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Mark Rothko
In 1903, Marcus Rothkowitz was born to a poor Jewish family in the ghetto of Dvinsk, a city in Russian-dominated Latvia. When he was ten, amidst the turmoil of war-torn Europe, his family immigrated to the U.S. and settled in Portland, Oregon. An outstanding student, he won a scholarship to Yale, but left school at the age of 20 to become a bookkeeper. He also started taking life-drawing classes. It was then he began painting. His early work consisted of quiet street scenes in a decorative, urban realist style. During the Depression he subsisted on part-time jobs, WPA artists' workfare programs, and teaching positions while his marriage to a fellow artist disintegrated. He, too, disintegrated into a nervous breakdown. Near the end of WW II, Mark Rothko remarried. His palette brightened. His usual, dismal outlook did too. One of his best works from this period reads something like a marriage portrait. Slow Swirl by the Edge of the Sea has a primordial, delicately decorative quality amid an uplifting sweep of two delightfully organic but unidentifiable forms. Influenced by Milton Avery as well as his friend and fellow artist, Adolph Gottlieb, there seems also to be a hint of Joan Miró as well. Rothko also claimed to have painted this work in response to having seen Sandro Botticelli's The Birth of Venus. It was the New York School with an Italian Renaissance flavour.

Despite his alliance with the Abstract Expressionists of the time, Rothko always vehemently denied being an Abstractionist. His preoccupation with subject matter in his work, even as he moved into the 1960s and his trademark colour-field paintings, spawned a similar preoccupation amongst critics in lending their own narrative meaning (from births to burials) to his work. More likely, Rothko's insistence upon subject matter was a reaction to the fear that his paintings might be considered merely "decorative". Late in life, as his work became more popular and highly saleable, he began to show signs of clinical depression. In 1970, he committed suicide by slitting his wrists. He was 67. Following his death and a landmark court battle between his heirs and the executors of his estate, prices for his paintings vaulted into the stratosphere. Also stratospheric was the seven-million-dollar judgement won by his heirs against the directors of a charitable foundation established in his will. A retrospective of some 100 of his works is now on display through August 16 at the National Gallery of Art in Washington.

Contributed by Lane, Jim
28 May 1998

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