Mark Rothko’s Life
“Real identity is incompatible with schools and categories, except by mutilation.”
Marcus Rothkowitz was only ten years old in 1913 when he arrived in the United States. His father, Jacob, had emigrated from Russia three years before, but died only six months following the arrival of his family. Rothkowitz spent the next several years in Portland, Oregon, where he took art classes and taught himself to play the mandolin and piano, fostering a love of art and music that would flourish throughout the rest of his life. In 1921, Rothkowitz left to attend Yale University.
Though he was a stellar student in philosophy, math, and literature, among other things, Rothkowitz left Yale without a degree and headed to New York City. Shortly thereafter, he began taking art classes at the Art Students League. In 1925-6, he studied with Max Weber, a modernist who experimented with Cubism, Fauvism, Futurism, and eventually, Expressionism. Weber was one of many artists (such as Milton Avery and Matisse) who inspired Rothko to question realism.
Rothko exhibited his first group art show with fellow students in 1928. In 1929, he began teaching children at the Center Academy of Brooklyn Jewish Center (a position he held for 23 years). Three years later, he married Edith Sachar. During the next few years, Rothkowitz continued to show his art and teach classes. In 1935, he was part of forming an artistic group known as “The Ten,” whose interest was in expressionism and experimentation. The group dissolved in 1939, one year after Rothko became an American citizen. By 1940, Rothkowitz had changed his name to Mark Rothko (not legally making the change until 1959). In 1944, his marriage to Sachar ended in divorce. He married Mell Beistle the next year. Together they had two children, Kate and Christopher. In 1961, he opened a show at the Museum of Modern Art, becoming the first living member of his generation to have a one-man show at the museum.
When Rothko suffered an aortic aneurysm in 1968, he was already battling liver problems and depression. The next year he was diagnosed with emphysema, and his marriage was in distress. Mark Rothko took his own life on February 25, 1970. The Rothko Chapel in Houston, TX was dedicated the next year. Despite (or perhaps due to) his physical and psychological challenges, Rothko produced a remarkable body of work—somber, muted, and dark in tone—in the last two years of his life.