Art History

Rothko in Phases

August 16, 2017

The American-naturalised artist Mark Rothko is one of the most prominent and influential figures of the Abstract Expressionism movement, it is a difficult task for any art enthusiast to not come across his works at some point. Some people In this article I will share a simple – but rather efficient for his market analysis – way to break it down his practice into four key periods.

1938 to 1949 

Rothko’s early compositions presented figurative elements; then developed into semi-abstract forms and culminated in the first full abstract compositions with explorations of colour superposition. This phase is relevant as the period from which Rothko’s initial group of works emerged. Later periods present the characteristics of the artist’s work for which he is most often recognised.

1950 to 1957

This period marks the beginning of Rothko’s most iconic composition structure. Working on large canvases, the artist applied colour in several layers whilst building rectangular shapes that seem to float on the canvas; such works are commonly described as “windows” which open not to the outside world but rather to the inner self of the viewer. The artist’s intent was to convey tragic drama in the use of divergent colours which would arouse specific feelings in the viewer. The artist was very secretive in his techniques, which involved the application of layers of paint, in different painting techniques, which would overlap and merge on the canvas surface, developing in a blend of shades of the same colour. In his writings, the artist usually did not register details of his techniques for future reference; he focused instead upon the general composition results achieved and upon the overall felling evoked by the canvases.

This absence of explanation of his techniques causes difficulties in the conservation of his pieces, in that, without Rothko’s thinking, conservation of his work are more laborious.

Rothko’s works at this time, with the immensity of the canvases of this period and his use of abstraction were hallmarks of the Abstract Expressionism group.

1957 to 1968 

The artist’s pallet becomes darker in this period although other aspects remain the same, such as scale and the “window” structure. It is in this period that the artist creates his most famous works, such as the Seagram murals and the Rothko Chapel in Houston. The artist also developed further his meticulous instructions for displaying his pieces and started receiving international acclaim, for example the retrospective at London’s Whitechapel Art Gallery in 1961. Recently the exhibition “Dark Palette” at Pace New York (Nov 04, 2016 – Jan 07, 2017) explored the works created in this period.

The final years, 1969 and 1970

The final two years in the artist life presents in most of its pieces a even darker colour scheme, with prominent blacks and greys. The rectangular shapes size expanded  on the canvases overtaking the complete composition. Thus creating a disruption with the before recognisable “window” structures and inner frame present in several works by the artist, that causes a difficulty to the general public in recognising the works from this period as Rothko’s pieces. Overall this group of works are less discussed in the artist oeuvre, and are mostly valuable for being his last canvases. The artist suicide in 1970 is often mentioned when such pieces are described.

Curiosity: Recently one piece from this period was shown in  the Netflix show House of Cards (Season 5, Episode 10) in Claire’s office.

Image credit:

Mark Rothko, Untitled, 1952-53 © 2012 Kate Rothko Prizel and Christopher Rothko/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Reference books:

Anfam, D. (1998). Mark Rothko: The Works on Canvas. 1st. edn. New York: Yale University Press.

Seldes, L. (1996). The legacy of Mark Rothko. 2nd. edn. New York: Da Capo Press.

Rothko, C. (2015). Mark Rothko from the inside out. 1st. edn. New Haven and London: Yale University Press. (This is particularly a magnificent book)

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