A short biography of Latvian-born abstract expressionist artist and anarchist, Mark Rothko.
Born Marcus Rothkowitz, 25 September 1903 - Russia, died 25 February 1970 - New York, USA
Marcus Rothkowitz was born to Jewish parents in Czarist Russia on September 25, 1903 in Dvinsk. His father emigrated to America when he was ten.
Having decided to become an artist, he started out painting representational pictures in the Expressionist manner, rendering the drama of contemporary existence in a faceless metropolis. His art then grew freer, in Surrealist-influenced compositions that focus on mythic and biomorphic figures. Finally, in the years between 1949 and his suicide in 1970, he jettisoned representational art altogether and worked solely on the luminous fields – mostly in red and black - for which he became famous.
He spoke four languages- Russian, Yiddish, Hebrew, and English, and experienced many cultures which greatly enriched his art.
Dvinsk was a solidly working-class, largely Jewish town of about 100,000. In response to the massive growth in revolutionary ideas, the Czarist authorities bloodily repressed workers – especially Jews – and attacked demonstrations, jailed militants and carried out pogroms.
His father managed to emigrate with Marcus in 1913 where he was soon joined by his family, but died in 1914 in Portland. Portland at the time was the epicentre of revolutionary activity in the US at the time, and the area where the revolutionary syndicalist union the Industrial Workers of the World, was strongest.
Marcus, having grown up around radical workers' meetings, attended meetings of the IWW and with other anarchists like Bill Haywood and Emma Goldman, where he developed strong oratorical skills he would later use in defence of Surrealism. With the onset of the Russian Revolution, Rothko organised debates about it in an atmosphere of extreme repression and wished to become a union organiser.
Later in life with the death of the Russian Revolution, the destruction of the Spanish Revolution by Communists and Fascists, and the rise of the Nazis Rothko became disillusioned as to whether there was any hope for social change. But he claimed "I am still an anarchist"!
He became a painter when he joined Yale university, and changed his name to the Westernised Mark Rothko in 1938.
After building up a considerable body of work, he slit his wrists in 1970, after suffering extreme depression and many years of alcohol abuse.
An archive of Rothko's work is available online at artchive.com here:
By John S