“I’m interested only in expressing basic human emotions—tragedy, ecstasy, doom....”

Mark Rothko

Mark Rothko sought to make paintings that would bring people to tears. “I’m interested only in expressing basic human emotions—tragedy, ecstasy, doom, and so on,” he declared. “And the fact that a lot of people break down and cry when confronted with my pictures shows that I can communicate those basic human emotions….If you…are moved only by their color relationships, then you miss the point.”1 Like his fellow New York School painters Barnett Newman and Clyfford Still, Rothko painted to plumb the depths of himself and the human condition. For him, art was a profound form of communication, and art making was a moral act.

Born Markus Rothkowitz in Latvia in 1903, Rothko immigrated to the United States with his family in 1913. In 1921, he entered Yale University, leaving two years later. Like his peers, he found his direction and his place in New York. It was there, in 1925, that he began to study at Parsons School of Design under painter Arshile Gorky, who powerfully influenced him and many other Abstract Expressionists. Gorky and Rothko shared an interest in European Surrealism as evidenced by the biomorphic forms populating their paintings from the early 1940s. For Rothko, these forms would ultimately give way to the floating zones of color over colored grounds for which he would become known.

Rothko first developed this compositional strategy in 1947. Described as “Color Field painting” by critic Clement Greenberg in 1955—a term that stuck—it is a style characterized by significant open space and an expressive use of color. Rothko was one of its pioneers. “His colored rectangles seemed to dematerialize into pure light….” wrote MoMA’s former chief curator of painting and sculpture William S. Rubin. Rothko spent the rest of his career exploring the limitless possibilities of layering variously sized and colored rectangles onto fields of color.

By 1968, Rothko’s health was in decline from years of severe anxiety and his related drinking and smoking habits. After surviving an aneurism, he continued to smoke and drink despite his doctor’s orders, but he did scale back the size of his canvases and switch from oils to acrylic paints to reduce the strain that his painting process placed on his body. In 1970, at 66 years old, the chronically depressed artist committed suicide, leaving behind a body of work that brought him both critical and commercial success during his lifetime.

Karen Kedmey, independent art historian and writer, 2017

  1. The Museum of Modern Art, MoMA Highlights, (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, revised 2004, originally published 1999), 196.

Wikipedia entry
Mark Rothko (IPA: ), Markus Yakovlevich Rothkowitz until 1940; September 25, 1903 – February 25, 1970), was an American abstract painter. He is best known for his color field paintings that depicted irregular and painterly rectangular regions of color, which he produced from 1949 to 1970. Although Rothko did not personally subscribe to any one school, he is associated with the American abstract expressionism movement of modern art. Born in Daugavpils, Latvia, then under occupation by the Russian Empire, Rothko and his family emigrated to the United States, arriving at Ellis Island in late 1913 and originally settling in Portland, Oregon. He moved to New York City in 1923 where his youthful period of artistic production dealt primarily with urban scenery. In response to World War II, Rothko's art entered a transitional phase during the 1940s, where he experimented with mythological themes and Surrealism to express tragedy. Toward the end of the decade, Rothko painted canvases with regions of pure color which he further abstracted into rectangular color forms, the idiom he would use for the rest of his life. In his later career, Rothko executed several canvases for three different mural projects. The Seagram murals were to have decorated the Four Seasons Restaurant in the Seagram Building, but Rothko eventually grew disgusted with the idea that his paintings would be decorative objects for wealthy diners and refunded the lucrative commission, donating the paintings to museums including the Tate Gallery. The Harvard Mural series was donated to a dining room in Harvard's Holyoke Center (now Smith Campus Center); their colors faded badly over time due to Rothko's use of the pigment lithol red together with regular sunlight exposure. The Harvard series has since been restored using a special lighting technique. Rothko contributed 14 canvases to a permanent installation at the Rothko Chapel, a non-denominational chapel in Houston, Texas. Although Rothko lived modestly for much of his life, the resale value of his paintings grew tremendously in the decades following his suicide in 1970. His painting No. 6 (Violet, Green and Red) sold in 2014 for $186 million.
Information from Wikipedia, made available under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License
Getty record
Noted as one of the primary artists of Abstract Expressionism and color field painting. Rothko moved to Portland in 1913. He attended Yale University for two years before moving to New York in 1925, where he attended the Art Students League and studied under Max Weber. He was a founding member of a group of abstract painters called Ten. In 1936, Rothko worked with the WPA Federal Art Project in the easel painting division. In 1945, he had a solo show in Peggy Guggenheim's Art of This Century gallery in New York. He also taught at the California School of Fine Arts in San Francisco with Clyfford Still. Rothko finished his first commission in 1958, a monumental painting for the Four Seasons restaurant in New York. He also painted murals for Harvard University and a chapel in Houston, which was dedicated to him after his death. Rothko committed suicide on February 25, 1970, in New York.
American, Judaism, Russian
Artist, Abstract Artist, Painter
Mark Rothko, マーク・ロスコ
Information from Getty’s Union List of Artist Names ® (ULAN), made available under the ODC Attribution License


19 works online



  • MoMA Highlights: 375 Works from The Museum of Modern Art Flexibound, 408 pages
  • MoMA Now: Highlights from The Museum of Modern Art—Ninetieth Anniversary Edition Hardcover, 424 pages
  • Being Modern: Building the Collection of the Museum of Modern Art Exhibition catalogue, Hardcover, 288 pages
  • Abstract Expressionism at The Museum of Modern Art Exhibition catalogue, Hardcover, 128 pages
  • Mark Rothko Exhibition catalogue, Paperback, pages



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