sensitivity to the fate of his paintings. He spoke about them as if they were his children and fretted about their ability to survive outside the studio. "A picture lives by companionship, expanding and quickening in the eyes of the observer," he explained. "It dies by the same token. It is therefore a risky act to send it out into the world. How often it must be permanently impaired by the eyes of the unfeeling and the cruel." While he might not have been able to control who would look at his paintings—the unfeeling, the cruel—he certainly did his best to control the encounter they would have with his work. (This impulse reaches its most brilliant realization in the Rothko Chapel in Houston, Texas, where 14 monumental paintings line the walls of a nondenominational sanctuary.)
Those who view Rothko's classic paintings in a spirit of companionship—contemplating them as the artist did when he would spend hours simply staring at an emerging canvas—become aware of a subtle action taking place on the canvas. "I think of my pictures as dramas; the shapes in the pictures are the performers," Rothko said. Like actors, the shapes create and resolve tension, bringing a painting equilibrium in the same way that a novelist or playwright sets characters in motion and eventually offers resolution. A large red square might emerge aggressively from the background and then be counterbalcounterbalanced or reigned in by a smaller but more color-saturated purple rectangle. In a different work, a dark square painted at the top edge of the composition might appear to hover over the surface of the canvas, tethered to the painting only by a counterbalanced shape at the bottom edge. The push/pull of the paintings occurs in every direction: across a two-dimensional axis of horizontal and vertical and across a suggested three-dimensional axis above and below the plane of the canvas. Encompassing the entire visual field, Rothko's paintings give the viewer the feeling of stepping into an alternate world, one without recognizable shapes or symbols but that nonetheless pulses with energy, movement and luminosity.
When Rothko was working, he would stare at his canvases for hours, never lifting a brush. It was his opportunity to arrange his performers and tell his story: Would there be two or three or four actors? How would they create tension? How would it be resolved? What is the mood of the performance—somber, bright, doomed, brash, troubled, lush? Rothko's power lay in his ability to create a maximum amount of incident and movement with a minimum of means, just colors and shapes. He would not have seen it that way, though. For him, colors and shapes were not minimal means; they were simply everything.