Mark Rothko

12 march to 30 June 2019

Kunsthistorisches Museum presents for the first time in Austria an exhibition dedicated to the great American artist, Mark Rothko. Together with his contemporaries, Jackson Pollock, Barnett Newman, and Willem de Kooning, Rothko was one of the Abstract Expressionists, whose works made New York a centre of modern art. Rothko undertook three extensive trips to Europe, visiting as many churches, architectural monuments, and museums as he could. Art and architecture of the recent and more distant past are a vigorous presence in his work. Our exhibition presents an overview of Rothko’s artistic career from the early figurative works of the 1930s to those of the 1940s, and the classical abstract paintings of the 1950s and 1960s that made him famous.

Exhibition view, Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien

Mark Rothko

12 MARCH TO 30 JUNE 2019

täglich, 10 – 18 Uhr
Do, 10 – 21 Uhr

Einlass ist jeweils bis eine halbe Stunde vor Schließzeit!

Get your Ticket*

* Ticket Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien

A brief


Mark Rothko was born on 25 September 1903 as Marcus Rotkovich in the Russian town of Dvinsk (today Daugavpils in Latvia). In 1913 his family left for Portland, Oregon. He broke off his studies in Yale and moved to New York in 1925.

A friend invited Rothko to drawing classes and soon after he joined the Art Students League. In 1929 he began to give art instruction for children at the art academy of the Brooklyn Jewish Center, a Jewish educational and cultural institution. In 1932 he married Edith Sachar, and in the winter of 1933 opened his first one-man show at the Contemporary Arts Gallery in New York. Shortly thereafter, together with a number of friends he established the group of artists known as “The Ten”, which existed until 1939. In 1936 Rothko was accepted by the Works Progress Administration (WPA), a government program intended to create jobs during the Great Depression.

From about 1936 he worked on a manuscript, The Artist's Reality, which contains philosophical observations on art; the work was published posthumously.

In 1945 he married his second wife, Mell Beistle, and established a group of Abstract Expressionists together with artists such as Jackson Pollock, Barnett Newman, Willem de Kooning, and Clyfford Still. The group’s new and radical works made New York the epicentre of contemporary art.

Rothko’s decisive breakthrough came in 1949. He painted his first classic compositions for which he was to become world-famous. In 1950 he set off on the first of four trips to Europe; the same year saw the birth of his daughter, Kate.

In 1954 his first major solo exhibition opened at the Art Institute of Chicago. In the years 1958 and 1959 he worked on three important commissions: a series of large-format canvases for the Seagram Building in New York, several murals for Harvard University, as well as a cycle of monumental paintings for a chapel in Houston, Texas, which is known today as the Rothko Chapel. In 1963 Rothko’s son Christopher was born. Following several severe illnesses Rothko took his own life in February 1970.

Rothko's journeys

to art


… I feel like staying put here somewhere for a month or two and making again these things which I am sure few here could have a feeling for: I never realized how really new our world is until I came here... I feel as if I were in the theatre. What is attractive here is the crumbling, monstrous and picturesque. I am still looking for the fabulous which they say I will find in Italy.

Rothko during his stay at the Côte d’Azur in a letter to the New York based Sculptor Richard Lippold

March 1950
5 months

Mark and Mell

France, Italy, Great Britain
Cherbourg, Paris, Chartres, Cagnes-sur-Mer, Venice, Florence, Arezzo, Siena, Rome, Paris, London

June 1959
2 months

Mark, Mell and Kate

Italy, France, Belgium, Netherlands, Great Britain
Napels, Paestum, Pompeji, Rome, Tarquinia, Venice, Torcello, Paris, Brussels. Antwerp, Amsterdam, London, Somerset, Cornwall, Southampton

June 1966
2.5 months

Mark, Mell, Kate and Christopher

Italy, France, Great Britain
Rome, Spoleto, Assisi, Arezzo, Florence, Paris, to London by train 

The Early Works


The real essence of the great portraiture of all time is the artist’s eternal interest in the human figure, character and emotions – in short, in the human drama. That Rembrandt expressed it by posing a sitter is irrelevant. We do not know the sitter but we are intensely aware of the drama.

Rothko on the Exhibition “The Art of Rembrandt” (1942, Metropolitan Museum New York) 

Starting in the 1920s Mark Rothko spent a great deal of time in New York’s Metropolitan Museum. At the same time he joined the Art Students League, an organization of art students who took a sceptical view of academic training. Rembrandt’s work had a central place in Rothko’s interest. In particular, a 1659 self-portrait of the Dutch master in the National Gallery in Washington engaged his attention.

Rothko first saw the original of Vermeer’s The Art of Painting in the 1950s. He worked on the basis of a reproduction citing the blue dress and the window by which the young woman stands. He altered style, context, and pose. Rothko’s Mary holds her hand as though pregnant. The curtain, all the decorations, as well as the painter and his easel vanish however. The space and the protagonist appear flat and abstracted.

In the late 1930s Rothko took the New York subways as his favourite subject. Passengers stand isolated on the platform, or descend the stairs; they are slender figures in an anonymous environment. The viewer is reminded of the sculptures of Alberto Giacometti, or the aesthetic of Giorgio de Chirico, who were both Rothko’s contemporaries.

Music, perhaps my father’s first love, provides a case in point supporting this view. [that the center of Rothko’s character is to be located in the European culture of his youth rather than in the American landscape of his maturity]. While Charlie Parker’s improvizations carromed off the walls of Pollock’s and de Kooning’s studios, and even Mondrian was shaking to his own Broadway Boogie Woogie, Rothko’s heart beat to the Classical and early Romantic music of Vienna: Mozart, Haydn, Schubert, and a good deal more Mozart. Once he could afford a record player (quite a bit later than you might think), Die Zauberflöte and the Clarinet Quintet repeatedly papered the walls of his studio.

Christopher Rothko about his father

Image 1: Playbill “The Magic Flute”, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, 4.1.1802, Premiere Theater an der Wien, Vienna;
Image 2: The young Schubert, Austria, Early 19th century, Collection of Historic Musical Instruments, KHM-Museumsverband

Mythical and Surrealist Works


In a decade marked by global conflicts Rothko’s style became less realistic and more symbolic. Religious and mythological themes appear. We show here The Last Supper. Rothko condensed characteristics of probably the most famous representation of a key episode of the New Testament: Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper in Milan. The two pictures although fundamentally different have in common the central perspective, opposed positions of the figures’ heads, and windows in the background. 



I think of my pictures as dramas; the shapes in the pictures are the performers.

Mark Rothko, 1947

From Realism to Abstraction: Starting in 1947 Rothko exhibited his paintings unframed with the aim of creating a more direct and confrontational relationship with the viewer, an effect which he heightened further by the larger dimensions of his works. He also largely did without customary descriptive titles, preferring instead to number or leave them untitled.

Early classic works


Since my pictures are large, colorful and unframed, and since museum walls are usually immense and formidable, there is the danger that the pictures relate themselves as decorative areas to the walls. This would be a distortion of their meaning, since the pictures are intimate and intense, and are the opposite of what is decorative.

Letter to Katharina Kuh, September 25th, 1954

The picture was painted in the year of his first major exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1954. Rothko now employed not just colour, but also explicitly the size of pictures to intensify their emotional impact.

In 1956/57 Rothko painted a series of works with broad white fields. Surrounded by darker colours and under the bright lighting which Rothko then prescribed for his works, these areas appeared to light up almost like a projection. In this painting the white bar in the lower area of the canvas is complemented by a somewhat larger, dark brown bar in the upper area.

I’m interested only in expressing basic human emotions – tragedy, ecstasy, doom and so on – and the fact that lots of people break down and cry when confronted with my pictures shows 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!

Rothko in a conversation with the poet and critic Selden Rodman

The Seagram Murals


In 1958 the architect Phillip Johnson invited Rothko to create a series of large format paintings for the Four Seasons Restaurant in New York. The restaurant was located in the famous Seagram Building on Park Avenue, which had been built by Mies van der Rohe and Philip Johnson for the Bronfman family, heirs to a gin fortune. Rothko undertook the commission and received a substantial advance. He began work on the paintings in a former gymnasium in New York’s Bowery district.

My current pictures are involved with the scale of human feelings the human drama, as much of it as I can express.

Mark Rothko, Pratt Institute, 1958

When I returned, I looked again at my paintings and then visited the premises for which they were destined. It seemed clear to me at once that the two were not for each other. I informed the patrons that I could not deliver the pictures and the matter was terminated just a few days ago.

Summer 1959: Rothko to his English host William Scott

Rothko was appalled by the ostentatious character of the room. “Anybody who will eat that kind of food for those kind of prices will never look at a painting of mine”. He returned the advance and kept the paintings which he had executed over the previous two years.

Today, the Seagram murals hang in galleries of their own at the Tate Modern in London, Kawamura Memorial Museum of Art in Japan, and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. 

Late classic works


After withdrawing from the Seagram commission, Rothko executed a series of large-scale murals for Harvard University. He also worked with the collectors Jean and Dominique de Menil and architect Philip Johnson on a project in Houston, Texas, which came to be known as the Rothko Chapel; this is regarded as the peak of his artistic career.