Mark Rothko, one of the foremost members of the Abstract Expressionist movement was born Marcus Rothkowitz in 1903 in Russia. In 1913, Rothko, with his mother and sister, immigrated to Portland, Oregon, where they were reunited with his father and two brothers, who had emigrated from Russia previously. After studying at Yale for two years (1921-23), Rothko settled in New York in 1925. In this same year, he began to study painting at the Art Students League under Max Weber. This was Rothko’s only formal artistic training. In 1928, at the time of his first group exhibition at a New York gallery, he established a close friendship with Milton Avery, whose simplified forms and flat color areas informed Rothko’s art.
In 1929 Rothko took a position teaching children at the Center Academy, Brooklyn Jewish Center, a job he retained until 1952. He had his first one-person show in New York in 1933 at the Contemporary Arts Gallery. In 1934 Rothko participated in the organization of the Artists’ Union and later became involved in the American Artists' Congress and the Federation of Modern Painters and Sculptors. Also in 1934, he joined the newly established Gallery Secession in New York, but a year later he and several other artists left it to form a loosely associated group of progressive artists called The Ten (or The Ten Who Are Nine). From 1936 to 1937, Rothko was working in the Federal Works Progress Administration's easel project, established during the Depression as a means of supporting artists. The late 1940s marked the beginning of his color field paintings, works for which he is known. In these works he used the technique of soak-staining, applying thinned paint onto the canvas to create abstract fields of color, horizontal cloud-like rectangles, which pervade the picture space with their lyrical presence. His large canvases, typical of his mature style, establish a one-on-one correspondence with the viewer, giving human scale to the experience of the painting and intensifying the effects of color. As a result, the paintings produce in the responsive viewer a sense of the ethereal and a state of spiritual contemplation. Through color alone—applied to suspended rectangles within abstract compositions—Rothko's work evokes strong emotions ranging from exuberance and awe to despair and anxiety, suggested by the hovering and indeterminate nature of his forms.
During the summers of 1947 and 1949, he was a guest instructor at the California School of Fine Arts, San Francisco. He also taught at Brooklyn College, the University of Colorado, Boulder, and Tulane University. From 1958 to 1969, he worked on three major commissions: monumental canvases for the Four Seasons Restaurant and Seagram Building, both in New York; murals for the Holyoke Center, Harvard University; and canvases for the chapel at the Institute of Religion and Human Development, Houston, known worldwide as “The Rothko Chapel.” The dark and somber works he created for the chapel are thought by some to foreshadow the artist’s suicide in 1970.