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Mark Rothko

Marcus Rothkowitz (Маркус Роткович)

Mark Rothko

Marcus Rothkowitz (Маркус Роткович)

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Born in a province belonging at the time to the Russian Federation, but currently to Latvia, Mark Rothko was one of the most important American painters. After his early works (most of them indebted to the influence of Surrealism), Rothko eventually developed in the late '40s his signature style, consisting of rectangular fields of color and light. Associated with Abstract Expressionism and color field painting, Rothko disowned the abstract nature of his paintings, claming that he is interested "only in expressing basic human emotions — tragedy, ecstasy, doom, and so on"; also, he stated that color is merely an instrument for him. From the mid '50s onwards, having several periods of depression, he would often use darker colors, culminating with the hue-colored black paintings that he has done for the Rothko Chapel project. The chapel is finished in 1971, one year after his death.

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Mark Rothko (/ˈrɒθkoʊ/), born Markus Yakovlevich Rothkowitz (Russian: Ма́ркус Я́ковлевич Ротко́вич, Latvian: Markuss Rotkovičs; September 25, 1903 – February 25, 1970), was an American painter of Russian Jewish descent. Although Rothko himself refused to adhere to any art movement, he is generally identified as an abstract expressionist.

Mark Rothko was born in Dvinsk, Vitebsk Governorate, in the Russian Empire (today Daugavpils in Latvia). His father, Jacob (Yakov) Rothkowitz, was a pharmacist and an intellectual who initially provided his children with a secular and political, rather than religious, upbringing. According to Rothko, his pro-Marxist father was "violently anti-religious". In an environment where Jews were often blamed for many of the evils that befell Russia, Rothko's early childhood was plagued by fear.

Despite Jacob Rothkowitz's modest income, the family was highly educated ("We were a reading family", Rothko's sister recalled), and Rothko was able to speak Russian, Yiddish, and Hebrew. Following his father's return to the Orthodox Judaism of his own youth, Rothko, the youngest of four siblings, was sent to the cheder at the age of five, where he studied the Talmud, although his elder siblings had been educated in the public school system.

Fearing that his elder sons were about to be drafted into the Imperial Russian Army, Jacob Rothkowitz emigrated from Russia to the United States. Markus remained in Russia, with his mother and elder sister Sonia. They arrived as immigrants, at Ellis Island, in late 1913. From that point, they crossed the country, to join Jacob and the elder brothers, in Portland, Oregon. Jacob's death, a few months later, from colon cancer, left the family without economic support. Sonia operated a cash register, while Markus worked in one of his uncle's warehouses, selling newspapers to employees. His father's death also led Rothko to sever his ties with religion. After he had mourned his father's death for almost a year at a local synagogue, he vowed never to set foot in it again.

Markus started school in the United States in 1913, quickly accelerating from third to fifth grade. In June 1921, he completed the secondary level, with honors, at Lincoln High School in Portland, at the age of seventeen. He learned his fourth language, English, and became an active member of the Jewish community center, where he proved adept at political discussions. Like his father, Rothko was passionate about issues such as workers’ rights, and women's right to contraception. At the time, Portland was the epicentre of revolutionary activity in the U.S., and the region where revolutionary syndicalist union Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), was strongest.

Markus, having grown up around radical workers' meetings, attended meetings of the IWW, including anarchists such as Bill Haywood and Emma Goldman, where he developed strong oratorical skills he would later use in defence of Surrealism. He heard Emma Goldman speak on one of her West Coast activist lecture tours. With the onset of the Russian Revolution, Rothko organised debates about it. Despite the repressive political atmosphere, he wished to become a labor union organiser.

Rothko received a scholarship to Yale. At the end of his freshman year in 1922, the scholarship was not renewed, and he worked as a waiter and delivery boy to support his studies. He found the Yale community to be elitist and racist. Rothko and a friend, Aaron Director, started a satirical magazine, The Yale Saturday Evening Pest, which lampooned the school's stuffy, bourgeois tone. In any event, Rothko's nature was more that of a self-taught man than a diligent pupil: "One of his fellow students remembers that he hardly seemed to study, but that he was a voracious reader." At the end of his sophomore year, Rothko dropped out, and did not return until he was awarded an honorary degree, forty-six years later.

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Mark Rothko Artworks
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