Abstract Expressionism

Mark Rothko’s Recipe for a Work of Art

Zuzanna Stańska 25 September 2023 min Read

Mark Rothko, one of the most renowned American artists of the postwar era, is widely recognized as an Abstract Expressionist, and his artwork is truly captivating. Those fortunate enough to have experienced Rothko’s pieces in person often find themselves immediately enchanted by his abstract color fields. Within these canvases, one can discern a multitude of emotions and interpretations, including themes of mortality, devotion, and hope. Some even claim to perceive reflections of their own inner selves in his work.

In November 1958, Mark Rothko delivered a lecture at the Pratt Institute in which he contemplated art as a craft and shared insights into “the recipe of a work of art – its ingredients – how to make it – the formula.” Here it is. What do you think?

1. There must be a clear preoccupation with death – intimations of mortality… Tragic art, romantic art, etc., deals with the knowledge of death.

Mark Rothko, Untitled (Black on Grey), 1970, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
Recipe for Work of Art: Mark Rothko, Untitled (Black on Grey), 1970, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, USA.

2. Sensuality. Our basis of being concrete about the world. It is a lustful relationship to things that exist.

Mark Rothko, Untitled (Blue Divided by Blue), 1966, private collection
Recipe for Work of Art: Mark Rothko, Untitled (Blue Divided by Blue), 1966, private collection. Mark Rothko.

3. Tension. Either conflict or curbed desire.

Mark Rothko, Untitled (Red, Orange), 1968, Fondation Beleyer, Photo: Robert Bayer, Basel, © Kate Rothko Prizel & Christopher Rothko / ProLitteris, Zürich
Recipe for Work of Art: Mark Rothko, Untitled (Red, Orange), 1968, Fondation Beyeler, Photo: Robert Bayer, Basel, © Kate Rothko Prizel & Christopher Rothko / ProLitteris, Zürich

4. Irony, this is a modern ingredient – the self-effacement and examination by which a man for an instant can go on to something else.

Mark Rothko, No. 15. Black, Red and Black, 1968, Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid
Recipe for Work of Art: Mark Rothko, No. 15. Black, Red and Black, 1968, Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid, Spain.

5. Wit and play… For the human element.

Mark Rothko, Untitled, 1956, Phillips Collection
Recipe for Work of Art: Mark Rothko, Untitled, 1956, Phillips Collection, Washington, DC, USA.

6. The ephemeral and chance… For the human element.

Mark Rothko, Red And Pink On Pink, c. 1953, The Museum Of Fine Arts, Houston
Recipe for Work of Art: Mark Rothko, Red And Pink On Pink, c. 1953, The Museum Of Fine Arts, Houston, TX, USA.

7. Hope. 10% to make the tragic concept more endurable.

Mark Rothko, White Center (Yellow, Pink and Lavender on Rose), 1950, private collection
Recipe for Work of Art: Mark Rothko, White Center (Yellow, Pink and Lavender on Rose), 1950, private collection. Mark Rothko.

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