Connect with us

DailyArtMagazine.com – Art History Stories

Rothko: Eternal Symbols of Life

Rothko paintings
Mark Rothko, No 46, 1957, Louis Vuitton Foundation, Paris, France. Photographed by Justin Lorget.

20th century

Rothko: Eternal Symbols of Life

When you say Rothko, you think of large paintings of colorful rectangular form with frayed edges, horizontal, sometimes vertical as well, floating on a background of color. These are the most analyzed, re-evaluated, and debated works of his. They communicate with the viewer at such a deep emotional level that occasionally people cry when looking at them.

rothko paintings, Mark Rothko, Untitled (Violet, Black, Orange, Yellow on White and Red), 1949, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, NY, USA.
Mark Rothko, Untitled (Violet, Black, Orange, Yellow on White and Red), 1949, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, NY, USA.

Eternal Symbols of Life

Mark Rothko (1903-1970) was a deeply religious person, preoccupied with major existential themes. Throughout his artistic life he went through different creative phases. In his early paintings he wanted to depict the eternal symbols of the “human drama,” the “tragic and timeless,” that he saw especially in the myths of ancient people. Perhaps influenced by Carl Jung, and intrigued by the power of the unconscious and preconscious minds, Rothko’s paintings became increasingly abstract starting in 1943. However, around 1947 he realizes that those who are viewing his paintings are no longer familiar with the ritual and transcendent experience once common in ancient societies. The abstract figures of his surrealist work continue to break down until there is nothing left but the colors, a style called “multiform.”

rothko paintings, Mark Rothko, Multiform, 1948, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, Australia.
Mark Rothko, Multiform, 1948, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, Australia.

From there is but a step to what we consider to be his classical works, created from the 1950s to 1970s. These seem to have reached the supreme refinement in reflecting human emotions through color.

Best Kept Secret Deciphered

The creative process was a complex one and therefore Rothko was very secretive about his method. However art conservers have been able to decipher some of his techniques. Ultraviolet images reveal that each layer was made from a unique medium that fluoresces differently. Furthermore, his use of materials was quite unconventional. He used very thin layers of different kinds of paint, diluted oil paint, or his own pigments mixed with resin and he even used egg paint. In addition, he would modify the properties of the paint to obtain the desired drying time or viscosity. Rothko also applied phenol formaldehyde to prevent layers from blending into one another. Each work of art is different in regard to the paint mixture or layer sequence.

rothko paintings, Mark Rothko, Light Red Over Black, 1957, Tate, London, UK.
Mark Rothko, Light Red Over Black, 1957, Tate, London, UK.

For the full experience, Rothko asked curators to hang his paintings close to the floor and indicated that the optimal watching distance is 18 inches (approx. 45 cm). At this distance the work of art completely dominates one’s field of vision. One feels as if there is nothing but color around them, until completely immersed in it, to either lose oneself or discover one’s true self. Thus it is a very intimate and life-changing experience to look at a real Rothko. The way light interacts with the surface is so uniquely engaging. The layering creates a certain aura that gives one a feeling of reflection, of meditative contemplation. The consecutive layers give his work a variety of glosses and a variation of opacity. It isas if he builds layers of human emotions and constructs an inner world, capturing the passing of time with each new application of color.

Rothko paintings, Mark Rothko, No.3/No.13 (Magenta, Black, Green on Orange), 1949, Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY, USA.
Mark Rothko, No.3/No.13 (Magenta, Black, Green on Orange), 1949, Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY, USA.

A Universal Language, Color

Above all, each painting is a whole world with its own unique meaning, with the potential to speak with every viewer. It communicates with the most elemental parts of oneself, to that which serves as the cradle of one’s emotions. However one must make sense of it through the mechanisms of their own psychological processes. Ultimately, as we are coming to an understanding, we bring something from ourselves and put it into the painting. This is why it has different meanings for each viewer.

“By looking at the same picture, we will each see something different because the way we experience color is filtered through our experience of the world, our experience of our own lives. Color is deeply subjective and deeply intertwined with our memories, our senses, our emotions, and our feelings.”

Ben Street, Mark Rothko seeing Red conference, 2016, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Austria.
Rothko paintings, Mark Rothko, No. 61 (Rust and Blue), 1953, Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, CA, USA.
Mark Rothko, No. 61 (Rust and Blue), 1953, Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, CA, USA.

Works referenced:

Jane Qiu, “Rothko’s methods revealed,” Nature.com. Retrieved April 15, 2021.

American Masters: Rothko Pictures Must Be Miraculous Season 33,” published 8 Feb 2021. Retrieved April 15, 2021.

Lecture by Christopher Rothko, “Mark Rothko and the inner World,” 18 March 2019. Retrieved April 15, 2021.

Lecture by Ben Street, “Mark Rothko seeing Red,” May 2019. Retrieved April 15, 2021.

Read more about Mark Rothko:

I am an art history enthusiast, even if my main job is in Software Sales. Currently, I am preparing for a MA in Visual Arts. Dutch and Flemish Renaissance and Japanese Woodblock Prints are equally fascinating for me. Traveling, visiting museums and exhibitions, and immerging within the local culture, is another passion of mine. Together with my daughter, I live in Bucharest, Romania.


More in 20th century

  • 19th Century

    Art of Opulence: Paintings of Exquisite Interiors


    The notion of painting natural landscapes has been prevalent since ancient times. It is an obvious choice, of course. What can compare with the beauty of nature? The inverse concept of depicting interior spaces, however, is a much more complex and intriguing phenomenon that is believed to have...

  • 20th century

    Wiener Werkstätte: The Viennese Design Brand You’ve Always Dreamt Of


    Heard of Bauhaus? Yes.Heard of De Stijl? Yes.Heard of Wiener Werkstätte? No. No?! That’s the problem: I hadn’t heard of Wiener Werkstätte either, even though they were the most fashionable and successful Viennese design brands ever. Why is that? Why is mainstream art history oblivious to some...

  • 20th century

    Stunning Abstracts by Seven Indian Modern Painters


    It was the early 20th century when Modernism spread its wings in India. This happened as a result of an exposure to various European artists. The exchange of ideas inspired Indian modern painters to experiment and delve deeper into their consciences in order to express themselves...

  • 20th century

    Zinaida Serebriakova, First Famous Female Russian Artist


    Zinaida Serebriakova (1884–1967) is mostly known for her painting At the Dressing-Table (Self-Portrait). The artist, looking from the mirror’s reflection, smiles at us in many Souvenir shops. But Serebriakova was not just the author of one picture, and definitely not the author of just portrait paintings....

  • 20th century

    Janet Sobel: the Forgotten Female Artist Who Influenced Jackson Pollock


    Although almost entirely erased from the canon of Abstract Expressionist art, Janet Sobel (born Jennie Olechovsky) is now slowly gaining recognition as one of the original creators of the “drip painting” technique that many critics have previously associated with Jackson Pollock. Who was Janet Sobel? Born...

To Top