Customize your JAMA Network experience by selecting one or more topics from the list below.
I’m interested only in expressing basic human emotions—tragedy, ecstasy, doom….Mark Rothko1(p309)
I’m interested only in expressing basic human emotions—tragedy, ecstasy, doom….
In Rothko, there is no pictorial reference at all to remembered experience. What we recall are not memories but old emotions disturbed or resolved—some sense of well being suddenly shadowed by a cloud…or the fire diminishing into a glow of embers, or the light when the night descends.Duncan Phillips2(p290)
In Rothko, there is no pictorial reference at all to remembered experience. What we recall are not memories but old emotions disturbed or resolved—some sense of well being suddenly shadowed by a cloud…or the fire diminishing into a glow of embers, or the light when the night descends.
On the morning of February 25, 1970, at 66 years old, Mark Rothko was found dead in his studio by his assistant. The autopsy report was consistent with an overdose of the antidepressant Sinequan (doxepin hydrochloride), but his death resulted from exsanguination from deep cuts into both antecubital fossae, one nearly completely severing his right brachial artery. He had neatly placed his trousers on a nearby chair, but he left no suicide note. Rothko (1903-1970), one of America’s leading abstract expressionists (although he denied this designation), was at the peak of his career and his work had received international recognition. Although Rothko remained creative and continued to paint until the end of his life, he was increasingly demoralized and despaired over his failing health following treatment for a dissecting aortic aneurysm. The autopsy documented severe emphysema and advanced heart disease.1 He viewed constant pressure to commercialize his art as a threat to his integrity. His biographer believes that Rothko’s decision to kill himself was a last effort to maintain “some sense of dignity and control.”1(p543)
Rothko is best known for his large-scale paintings that fill the viewer’s field of vision and stimulate the viewer’s full attention. His luminously colored pictorial space is designed to produce what has been called “the Rothko effect.”3 Rothko’s art elicits the fundamental emotions (first epigraph). His rectangular clouds of color stacked one on top of another were designed to poignantly bring out elemental emotional responses (second epigraph). Such focus on subjectivity was the province of the New York School, the uniquely American contribution to world art.
The pivotal year for Rothko was 19494; that was the year he completed his long transition from figurative images through mythological themes in painting to color field painting. He was a student of philosophy and was particularly drawn to Greek tragedy, particularly the tension between the poles of Apollonian reality and Dionysian reality that Nietzsche presented in The Birth of Tragedy.3 He believed that both realities are required for the creation of art. The Apollonian element provides the form and structure for coherence, and the Dionysian element provides vitality and passion. Although opposed, these poles are intertwined. Rothko, who was born in Russia, drew on the themes of faith and doubt in Dostoevsky’s novels and on existentialism as presented in Kierkegaard’s philosophy. In his Fear and Trembling (which Rothko kept at his bedside), Kierkegaard referenced Philippians 2:12, “continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling.” Rooted in philosophy, Rothko showed little interest in psychoanalysis.5 Rothko’s paintings are said to arouse the aesthetic sense of the sublime.6 Kant defined the sublime as the playful interface between the imagination and reason. Yet considering Rothko’s works, the German philosopher Fichte’s contributions to the phenomenology of art are more pertinent to Rothko’s intentions. Fichte wrote that the imagination is the faculty that oscillates “between what is determinate and that which is indeterminate between that which is temporal and that which is eternal,”6(p79) a model consistent with Rothko’s designs.
Rothko was anxious about viewers misinterpreting his work. Thus, he gave advice about how his paintings should be viewed, prescribing the type of space and the lighting needed for maximal effect. He attended to the interrelationships of color choice, spatial composition, the height and width of the rectangles, the edges between them, and the distances from the edges. These edges fuse into their surrounding space. He layered and blended colors to enhance surface texture luminosity and created surfaces by applying paint with rags and rubbing wet colors together. To vary texture, he built up brushstrokes to create the needed effect.
When asked how close the viewer should stand, Rothko once suggested a viewing distance of 18 in. However, most viewers position themselves to face the middle of his canvas and stand several feet back to allow the forms and colors to fill their peripheral vision. Once positioned, they shift forward and backward to experience the “activation of the work.” For some who view Rothko’s paintings, the experience can be intense, just as Rothko described them as “portraits of states of the soul.”1(p282) Rothko said that “[t]he people who weep before my pictures are having the same religious experience as I had when I painted them.”1(p309) Two-dimensional photographic reproductions in print do not do justice to Rothko’s work because photography reduces the nuances of his coloring and the perception of overlapping color; it nullifies the texture in his art. Thus, no photographic reproduction accompanies this commentary.
Rothko preferred that museums provide special rooms dedicated to his art. So particular was Rothko about the setting for his art that he returned his advance of $35 000 (a very large sum in the 1950s) and broke his contract with the Four Seasons restaurant in the Seagram Building in New York for providing art in the dining room when he realized that diners, engaged in social conversation, might view his art as merely decorative. His decision regarding the Four Seasons installation is powerfully dramatized in John Logan’s play Red. In 1969, shortly before his death, Rothko arranged for his Seagram Building paintings to find a home in the Tate Modern art gallery in London, England, where a dedicated room displays 9 of Rothko’s former Seagram Building murals hung to his specifications. The nondenominational Rothko Chapel at the University of St Thomas in Houston, Texas, his last commission, displays 14 black-hued paintings on its walls. Rothko put in his final and best effort to complete them. They were finished in 1967 and installed in 1971. Although dark, they are radiant and elicit a contemplative attitude rather than a depressed feeling. Thus, the room succeeds in its mission to create an inspiring and contemplative space. In 2000, it received recognition by being placed in the National Register of Historic Places.
The Phillips Collection was the first American museum to dedicate a room to Rothko.7 Duncan Phillips reminded the viewer (second epigraph) that, in this room, Rothko’s fields of color facilitate the elicitation of emotions stored in our minds as affect images. The room displays 4 of Rothko’s paintings. It also is the first installation in the United States designed in collaboration with the artist. There is no other art in the Rothko room to detract the viewer’s perceptions. The room is sparsely furnished with a single rectangular brown wooden viewing bench. Each wall displays 1 color field painting; the subdued lighting amplifies the resonance of the colors in each of them.
Ochre and Red on Red is placed on the far wall facing the viewer who enters the room.7 Like Rothko’s other mature works, it is painted on a large scale to allow viewers to place themselves imaginatively inside the composition and immerse themselves in it. Rothko surrounds ochre, a yellow-brown earth tone, with red on red. It is one of Rothko’s most highly emotional works. The viewer is drawn into it by Rothko’s use of traditional warm tones and typically feels uplifted when viewing it. My own response on seeing it was different and linked to my knowledge of Rothko’s dramatic and tragic death. The color ochre brought up a feeling of nausea as I identified with the shock Rothko’s assistant must have felt when he discovered Rothko’s body lying face up on the floor surrounded by a pool of red blood. I found emotional relief when I turned to my right and examined Green and Maroon7 on the adjacent wall. For this painting, which was also completed in the mid-1950s, Rothko chose colors that are at the cooler end of the color spectrum, allowing the viewer some emotional distance. In Green and Maroon, the underlying colors are darker shades of blue, red, and gray. Peering into the green upper rectangle and standing close to the painting, less than 3 feet away, I felt my mood shifting. Looking into the serene faint shading within the green, I felt as though I was encompassed by stillness, and my equilibrium returned along with a renewed sense of invigoration. I looked down at the border to the maroon below. I was no longer gripped by the tragedy of Rothko’s death, and I could see that the maroon grounded and balanced the ethereal green above.
On September 16, 1968, Rothko completed a 2-page will, drafted by his accountant and friend Bernard Reis. The will left all of Rothko’s residual estate to the nonprofit Rothko Foundation. Several months later, Rothko entered into an agreement with the owner of the Marlborough Gallery to sell his works of art only to them for a period of 8 years. It is believed that he intended that his daughter Kate, who was 18 years of age at the time, and his son Christopher, who was 6 years of age, would be given some of his paintings. Rothko was estranged from his wife Mary Alice (Mell) at the time of his death. Unfortunately, she died of a stroke (at the age of 48 years) 6 months after his death, leaving the children to grieve the loss of both parents.
Rothko’s children and family were notified by the founder of the Marlborough Gallery that the gallery owned all of Rothko’s paintings, including those he may have intended for his children. There ensued a protracted legal dispute over the ownership of his paintings between the recently bereaved Kate Rothko and the estate executors and the directors of Marlborough Fine Art that lasted 6 years (1971-1977). During those years, the greed, the abuses of power, the conflicts of interest (Reis was both an executor and Marlborough advisor), and the conspiracy of the estate executors to defraud were recognized by the New York State Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court, as “manifestly wrong and indeed shocking.”8(p338) Kate Rothko, a medical student at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore, Maryland (and later a professor of pathology), at the time the case was settled, had prevailed in suing one of the most powerful art galleries in New York City. She reclaimed more than 650 of her father’s paintings and became the administrator of her father’s estate, allowing her to preserve her father’s legacy. She donated the bulk of his artwork to museums around the world, allowing the public to view a considerable portion of her father’s work as he would have wanted it displayed as a continuing tribute to him.
Corresponding Author: James C. Harris, MD, Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, Developmental Neuropsychiatry, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, 1800 Orleans St, Baltimore, MD 21287 (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Conflict of Interest Disclosures: None reported.
Additional Contributions: Thanks to Klaus Ottman, PhD, at the Phillips Collection for discussions about Rothko’s work.
Harris JC. Green and Maroon: Mark Rothko. JAMA Psychiatry. 2014;71(2):107–108. doi:10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2013.2711
Artificial Intelligence Resource Center