How to Understand Rothko

Written by sharon penn
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How to Understand Rothko
Mark Rothko is associated with the New York School. (New York City Skyline image by paolobenne from

Understanding the works of Mark Rothko is a complicated venture, since his work evolved over the course of many years. He is thought of as a rebel against the conventional art scene, and he joined with others in New York City to create a new philosophy of painting. Mark Rothko’s works are about conveying emotions and complex, intangible thoughts through the visual communication medium of painting.

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Things you need

  • Library resources

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  1. 1

    Conduct research on Mark Rothko’s background in order to put his works into perspective. You will find that he was born Marcus Rothkowitz in what is now Latvia in 1903, and came to Portland, Oregon, at the age of 10. After attending Yale University, he moved to New York City.

  2. 2

    Look into the movements that influenced Mark Rothko. Rothko’s early work experiments with surrealist elements, and he used symbolism and mythic imagery to express the apprehension of the Great Depression and the subsequent war years of the 1940s.

  3. 3

    Learn about abstract expressionism and Mark Rothko’s association with the New York School. Among the adherents to this American philosophy of painting were Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Adolph Gottlieb and Robert Motherwell. Although the appearance of their art differed widely, those in the New York School of abstract expressionism rejected social realism and geometric abstraction. Painters like Mark Rothko and others of the New York School were more influenced by cubism and surrealism, which sought to express intangible ideas and experiences, and not forms of nature.

  4. 4

    View works of Mark Rothko, and notice formal artistic elements of his paintings such as large shapes, the use of colour and flat forms used to “destroy illusion and reveal truth,” in the words of Rothko and Gottlieb.

  5. 5

    Become aware of the qualities of the brushstrokes and textures of the paintings, and the way in which accidental occurrences during the creation of the work are used. This conveys a sense of the painting process to the observer, and makes the viewer aware of the act of painting as a means of communication and conveying emotion.

  6. 6

    Think about why Mark Rothko stopped using conventional titles for his works, and instead used numbers or colours to differentiate one painting from the next. Relate to the spiritual and sensual qualities of Rothko’s works to understand what he intended to achieve in his paintings.

Tips and warnings

  • Compare paintings of Mark Rothko in chronological order over the span of his career.
  • Expect to spend a good deal of time understanding this complicated man and his work.

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