This Day in Jewish History / Artist Mark Rothko Is Found Dead

David Green
David B. Green
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David Green
David B. Green

On February 25, 1970, painter Mark Rothko was found dead in his New York City studio, after having committed suicide at age 66.

Rothko was born Marcus Yakovlevich Rothkowitz, in Dvinsk, Russia (today Dagovpils, Latvia), on September 25, 1903. His father, Jacob, a pharmacist, was a Jewish secularist who returned to Orthodoxy so that Marcus was educated traditionally, at heder. Fearing that his sons would be conscripted into the Russian army, Jacob Rothkowitz decided to follow his brothers to the United States in 1910, and was followed in early 1913 by his wife, Anna, and children, settling in Portland, Oregon.

Marcus quickly adapted to life in the U.S., adding English to his knowledge of Yiddish, Russian and Hebrew, and graduated high school with honors at age 17. He received a scholarship to attend Yale University, but dropped out after two years. During his time there, he and a friend started a satirical magazine they called the Yale Saturday Evening Pest.

Rothkowitz – who only changed his name to the less obviously Jewish “Mark Rothko” in 1940, out of fear of anti-Semitism – moved to New York, “to burn about and starve a bit,” as he later put it. He took on menial jobs, but decided to study art after visiting a friend who was taking a drawing class at the Art Students League. This period constituted his only formal art education.

By 1928, Rothko was invited to participate in a group show at New York’s Opportunity Gallery, with Milton Avery and Lou Harris. In the 1930s, various federal agencies paid him and other artists to create public murals and make renovations. He also helped found an artists' union and pressed New York to establish a municipal gallery.

Rothko’s work moved from Expressionistic figurative paintings to more abstract and Surrealistic myth-based canvases. The latter works were influenced by his reading of Friedrich Nietzsche and his view of mankind’s struggle between free will and nature. (For a period, Rothko stopped painting, and immersed himself in reading philosophy.)

It was only in the late 1940s that Rothko moved into the color-field painting for which he is best known. These “multi-forms” are generally oversized works, and consist of several large, soft-edged blocks of color that envelop the viewer, especially when standing close to the canvas, as Rothko recommended. Their effect is meant to be transcendental; as Rothko put it, his goal was “the elimination of all obstacles between the painter and the idea, and between the idea and the observer."

Rothko married twice, and with his second wife, Mary Alice Beistel, he had two children. He suffered serious bouts of depression, and is now believed to have had bipolar syndrome. Even as he became critically and commercially successful, he remained a combative personality, who rejected attempts to characterize his art as abstract. His growing success also created tensions with some of his closest artist friends, a cause of great pain to Rothko.

When the Whitney Museum offered to buy two of his paintings in 1953, he declined, claiming his “deep sense of responsibility for the life my paintings will lead out in the world.” In 1958, he received a lucrative commission to paint a series of murals for the restaurant that was to open in the new Seagram Building in New York. He told a journalist at the time that it was his hope to create something “that will ruin the appetite of every son-of-a-bitch who ever eats in that room.” Yet, after working on the project for two years, Rothko quit after visiting the near-complete restaurant, and returned the commission to the Seagram family. (The works he did complete hang today in several different museums.)

Toward the end of his career, Rothko took on several other large commissions to fill newly built spaces. The most monumental of these is the Rothko Chapel, commissioned by the philanthropists John and Dominique de Menil for the St. Thomas Catholic University in Houston, Texas. He worked for six years on the chapel’s 14 large paintings, and did not live to see the dedication of the structure, in 1971.

Rothko's suicide, 43 years ago today, did not surprise some of those he was closest to. He and his wife had separated the year before, and he was in poor health.

The final ugly postscript to Rothko’s death was connected to his growing value as an artist. Shortly before he died, he and a financial adviser established an educational foundation that was to receive his approximately 800 unsold works. The three friends who were executors of the estate then began to sell off the works at undervalued prices to a New York gallery, and then split the profits with the gallery after the paintings’ public sale. Rothko’s children sued the executors and the gallery. A lengthy lawsuit ensued, and the family ultimately emerged victorious. They later donated the unsold paintings to museums around the world.

A gallery worker walks past Seagram murals by Russian-born American painter Mark Rothko.Credit: Reuters
Mark Rothko in 1953.Credit: Henry Elkan, courtesy Smithsonian Archives of American Art