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I became a painter because I wanted to raise painting to the level of poignancy of music and poetry.

Mark Rothko

image: Mark Rothko, Untitled (Seated Woman with Crossed Legs), c. 1935 image: Mark Rothko, No. 10, 1949 image: Mark Rothko, Untitled, 1956


Mark Rothko made a key contribution to the radical change in painterly practice that took place in the United States around 1940. Responding to the ravages of war abroad and the chaos it generated, as well as to new artistic ideas brought to New York by artists fleeing Europe, among them Max Ernst, Joan Miró, and Piet Mondrian, the paintings of Rothko and others of his generation shifted from representational imagery to abstraction.

Rothko had little formal art training apart from classes at the legendary Art Students League in New York after he moved there in 1923. An important mentor was the painter Milton Avery, whose spare forms and subtle colors profoundly influenced the young artist's direction. Building on his youthful interest in drama, Rothko read widely in mythology and psychoanalysis, and the paintings of Rembrandt van Rijn, the music of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche were essential to his ideas.

By the 1940s, Rothko was associated with a group of loosely affiliated artists known as "abstract expressionists" and often referred to as the "New York School." However, not all these artists were based in New York, and their approaches to abstraction varied significantly. Franz Kline, Willem de Kooning, and Jackson Pollock engaged in a highly gestural idiom. By contrast, Rothko, along with Barnett Newman and Clyfford Still, focused on the expressive potential of large color fields. Rothko in particular explored the physical sensations generated by an atmospheric field of radiant optical effects. He believed that the abstract image could directly reflect the fundamental nature of the "human drama," and his paintings are often linked to eternal themes such as tragedy, ecstasy, and the sublime.

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