Artsmart Roundtable: Looking at the Abstract Paintings of Mark Rothko

rothko national gallery of art painting
National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

We're art museum fiends here at Travellious, but I remember the days when I couldn't tell a Rothko from a Rembrandt. The photo above is of my former art history professor who taught me the subtleties of looking at art and the first to make me fully appreciate the beauty of Mark Rothko's paintings. I'm hoping that this new series will help you become a bit more "art smart."

mark rothko painting
Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh

Mark Rothko is a 20th century Russian-born American artist whose most well-known works consists of washes of color in complete abstraction. His work is found in almost every modern art collection throughout the world, and if you haven't already, you'll certainly walk past one on your next museum visit. Instead of walking by and dismissing it as a "I could have done that" type of painting, I implore you to stop, get up close and experience a Rothko. It's an experience you won't soon forget.

stand closer
rothko painting moma
Museum of Modern Art, New York

In a museum, viewers typically cluster politely around a painting, allowing a safe distance between them and the work. To get a full sense of a Rothko, you're going to have to get up close. Not so close that an alarm goes off or you get scolded by a guard, but as close as you can, safely. You want to fill your field of view with the painting. Imagine yourself standing in front of the ocean and it's infiniteness, that's exactly how you want to see a Rothko. He was keenly interested in the human scale and wanted his works to be hung as the were created, close to the floor. In a set of instructions for his paintings' installation at the Whitechapel Art Gallery in 1961, he requested that his painting be no more than six inches above the floor. His paintings are often large scale and will tower over you in a museum. He stated in a symposium at the Museum of Modern Art in 1951 that he painted very large pictures "because I want to be very intimate and human." Rothko is calling you to come up close, don't ignore his wishes.

look longer
rothko national gallery chapel painting
Image: romanlily.
Paintings on loan from Rothko Chapel, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

Without figural representation to guide you, you may be inclined to take a note of the colors and move on. Don't be so hasty. Allow yourself the time to let your eyes unfocus and perceive what the artist has put in front of you. As you are up close, the paintings can begin to move and textural elements can appear. Like clouds in the sky, you may find your eyes seeing shapes or movement. I find that as I let my eyes relax, I begin to see the colors hover and I forget that I'm looking at a canvas. But you don't have to stay up close, as moving back and forth with the object allows for new perspectives and perceptions. For me, the joy in looking at a Rothko is the play of looking and not looking, which takes times. You're doing yourself a disservice if you don't take the time to linger.

be open to feel

Rothko saw his painting as a communion with the viewer. Not in the religious sense, but as he stated, "If people want sacred experiences they will find them here. If they want profane experiences they'll find them too. I take no sides." Perhaps you won't get the exact intent of his work, but the dialog alone may be the only 'point.' Go towards his work with an open mind and without any preconceived notions of what it's supposed to 'be.' Allow yourself to feel and react and be open to what inspires you. How you view his painting may depend on your mood or his painting may alter your mood entirely

rothko room tate modern
Image: libbyrosof.
Rothko Room, Tate Modern, London
where to see

Two of my favorite places to view Rothko's paintings are at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC (home to hundreds of his works donated to the museum by the Mark Rothko Foundation) and the Rothko Chapel commissioned by the Menil family in Houston, Texas. Artcyclopedia has a thorough list of his paintings organized by museum collection.

learn more

For an online overview of Mark Rothko's life and works, check out this visual biography from the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. Two excellent books that I've found on Rothko are the exhibition catalog from the 2008 at the Tate Modern in London entitled, Rothko: The Late Series, and edited by Achim Borchardt-Hume. (Find at your local library or on Amazon) and The Rothko Book by Bonnie Clearwater (Find at your local library or on Amazon.)

Art Smart
Art Smart is a virtual roundtable discussion with other bloggers who love exactly what I do, art and travel. This month's topic is paintings in museums. To get a bit more museum-educated before your next trip, check out these posts:

No Onions Extra Pickles: When You Really See a Painting

Visual Vacation: Rembrandt in National Gallery

This is My Happiness: Reflections of the Renaissance in the Uffizi


Rothko is a favorite of mine! I love the idea that he saw his "painting as a communion with the viewer". I've seen his work at the Museum of Modern Art, The Tate and other museums -- in some cases more than once! Thanks for an interesting piece about him.

I'm so glad you liked it. I am really happy to be getting back to my art history roots with this series.

I love that you included his black color fields from the National Gallery! I saw them last year, and they really are so different to see in person versus studying them in a classroom. Actually, they were part of a discussion in museum architecture because that space doesn't let them breathe like a more traditional hall gallery.

I'm trying to picture where they might have been displayed. It looks like that room that overlooks the smaller Calder mobiles, I agree that's a small, odd space. We just visited the Rothko Chapel in Houston this summer. It's such a surreal space and the black paintings are such a departure from the other works that I've seen in person.