Mark Rothko is by far one of the most recognizable names in 20th-century American art, making a huge mark on the art scene with his large scale vertical paintings of colored rectangles. If you are not immediately familiar with this Modern Art Master’s paintings, perhaps you have seen mugs, bags, billboards with his painted rectangles reproduced, or maybe you saw Bert Cooper’s painting that caused such a buzz in Mad Men’s “The Gold Violin” (season 2 episode 7 – not a real-life-Rothko, but a Mad-Men-Rothko). The painter had worked his way to this distinctive late period style as he grew more interested in communicating spiritual ideas: the paintings were large so that they might envelop the viewer, just as reducing them to a handful of colors in large, symmetrical fields is better to allow these colors and their relationships to one another to most effect a viewer emotionally (as opposed to intellectually). But unless you went to art school, you might not know much about Rothko’s earlier works, which are generally classified as his Surrealist work (early) and his “multiforms” (a transitional period).
These “multiforms” are the pieces where Rothko first freed himself from any direct association with a knowable represented/representative form. Still working within a Institutionally-defined “abstract” style -which Rothko often decried – his work in the 1940s was losing the literary and politicized vigor of his strictly surrealist work. At this stage in his career Rothko was interested in communicating vitality and the joy of being alive, still using diverse colors and varied shapes throughout the works. They remind me a bit of infrared-, heat-sensing- and other biologically-based visualizing apparatuses (with their fair share of digital noise) that we are now used to seeing in all the spy movies. While I greatly love Rothko’s later work (to see them in person is truly magnificent), this short stage of his career has given me plenty to look at and ponder, as those that I have shared here are only a few that I have come across. It seems to me that if Rothko never made it to his unbelievably prolific late period he still would have become a well-known name.