My 5-year old could paint that: Mark Rothko

Posted By Horizon Staff September 17th, 2012 in Arts & Entertainment : 0 COMMENTS

by Austin Danson | Staff Writer

O, Abstraction. What have you done to Western art?

We live in an interesting time where there lies a massive, sharply defined gap between those who “understand” art from Picasso onward, and those who are willing to accept art no further than Matisse or Cezanne. Art historian James Elkins describes the story of Western art history as a tense push and pull between Naturalism (rendering objects as realistically as possible) and Abstraction.

For ages, Naturalism seemed preferable due to its beauty and straightforwardness, but we have gradually moved forward into the realms of the abstract and conceptual. By going through famous Modern artists week by week, this column hopes to explain.

Quick Facts:

Name: Marcus Rothkowitz (known as Mark Rothko)

Nationality: Russian

Hometown: New York
Medium: Oil on canvas

Died: 1970
Period: Abstract expressionism

Rothko’s life is a notoriously troubled one. As a person of Jewish decent, the outbreak of World War II added immense emotional struggle to his already troubled financial and relational life (he divorced his two wives). Just as nine of his paintings had arrived for a new show opening in London at the Tate, at age 66, he took his own life.

But What Does It Mean!?

Modern art especially, is, needs to be and is meant to be, subject to many different interpretations. What Rothko meant for his painting to convey is interesting, but not nearly as important as the distinct feeling that it makes the viewer feel.

One thing is certain about Rothko’s work: it is anything but elated. His work is soft, subtle and bleak, and as one stands in front of his expansive canvases, it as if the viewer is taken to a space separate from this world. Viewers of Rothko’s work are known to often break down in tears. He famously said that that people who react to his paintings in this way are “having the same religious experience I did when I painted them.”


Art and its meaning always builds off previous artists and those that inspired the contemporary work. Rothko said he was inspired by old masters; especially Rembrandt and Michelangelo.

On Michelangelo’s paintings in the Medici Library, Rothko said, “He achieved just the kind of feeling I’m after. He makes the viewers feel they are trapped in a room where all the doors and windows are bricked up— so all they can do is butt their heads against the wall forever.”

So, do Rothko’s paintings show us an escape from the torment of modern civilization? Or do they portray the agony itself? Perhaps both. Whatever the case may be, these would indeed be frightening pictures and words for a five year old.

A final note: one must really see his work in person to understand it fully. These paintings blur the line between image and object and must be experienced more than beheld. But, fear not! The Los Angels County Museum of Art has two of  Rothko’s oils and one of his gouache paintings. A trip is highly recommended.

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