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Mark Rothko: Communication through Visual Imagery

Photograph by Graeme Robertson

Like Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, another abstract expressionist, also communicated his personal circumstances through his paintings. Throughout the 1940’s and 1950’s, Rothko’s pieces revealed the use of bright and contrasting colors shown through the use of loose or rough edged rectangles which sat on top of each other. His 1956 piece, Orange and Yellow, which is currently held at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, NY, is an example of his earlier works. Rothko desired to reach out to viewers of his work and play on their emotions. He wanted viewers to connect with his paintings, not only visually but emotionally. Rothko stated that he was “interested only in expressing basic human emotions-tragedy, ecstasy, doom” (Phillips, 2005). Pieces like Orange and Yellow, which used bright colors and soft edges, seemed to confuse viewers and contrast with Rothko’s ultimate goal. These pieces appeared to be absent of “tragedy, ecstasy, doom,” and portray feelings of happiness, light, joy, and optimism (Helmers, p. 44). Unlike Joseph Albers who desired for pieces in his Homage to the Square series to symbolize “the relationships between colors, boundaries, contrast, and harmony, all regulated by the geometry of the square” it appears that Rothko’s blurred lines want the viewer to ignore the contrasting colors and boundaries and rather to view the piece as a whole (Simmons, 8).

Rothko feared that his audience may not have the same experience that he had when creating his pieces and that they would focus solely on the color relationships rather than their appeal to emotion. He stated that “the people who weep before my pictures are having the same religious experience I had when I painted them. And if you, as you say, are moved only by their color relationships, then you miss the point” (Albright-Knox Art Gallery). Although he stated, “the fact that people break down and cry when confronted with my pictures shows that I can communicate those basic human emotions,” those emotions being tragedy, ecstasy, and doom, Rothko dreaded the idea that audiences would not understand his work and felt that because of this “his art would have no major legacy” (Art Story Foundation).

Unlike his earlier pieces, Rothko’s Black Paintings series, which he created throughout the 1960’s seemed to show a more evident connection to these human emotions which he spoke of. The Black Paintings showed more rigid lines with clear boundaries which Rothko’s earlier works lacked and their deficit of color played on the idea of doom.  While creating this series, Rothko suffered from depression, alcoholism, and endured an aortic aneurysm, which could have affected the change in color and line quality that he pieces experienced. Some critics have said that Rothko was doing “subtle exercises in the sparest of colors,” while others think that it was his way of expressing his emotional state at the time and the tragedy to come (PBS). Art Historian and Rothko biographer Dore Ashton seemed to think that although Rothko clearly used a lack of color and constrained edges to portray his emotions at the time, he also used composition in this way. Rothko once stated that “the dark is always at the top,” in terms of his pieces’ compositions. Ashton also took this as Rothko’s way of communicating his resentment toward fame, so to speak. Rothko put his feelings of tragedy, doom, and resentment to action when he committed suicide in his art studio in 1970. In reference to his statement, “the dark is always at the top,” Ashton believes that the top of his career was the darkest place of his life, giving even more meaning and to his composition and its ability to communicate with his audience (PBS).



Art Story Foundation. (n.d.). Mark Rothko Biography, Art, and Analysis of Works | The Art Story. The Art Story: Modern Art Movements, Artists, Ideas and Topics. Retrieved November 4, 2012, from http://www.theartstory.org/artist-rothko-mark.htm

Helmers, Marguerite H. (2005). “Picturing Place.” Elements of Visual Analysis.  58-82.

Orange And Yellow > Collection Highlights > Collection > Albright-Knox Art Gallery. (n.d.). Albright-Knox Art Gallery. Retrieved November 4, 2012, from http://www.albrightknox.org/collection/collection-highlights/piece:rothko-orange-yellow/

PBS. (1998, August 5). Rothko’s Legacy | PBS NewsHour | Aug. 5, 1998 | PBS. PBS: Public Broadcasting Service. Retrieved November 4, 2012, from http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/entertainment/july-dec98/rothko_8-5.html

Phillips, G., & Crow, T. E. (2005). Seeing Rothko. Los Angeles: Getty Research Institute.

Simmons, Becky and Houghton Wetherald. (2004). View It! The Art and Architecture at RIT. RIT Cary Graphics Art Press. http://books.google.com/books?id=GezclVVR-1AC&pg=PA8&lpg=PA8&dq=Josef+Albers+growth+and+youth&source=bl&ots=r4nV_ddLkH&sig=Y7_KZ7l4nqUgysEr6Jtj42LFmFE&hl=en&sa=X&ei=4ihaULaDMunr0gGXz4Ao&ved=0CCAQ6AEwAA#v=onepage&q=Josef%20Albers%20growth%20and%20youth&f=false



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