Mark Rothko


Dear Artist,

After tramping around in the Rockies I was just getting out of a much needed motel bathtub and this anonymous email popped up: “How come you’re always quoting dead artists like Wyeth and Sargent and you never quote the really great ones like Rauschenberg and Stella and Mark Rothko?”

Fair enough. Let’s take Rothko. He’s quoted at least ten times in the Resource of Art Quotations. He’s been called the sublime painter of the twentieth century. Noted for his large scale soft-edged colour field paintings, his other claim to fame was his perennially toxic lifestyle and a lifetime of disgruntlement. Dealer profiteering and perceived maltreatment continued even after his suicide in 1970. Mark Rothko will never make it as the poster kid for the happy artist.

The jury is still out on his creative legacy, of course. Another hundred years may be useful. But what we as artists might profit by are thoughts he might have expressed on the art process, or tips he might have given. We note, for example, “I’m not interested in relationships of colour or form or anything else.” And “I don’t express myself in my paintings. I express my not-self.” And also, perhaps more valuably: “It is our function as artists to make the spectator see the world our way — not his way.” But for those of us who are trying to paint mountains or children or pots of geraniums, we tend to run out of interest in a guy like Rothko because we don’t see enough complexity in his actual work. While his brain may have been complex, and perhaps his sensibilities, these factors are not always evident. You might just say he’s in a different league, a different department of art — as different as night and day to others who also call themselves painters. That these differences exist is one of the enduring beauties of our game.

Mark Rothko was a deeply disturbed guy; he was frustrated, angry, suspicious, and like a few in all walks of life, spent himself in self-loathing. To “anonymous,” who helped me think of these things while I was removing my minor mountain pestilence, I say thank you, there’s value in knowing him.

Best regards,


PS: “There is no such thing as a good painting about nothing.” (Mark Rothko)

Esoterica: We all do what we can with the abilities we are given. The valuable message is to continue to press ourselves in that which we believe. In art we know we can sleep soundly in the knowledge that the jury will always be deliberating. “Art is an adventure into an unknown world, which can be explored only by those willing to take risks.” (Mark Rothko, 1903-1970)


Mark Rothko (1903-1970)


Mark Rothko


“Yellow Band” (1956)


“Untitled” (1969)






Rothko’s mature work features large expanses of colour (often thin washes of different hues) arranged parallel to one another. “The edges of these shapes are softly uneven, giving them a hazy, pulsating quality as if they were suspended and floating on the canvas. The effect is a feeling of calmness and contemplation.” (Ian Chilvers)

The following are selected correspondence arising from the above and other letters. Thanks for writing.


Painting the feeling
by Liz Schamehorn, Washago, ON, Canada


painting by Liz Schamehorn

Yes, he was an embodiment of the “tortured artist” in the style of Jackson Pollock etc. Part of his problem could have been the hostility that greeted much of his work. Yes, it is difficult to appreciate work that doesn’t display an obvious difficulty of technique, but work doesn’t have to be representational to be legitimate. In order to judge whether people can paint, there are other criteria than the ability to copy something skilfully. A representational painting is not successful if it doesn’t have its basic abstract ducks in a row. That is scale, composition, colour combinations, line, or the decision to create depth or flatness, all used to create the desired effect. Rothko eliminated everything except composition and colour. His compositions were combinations of squares and rectangles suggesting equilibrium and stability. His colours were combinations that produce glow. Rothko’s glowing squares suggest some sort of immoveable spirit. It’s as if you tried to paint the feeling you get from looking at the sun.


Spiritual guide
by Suzette Boulais

Of all the people you could possibly quote and defend, I couldn’t believe it was Mark Rothko. I love to paint, to play with colors on my brush, to see them make shapes and designs. On a scale from 1 to 10, no matter how I practiced with paint I rated about point 8 on the scale. My desire to use paint and color were off the charts, but my technical talent was truly lacking. I was frustrated beyond belief and am to this day struggling with the fact that my talent lags far behind my heart’s desire. One night however, I spent hours on the internet almost in prayer. “What is my voice, my own style, my true expression?” I searched hundreds of famous painters and then I hit the abstract artists. I clicked on image after image, artist after artist. Then, I saw my artist! I saw my art! I saw who I would be destined to become if I stuck to it and persisted. I saw a painting by Mark Rothko. Simple. Deep. Provocative. Not a single human face, not a single landscape or tree, none of these I would ever be able to paint from scratch and ever have them look like anything. This man hit my spirit and my core, my brother, my guide, my mentor. I want to be like Mark. It’s the reason I even consider a pursuit in art. Had it not been for stumbling upon his work, I would have let my painting go. I would have put down my brush.


Beauty is the promise of happiness
by Todd Plough, NY, USA


painting by Todd Plough

Art should make people’s lives better, especially the artist’s. Elitism, as exhibited by much of the self-absorbed art world, does nothing to further people’s understanding and enjoyment, rather it builds a wall. The 60’s, in my opinion, was the betrayal of beauty and integrity in painting. It is still going on. Why? As Henri Rousseau said, “Beauty is the promise of happiness.”



Understanding differences
by Emma Stubbs, Santa Ana, CA, USA

Rather than always dissecting the work and lives of people like Sargent, it is a relief to hear you discussing an artist like Rothko, no matter what your personal bias. In reading your archives, it’s like listening to a music expert discussing pop and rock music, and completely ignoring jazz. There is a downside to this approach, though. You wouldn’t speak Russian in these letters because you don’t understand it. I’m not sure you understand art that’s not mountains, children and pots of geraniums, either. Not only that, I’m not convinced that a person’s psychological makeup has anything to do with their talent and output, although I doubt that the domestically self-satisfied, successful amongst little old ladies, smug type has any idea what true creative angst and breakthrough are all about. In spite of all this, it’s great to hear about someone who strikes a different note from those millions of painters of mountains.


Rothko chapel
by Ellen McCormick Martens, North Tonawanda, NY, USA


painting by Ellen McCormick Martens

Talking about Mark Rothko brings up the Rothko Chapel in Houston, Texas. I used to live in Houston, and visited the chapel from time to time, and now I go there every time I am in town. For those who have never been there, the chapel is set in a park-like area, with a pool and at least one David Smith sculpture. It is a simple brick building. When you enter, there are plain wooden benches to sit on, and it is silent. There is a skylight in the center of the ceiling, and it sheds enough light to see the paintings, which are gigantic, and deep blue-violet, blue, and black. There are different proportions of rectangles in the canvases, as well as in the internal shapes. Sitting there one realizes the enormity and mystery of the universe that surrounds us. It is a good place to meditate on life, death and mystery, and to feel God (by any name), or the spirit of the universe. After I leave, the experience of sitting in the chapel stays with me, giving me a sense of peace. I know Rothko himself was not happy, but the energy level of these paintings is deep and full of wondrous vibrating music.


Living and dying example
by Doran William Cannon, California, USA

Rothko was a living and dying example defining that sort of artist as one who must suffer to produce great art. Like great wines, the grapes had to suffer from extremes of heat and cold and on rolling hills to be denied enough water in order to produce the best flavors. And then, again, the resultant wine must be imbibed at just the right time with just the right ambience. Like, perhaps, Rothko. His entire body of work defines Rothko, perhaps more than any other 20th century abstractionist, except Pollock. Just one painting is enough for the practiced eye, but the body of work erases any doubt of his having earned his place in the pantheon. Stella and Rauschenberg strain for their acceptance and leave me cold.

Rothko did not produce for us to like his art; it was a shimmering gift for us to figure out.


Wisdom from the troubled
by Kitty Wallis, Portland, Oregon, USA


painting by Kitty Wallis

Your letter causes this thought in me: We live in a culture that seeks wisdom not from the serene among us but from the troubled. Now I understand why the current state of the arts disturbs me. I have been obediently thinking of our contemporary famous artists as accomplished in ways I don’t quite get. Especially the disgruntled ones, the proponents of the ‘Garbage School of Art,’ etc. Now I see I’ve been participating in the adulation of the complainers. I like to peek around the edges of our beliefs as much as possible. I’ll look at modern work a bit more sceptically now.


The Four Agreements
by Anonymous

I am surprised by the way some people take your letters as a personal attack and lash out with such vehemence. What seems consistent is that anger often arises when one takes a situation personally even though it was totally objective in nature. If we can realize that our own identification, baggage and sensitive issues are really causing us to take offense, we can begin to dispel the cause for anger. Anger can use a lot of energy and perpetuate our patterns, difficulties or discomforts.

A book called The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz offers wisdom on this topic.

The four agreements:

1. Be impeccable with your word.
2. Don’t take anything personally.
3. Don’t make assumptions.
4. Always do your best.


Not art
by Barrie Chadwick

You are sometimes too diplomatic in your newsletters. Rothko’s work does not deserve to be titled “art.” It is in the same category as the Tate Gallery’s recent ridiculous award to the “lights going on and going off” by the Scotsman who could not even articulate what his installation exhibit was. We have been too soft on trash like this for too long. The Tate is run by posturing fools who, by pretending to understand the deep psychological significance of these “deep” works, only promote the production of more work of the same ridiculous nature. Every time Sothebys sells a formless “masterpiece” like Rothko’s work, and every time some benighted gallery purchases a work which some child could have done — and for some exorbitant price — it belittles the work of many others — including you and me.


Rothko bashing
by Jo Scott-B


painting by Jo Scott-B

I expected more tolerance and open mindedness from you. I well remember, as an art student in London UK, standing amazed before those great canvases of colour. They challenged me to push my own limits, to explore colour and optic reactions created by colour spaces. I have long believed an artist’s personal life should be judged apart and separate from the work produced. Would we not have had the same dismissive reaction to Van Gogh, the madman? Many works may not be my choice to have in my living space but nonetheless I value them for the new perspective they bring, the thoughts they provoke and the insights to modern life.


Overdone and pointless
by Olinda Everett, Sao Paulo, Brazil

I have just been reading the replies to “Two Spirits” Please, please, can we not have this marvelously diverse letter plunge into that endless carnage of the botanical painters versus the installation merchants? It is just too overdone and pointless. There was an exhibition not so long ago in London made up of corpses — I think — I personally do not wish to see this whether people display it as art or not. So I did not go. But I still don’t think it is my business to engage in rabid deployment of the masses to go and lynch the guy. Let the Justice Department worry about where he got his material.


You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 100 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2002.

That includes Marilyn Lemon who writes, “I find Rothko’s work incredibly complex and interesting. Far more interesting than yet another pot of geraniums. I guess you could write me off as just another deeply disturbed guy.”


1 Comment

  1. As EMM above wrote, go and see the Rothko chapel in Houston. It is extremely soothing to look upon that beautiful work. Does that make it ART ?
    I think so.
    And thank you for ‘Letters’.

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