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Mark Rothko

On view now
Opened in September 2016, the East Building’s Tower 1 gallery features a rotating series of paintings by Mark Rothko.


Mark Rothko (1903 – 1970)

Mark Rothko in his West 53rd Street studio, c. 1953, photograph by Henry Elkan, courtesy Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Rudi Blesh Papers

One of the preeminent artists of his generation, Mark Rothko is closely identified with the New York school, a circle of painters that emerged during the 1940s as a new collective voice in American art. During a career that spanned five decades, he created a new and impassioned form of abstract painting.

Rothko's work is characterized by rigorous attention to formal elements such as color, shape, balance, depth, composition, and scale; yet, he refused to consider his paintings solely in these terms. He explained: "It is a widely accepted notion among painters that it does not matter what one paints as long as it is well painted. This is the essence of academicism. There is no such thing as good painting about nothing."

A tangerine-colored rectangle and a butter yellow rectangle float against a golden yellow field in this abstract, vertical painting. At the top, the tangerine rectangle extends nearly the width of the painting and goes from near the top edge to just short of halfway down the painting. Below it, a larger rectangle in glowing yellow tones anchors the bottom three-fifths of the painting. The yellow of the bottom rectangle varies from sunshine yellow to tan. The warm, ochre-colored background is painted in a flat, uniform way, and it creates a border around and between the rectangles. The brushstrokes within the rectangles have soft, indistinct edges, with a blurred effect. The tangerine-colored rectangle is formed with upward vertical strokes made with a wide brush that are denser at the bottom and end in a wispy edge at the top. The bottom yellow rectangle has varied brushwork that forms soft, and indistinct cloud-like shapes within the geometric form. At the bottom right edge of the upper, tangerine rectangle, a hint of a vertical, blue-green stroke of paint emerges from beneath the ochre background. Around the edges of the lower, yellow rectangle are subtle hints of tangerine and sometimes blue-green bleeding from around all four edges.

Mark Rothko, Orange and Tan, 1954, pigmented hide glue and oil on canvas, Gift of Enid A. Haupt, 1977.47.13

By 1949 Rothko had introduced a compositional format that he would continue to develop throughout his career. Composed of several vertically aligned rectangular forms set within a colored field, Rothko's "image" lent itself to a remarkable diversity of appearances.

In these works, large scale, open structure, and thin layers of color combine to convey the impression of a shallow pictorial space. Color, for which Rothko's work is perhaps most celebrated, here attains an unprecedented luminosity.

His classic paintings of the 1950s are characterized by expanding dimensions and an increasingly simplified use of form, brilliant hues, and broad, thin washes of color. In his large, floating rectangles of color, which seem to engulf the spectator, he explored with a rare mastery of nuance the expressive potential of color contrasts and modulations.


Rothko moving Untitled,1954 (seen inverted), photograph by Henry Elkan

Alternately radiant and dark, Rothko's art is distinguished by a rare degree of sustained concentration on pure pictorial properties such as color, surface, proportion, and scale, accompanied by the conviction that those elements could disclose the presence of a high philosophical truth. Visual elements such as luminosity, darkness, broad space, and the contrast of colors have been linked, by the artist himself as well as other commentators, to profound themes such as tragedy, ecstasy, and the sublime. Rothko, however, generally avoided explaining the content of his work, believing that the abstract image could directly represent the fundamental nature of "human drama."

The Mark Rothko exhibition on which this web feature was based was a comprehensive retrospective of the artist's work. With 115 works on canvas and paper encompassing all phases of Rothko's career, the exhibition revealed the remarkable depth of his artistic achievement. The feature includes a selection of works on loan for the exhibition, as well as a number of paintings and drawings in the Gallery's permanent collection, some of which are not currently on view.