A Week to Remember: Mark Rothko

Keith Chaffee, Librarian, Central Library,
Mark Rothko

On September 25, 1903, Mark Rothko was born. With his mother and sister, he emigrated from Russia to the United States at the age of ten, joining his father, who had made the journey some years earlier. Rothko learned English quickly enough that he was able to catch up with his peers and graduate from high school in 1921.

After two unhappy years at Yale, which Rothko thought was oppressively stuffy and elitist, he began studying art. By the late 1920s, he was not only showing his own work, but was giving classes in painting and sculpture at a Brooklyn community center. Rothko's paintings and drawings of the 1930s were representational – portraits, landscapes, city scenes – but the backgrounds often featured large blocks of solid color, foreshadowing the later work for which he would become better known.

In the mid-1940s, Rothko moved to a more abstract style. From this point on, his paintings usually consisted of large rectangular blocks of contrasting colors against a solid background. He didn't think of himself as an abstract artist, and rejected the idea that he was merely a skillful manipulator of color. Rothko insisted that there was just as much emotional and spiritual depth in his vibrant, textured rectangles as there was in any landscape or portrait.

Over the last twenty years of his career, the color palette of Rothko's work made a clear shift. His work of the late 1940s and early 1950s features bright pinks, yellows, and oranges; later work is dominated by darker blues, browns, and grays.

Rothko's final work was commissioned in 1964 by John and Dominique de Menil, art patrons from Texas, who asked him to create a meditative space in which several of his paintings would hang. That space would become Rothko Chapel, in Houston, Texas. It was a difficult project, and Rothko was a demanding partner who wore out the patience of multiple architects before finally approving a design for the chapel. Rothko created fourteen paintings for the space, in black and dark brown with small hints of other dark colors.

Rothko Chapel was completed in 1971. Rothko never saw the finished project; he had committed suicide in 1970, after a long struggle with serious health problems including depression.

Annie Cohen-Solal's biography, Mark Rothko: Toward the Light in the Chapel, is available as an e-book at OverDrive, or in print.

The hour-long documentary The Silence of Mark Rothko is available for streaming at Hoopla, or on DVD.

And Morton Feldman's Rothko Chapel, a half-hour piece for chorus, viola, and percussion, was inspired by and originally performed in Rothko Chapel; a recording is available for streaming or download at Freegal.

Also This Week

  • September 27, 1917: Louis Auchincloss was born. Auchincloss was born into New York society, and that is the world he wrote about in most of his novels and short stories. With a dry sense of humor, Auchincloss explores the lives and psyches of those who come from old money. The Collected Stories of Louis Auchincloss is available as an e-book at OverDrive, or in print.
  • September 30, 1931: Angie Dickinson was born. Dickinson is a film and television actress best remembered for her mid-1970s TV crime drama Police Woman, one of the first drama series to feature a female lead character. The show reportedly led to a surge in female applicants to police departments around the country. Among the best films from Dickinson's career is the 1967 crime drama Point Blank, which is available for streaming at Hoopla, or on DVD.
  • September 30, 1942: Frankie Lymon was born. Lymon was the lead singer of the mid-1950s R&B group The Teenagers, and had his biggest hit at the age of 13 with "Why Do Fools Fall in Love?" The success of Lymon and The Teenagers would last only about a year, and after Lymon left the group, neither he nor they had similar success. Their Greatest Recordings is a thorough collection of the group's short career; it's available for streaming or download at Freegal.
  • September 25, 1957: In Little Rock, Arkansas, nine African-American students begin attending Central High School, integrating the school. Governor Orval Faubus had refused to allow the integration, calling out the Arkansas National Guard to keep the "Little Rock Nine" from entering the school. President Eisenhower sent in Army troops to escort the students into the building, and put the Arkansas Guard under federal control. Carlotta Walls LaNier was one of the Little Rock Nine; her memoir, A Mighty Long Way, is available as an e-book at OverDrive, or in print.