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Mark Rothko

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Mark Rothko
20th century
(Dvinsk, Russia, 1903 - 1970, New York)

Born 1903, Dvinsk, Russia (Daugavpils, Latvia); active 1923–70, New York; died 1970, New York Mark Rothko immigrated to the United States in 1913, attended Yale University and studied at the Art Students League under Max Weber. Rothko went on to become one of the most important practitioners of chromatic abstraction in the 1950s, along with Barnett Newman, William Baziotes, and Clifford Still. Rothko’s well-known blocks of dematerialized, glowing color drew on light as a symbol of divine, spiritual presence. Their blurred outlines and amorphous forms established a profound silence, evocative both of tragedy and ecstasy. Suppressing all references to specific subject matter, Rothko sought to render pure, abstract states of consciousness detached from the world of concrete materiality rather than depict personal experience. Rothko was greatly influenced by mid-twentieth-century theories of psychology and philosophy, as well as by the paintings of Miro and other European artists who explored Surrealism. Embracing automatism in the early 1940s, Rothko employed the technique of painting from the unconscious to convey a sense of the mythic and to comment on the nature of human existence by trying to tap into the imagery of his subconscious mind. In his untitled painting of 1943, Rothko’s visual vocabulary was biomorphic, or shapes suggesting the forms of living organisms. His mysterious organic forms suggest a primal world in the process of metamorphosis, and his work from this period foresees the emergence of Abstract Expressionism. Rothko’s use of softly brushed color and mysterious light in this painting foreshadow the direction his work would take after 1949 when he restricted his forms to large, rectangular areas of color.


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