Mark Rothko

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Photo of Mark Rothko, c. 1949

Mark Rothko (September 25, 1903February 25, 1970), born Marcus Rothkowitz, was a Latvian-born American painter usually considered an Abstract Expressionist.

Quotes of Mark Rothko

sorted chronologically, after date of the quotes of Mark Rothko


  • It is a widely accepted notion among painters that it does not matter what one paints as long as it is well painted. This is the essence of academism. There is no such thing as good painting about nothing. We assert that only that subject matter is valid which is tragic and timeless. That is why we profess spiritual kinship with primitive and archaic art.
    • Joint statement with Adolph Gottlieb, to Edwin A. Jewell, often referred to as a Manifesto. (written June 7, 1943; published June 13, 1943)
  • If our titles recall the known myths of antiquity, we have used them again because they are the eternal symbols upon which we must fall back to express basic psychological ideas.. ..(they) express something real and existing in ourselves.
  • For the first time a subject is present, not by virtue of its absence, but actually present, though its appearance is torn away, and only the structure bared. The Modern City! Precise, rectangular, squared, whether seen from above, below, or on the side; bright lights and sterilized life; Broadway, whites and blacks; and boogie-woogie; the underground music of the at once resigned and rebellious.. .Mondrian has left his white paradise, and entered the world. [1942, on the late painting Broadway Boogie Woogie of Piet Mondrian ]
    • Quote of Rothko, in Painters Objects, Robert Motherwell, pp. 95, 96; as cited in Abstract Expressionist Painting in America, W.C, Seitz, Cambridge Massachusetts, (1983), pp. 128-129
  • We are concerned with similar states of consciousness and relationship to the world.. .If previous abstractions paralleled the scientific and objective preoccupations of our times, ours are finding a pictorial equivalent for man's new knowledge and consciousness of his more complex inner self.
    • common statement in The New York Times (July 8, 1945)
  • For me, Still's pictorial dramas are an extension of the Greek Persephone myth. As he himself has expressed it, his paintings are 'of the Earth, the Damned, and of the Recreated'. Every shape becomes an organic entity, inviting the multiplicity of associations inherent in all living things. To me they form a theogony of the most elementary consciousness, hardly aware of itself beyond the will to live – a profound and moving experience. [in the catalogue introduction for the first one-man-show of Clyfford Still]
    • in Art of this Century (February 12 – March 2, 1946), Peggy Guggenheim Papers on the work of Clyfford Still; as quoted in Abstract Expressionism Creators and Critics, ed. Clifford Ross, Abrams Publishers New York (1990), p. 203
  • I do not believe that there was ever a question of being abstract or representational. It is really a matter of ending this silence and solitude, of breathing, and stretching one's arms again transcendental experiences became possible.
    • in The Romantics were prompted, essay by Mark Rothko (1947/48); as quoted in Possibilities, vol 1, no. 1 (winter 1947-48), Kate Rothko Prizel and Christophor Rothko.
  • The progression of a painter's work, as it travels in time from point to point, will be toward clarity: toward the elimination of all obstacles between the painter and the idea, and between the idea and the observer. As examples of such obstacles, I give (among others) memory, history or geometry, which are swamps of generalization from which one might pull out parodies of ideas (which are ghosts) but never an idea in itself. To achieve this clarity is, inevitably, to be understood.
    • In Tiger’s Eye, Vol. 1, no 9 (October 1949); as quoted in Abstract Expressionism Creators and Critics, ed. Clifford Ross, Abrams Publishers New York 1990, p. 170

Manifesto (1943)

Quotes of Rothko, from: June 13, 1943 edition of the New York Times, brief manifesto: Mark Rothko, with Adolph Gottlieb

1. To us art is an adventure into an unknown world, which can be explored only by those willing to take the risk.

2. This world of imagination is fancy-free and violently opposed to common sense.

3. It is our function as artists to make the spectator see the world our way—not his way.

4. We favor the simple expression of the complex thought. We are for the large shape because it has the impact of the unequivocal. We wish to reassert the picture plane. We are for flat forms because they destroy illusion and reveal truth.

5. It is a widely accepted notion among painters that it does not matter what one paints as long as it is well painted. This is the essence of academicism. There is no such thing as a good painting about nothing. We assert that the subject is crucial and only that subject-matter is valid which is tragic and timeless. That is why we profess spiritual kinship with primitive and archaic art.

Beyond the Aesthetics (1946)

Quotes of Rothko, from: 'Beyond the Aesthetics', ed. Robert Motherwell, in 'Design 47', no 8 (April 1946)
  • The aesthetic is the sine qua none for art: if a work is not aesthetic, it is not art by definition.. .We feel through the senses, and everyone knows that the content of art is feeling; it is the creation of an object for sensing that is the artist’s task; and it is the qualities of this object that constitute its felt content.
    • p. 38
  • The passions are a kind of thirst, inexorable and intense, for certain feelings or felt states. To find or invent 'objects' (which are, more strictly speaking, relational structures) whose felt quality satisfies the passions, - that for me is the activity of the artist, an activity which does not cease even in sleep. No wonder the artist is constantly placing and displacing, relating and rupturing relations; his task is to find a complex of qualities whose feeling is just right – veering toward the unknown and chaos, yet ordered and related in order to be apprehended.
    • pp. 38-39
  • The activity of the artist makes him less socially conditioned and more humans. It is then that he is disposed to revolution. Society stands against anarchy; the artist stands for the human against society; society therefore threats him As an anarchist. Society's logic is faulty, but its intimation of an enemy is not. Still, the social conflict with society is an incidental obstacle in the artist's path.
    • pp. 38-39
  • It is Cézanne's feeling that determined the form of his pictorial structure. It is his pictorial structure that gives off his feeling. If all his pictorial structures were to disappear from the world, so would a certain feeling.
    • pp. 38-39
  • Feeling must have a medium in order to function at all; in the same way, thought must have symbols. It is the medium, or the specific configuration of the medium that we call a work of art that brings feeling into being, just as do responses tot the objects of the external world.. .The medium of painting is such changing and ordering on an ideal plane, ideal in that the medium is more tractable, subtle, and capable of emphasis (abstraction is a kind of emphasis) than everyday life.
    • pp. 38-39
  • Drama moves us: conflict is an inherent pattern in reality. Harmony moves us too: faced as we are with ever imminent disorder. It is a powerful idea. Van Gogh's drama and Seurat's silent harmony were born in the same country and epoch: but they do not contradict one another; they refer to different patterns among those which constitute reality.
    • pp. 39-40
  • But the most common error among the whole-hearted abstractionists nowadays [in 1946] is to mistake the medium for an end in itself, instead of a means. On the other hand, the surrealists erred in supposing that one can do without a medium, that in attacking the medium one does not destroy just one means for getting into the unknown. Color and space relations constitute such a means because from them can be made structures which exhibit the various patterns of reality.
    • pp. 39-40
  • Like the Cubists before them, the abstractionists felt a beautiful thing in perceiving how the medium can, of its own accord, carry one into the unknown, that is to the discovery of new structures. What an inspiration the medium is..
    • pp. 39-40
  • Like Rimbaud before them, the surrealists abandoned the aesthetic altogether; it takes a certain courage to leave poetry for Africa [as Rimbaud himself did]. They revealed their insight as essentially moral in never forgetting for a moment that most living is a process of conforming to an established order which is inhuman in its drives and consequences. Their hatred sustained them through all the humiliating situations in which the modern artist find himself, and led them to conceptions beyond the reach of more passive souls. For them true 'poetry' was freedom from mechanical social responses. No wonder they loved the work of children and the insane – if not the creatures themselves.
    • pp. 39-40
  • [O]ne must agree with Rilke when he says that with 'nothing can one touch a work of art so little as with critical words...'. It was Marcel Duchamps who was critical, when he drew a moustache on the Mona Lisa. And so was Mondrian when he dreamed of the dissolution of painting, sculpture, and architecture into a transcendent ensemble.
    • pp. 39-40


  • I paint very large pictures. I realize that historically the function of painting large pictures is painting something very grandiose and pompous. The reason I paint them however, - I think it applies to other painters I know -, is precisely because I want to be very intimate and human. To paint a small picture is to place yourself outside your experience, to look upon an experience as a stereopticon view or with a reducing glass. However you paint the larger picture, you are in it. It isn't something you command.
    • In: Interiors, Vol. 110, no 10 (May 1951); as quoted in Abstract Expressionism Creators and Critics, ed. Clifford Ross, Abrams Publishers New York (1990), p. 172
  • Since I have a deep sense of responsibility for the life my pictures will lead out in the world, I will with gratitude accept any form of their exposition in which their life and meaning can be maintained, and avoid all occasions where I think that this cannot be done.. ..unfortunately, there are few existing alternatives for the kind of activity which your museum represents. Nevertheless, in my own life at least, there must be some congruity between convictions and actions if I am to continue to function and work.
    • Quote from Rothko's letter to Whitney's director Lloyd Goodrich, End of 1952; as cited in Mark Rothko, a biography, James E. B. Breslin, University of Chicago Press (1993), p. 304
    • Rothko was turning down a museum purchase
  • It's a risky business to send a picture out into the world. How often it must be impaired by the eyes of the unfeeling and the cruelty of the impotent who could extend their affliction universally!
    • As quoted in Conversations with Artists (1957) by Selden Rodman, p. 92; later published in 'Notes from a conversation with Selden Rodman, 1956' in Writings on Art : Mark Rothko (2006) ed. Miguel López-Remiro ISBN 0300114400
  • I am not an abstractionist...I am not interested in the relationships of color or form or anything else...I'm interested only in expressing basic human emotions — tragedy, ecstasy, doom and so on — and the fact that a lot of people break down and cry when confronted with my pictures show that I communicate those basic human emotions...The people who weep before my pictures are having the same religious experience I had when I painted them. And if you, as you say, are moved only by their color relationships, then you miss the point!
    • In: Conversations with Artists, Selden Rodman, New York Devin-Adair (1957). p. 93.; reprinted as 'Notes from a conversation with Selden Rodman, 1956', in Writings on Art: Mark Rothko (2006) ed. Miguel López-Remiro p. 119
  • I hope to paint something that will ruin the appetite of every son of a bitch who ever eats in that room.
    • As quoted in The New Yorker (April 5, 2010), p. 26
    • quote of Rothko (c. 1958), on his commissioned murals for the 'Four Seasons' restaurant in the Seagram Building; Rothko returned his advance and kept the paintings for himself.
  • [the first ingredient of his work]... is a clear preoccupation with death - intimations of mortality.
    • Quote from Rothko's lecture (1958) at the Pratt Institute; as cited in Mark Rothko, a biography, James E. B. Breslin, University of Chicago Press (1993), p. 28
  • [I]t was with the utmost reluctance that I found the figure could not serve my purposes...But a time came when none of us could use the figure without mutilating it. [his quote in 1959, looking back to the 1930s]
    • As quoted in Abstract Expressionism, Davind Anfam, Thames and Hudson, London (1990), p. 143
  • A painting is not a picture of an experience; it is an experience.
    • As quoted in "Mark Rothko", Dorothy Seiberling in LIFE magazine (November 16, 1959), p. 82

Posthumous sources (after 1970)

  • One does not paint for design students or historians but for human beings, and the reaction in human terms is the only thing that is really satisfactory to the artist. [in conversation with W.C. Seitz]
    • Quote of Rothko in Abstract Expressionist Painting in America, W.C, Seitz, Cambridge Massachusetts (1983), p. 116
  • [I am] dealing not with the particular anecdote, but rather with the Spirit of Myth, which is generic to all myths at all times.
    • Abstract Expressionism, David Anfam, Thames and Hudson Ltd London (1990), p. 81
  • It was not that the figure had been removed, not that the figures had been swept away, but the symbols for the figures, and in turn the shapes in the later canvases were substitutes for the figures.. ..these new shapes say.. ..what the symbols said. [Rothko, explaining Seitz his new way of painting during the mid-1940s]
    • Abstract Expressionist Painting in America, W.C, Seitz, Cambridge Massachusetts, (1983), p. 142
  • I will say without reservations that from my point of view there can be no abstractions. Any shape or area that has not the pulsating concreteness of real flesh and bones, its vulnerability to pleasure or pain is nothing at all. Any picture that does not provide the environment in which the breath of life can be drawn does not interest me.
    • letter to Clyfford Still, undated; as quoted in Mark Rothko : A Biography (1993), James E. B. Breslin / and Abstract Expressionism, Creators and Critics, ed. Clifford Ross, Abrams Publishers New York (1990), p. 170

'Abstract Expressionism, Creators and Critics', 1990

Quotes of Rothko, from: Abstract Expressionism, Creators and Critics, ed. Clifford Ross, Abrams Publishers New York (1990), p. 167- 173
  • The romantics were prompted to seek exotic subjects and to travel to far off places. They failed to realize that, though the transcendental must involve the strange and unfamiliar, not everything strange or unfamiliar is transcendental. The unfriendliness of society to his activity is difficult for the artists to accept. Yet this very hostility can act as a lever for true liberation.. .Both the sense of community and of security depend on the familiar. Free of them, transcendental experiences become possible.
    • p. 167
  • I think of my pictures as dramas; the shapes in the pictures are the performers. They have been created from the need for a group of actors who are able to move dramatically without embarrassment and execute gestures without shame. Neither the action nor the actors can be anticipated, or described in advance. They begin as an unknown adventure in an unknown space.. .Ideas and plans that existed in the mind at the start were simply the doorway through which one left the world in which they occur. The great cubist pictures thus transcend and belie the implications of the cubist program.
    • pp. 167-168
  • The most important tool the artist fashions through constant practice is the faith in his ability to produce miracles when they are needed. Pictures must be miraculous; the instant one is completed, the intimacy between the creation and the creator is ended. He is an outsider. The picture must be for him, as for anyone experiencing it later, a revelation, an unexpected and unprecedented resolution of an eternally familiar need.
    • p. 168
  • On shapes:
- They are organisms with volition and a passion for self-assertion.
- They move with internal freedom, and without need to conform with or to violate what is probable in the familiar world.
- They have no direct association with any particular visible experience, but in them one recognizes the principle and passion of organisms.
  • p. 168
  • With us the disguise must be complete. The familiar identity of things has to be pulverized in order to destroy the finite associations with which our society increasingly enshrouds every aspect of our environment.
    • p. 168
  • I use colors that have already been experienced through the light of day and through the state of mind of the total man. In other words, my colors are not colors that are laboratory tools which are isolated from all accidentals or impurities so that they have a specified identity or purity.
    • p. 173 : working notes, undated

Quotes about Mark Rothko

sorted chronologically, after date of the quotes about Mark Rothko
  • ..For example; in the early forties Rothko and I decided to paint a certain subject matter. Perhaps if we saw some of those paintings now.. ..they might not seem so different as they did at the time. However, at no point was there ever any sort of a doctrine or a program or anything that would make a school. I think it was simply a situation in which all of the painters [of the New York School] were at that time; they were trying to break away from certain things.
    • Quote of Adolph Gottlieb (March 1960), in an interview with David Sylvester, edited for broadcasting by the BBC first published in Living Arts (June 1963); as quoted in Interviews with American Artists, David Sylvester; Chatto & Windus, London (2001), pp. 27-28
  • Rothko and I came to an agreement on the question of the subject matter; if we were to do something which could develop in some direction other than the accepted directions of that time, it would be necessary to use different subjects to begin with, and 1942, we embarked on a series of paintings that attempted to use mythological subject matter, preferably from Greek mythology. I did a series of paintings on the theme of Oedipus and Rothko did a series of paintings on other Greek themes.. ..this offered a possibility of a way out [of a. o. w:Social Realism and Cubism ]
    • Quote of Adolph Gottlieb (March 1960), in an interview (March 1960) with David Sylvester, edited for broadcasting by the BBC first published in 'Living Arts', June 1963; as quoted in Interviews with American Artists, David Sylvester; Chatto & Windus, London 2001, p. 31
  • There is a moment of blinding light. There is a moment that seems like death, a paralysis. Then a new man, Paul, emerges from the experience. Rothko, the most famous example, changed his name, his wife and his style in a few months of profound self-questioning.
  • I wanted to be soft like Rothko and ruthless like Ad Reinhardt.
    • Jenny Holzer Art Is the Highest Form of Hope & Other Quotes by Artists, Phaidon (2016) p 172
  • [B]ut Rothko was hypnotized by his own role and there was just one. The role was that of the Messiah-I have come; I have the word. I mean, Rothko had a very healthy self-worship and he did feel that he had discovered some great secret. He felt that this was of universal import...Rothko became totally involved in his own mythology, more than anyone I know except Barney Newman. They both were tremendously involved with their self-image. As the Kennedy White House was - where everything was done in terms of its fitting in with the self-image.
    • Quote of Elaine de Kooning, in 'Oral history interview with Elaine de Kooning' (August 27, 1981), conducted by Phyllis Tuchman; Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution
  • And Milton Avery influenced Rothko. Rothko explained to me that Avery was the first person that Rothko knew who was a professional artist 24 hours a day. And he gave Rothko the idea that that was a possibility. But also Avery's attitude toward color - I mean, Rothko had much more to do with Avery. Of course, what Rothko had that Avery did not have was scale. And also Rothko freed the color from shapes. I mean, with Avery the color always inhabited shapes and, you know, logical divisions. So Avery was a very powerful influence on Rothko's life. However, when I mentioned that in my article about Rothko, he [Rothko] wanted me to delete it. He had this curious lack of generosity that certain artists have toward people to whom they are in debt.
    • Quote of Elaine de Kooning, in 'Oral history interview with Elaine de Kooning' (August 27, 1981), conducted by Phyllis Tuchman; Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution
  • Well, I interpreted them [the late 'gray' paintings of Rothko] differently from his self-image right then and there. We argued about the significance of his paintings because he felt that they had a certain sense of foreboding and so on, and I didn't feel that at all. I felt they were very involved with comfort and luxury and they looked very natural in Jeanne Reynal's luxurious house, and people looked very well against them. They made a wonderful graceful decor, all of which was anathema to Rothko. I think in his very last paintings that he had down at the Rice Institute that there he got what he was talking about to me in the early '50s, but I don't think he had it then. I think when he got away from the pretty colors, beautiful colors and he got into those mysterious blacks and nameless deep, dark colors, that then the paintings did have this sense of foreboding. And I think they're his most magnificent paintings [in the Rothko Chapel....But those big black paintings, they took me by surprise. ...I was tremendously impressed. I found them very grand and the scale of them, the size, it was just quite amazing.
    • Elaine de Kooning, in "Oral history interview with Elaine de Kooning" (August 27, 1981), conducted by Phyllis Tuchman; Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution
  • Mark Rothko was very conscious of his sources, both as location and as cultural heritage.
    • Quote of Stanley Kunitz, as quoted in Mark Rothko : A Biography (1993) by James E. B. Breslin
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