I first saw Mark Rothko in Tate Modern years ago. I saw many of my favorite artists in Tate Modern, it is the place I visit most often in London. I had read about Tate having a wonderful collection of his and I was excited and eager to see, absorb, feel and learn. Finally, Rothko, the misunderstood depressed genius, who killed himself at 66! I was disappointed to find only one painting of his (http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/rothko-untitled-t04148), the rest of the collection was travelling around the world.
The next year I managed to see the paintings from the Four Season series (he painted three series for the Four Season Restaurant in NY, that he actually pulled back, reconsidering the idea that his painting will be the background of a restaurant – http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/rothko-black-on-maroon-t01031/text-illustrated-companion). He took his life after he donated the paintings to Tate Gallery. The collection is impressive, oppressing and intense. They push you down, they are like a weight on your shoulder, they pull you towards them and push you away from them. I spent some time there, indulging into each and every one of them, trying to imagine Rothko painting them with no smile on his face.
There is one good documentary on Rothko (and others), made by BBC, you find it here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/arts/powerofart/rothko.shtml (I think the shows are also on YouTube but you have to double-check that).
One’s first impression of the exhibition, for instance, is that Rothko’s work is a seamless whole, developing with a relentless inner logic from his earliest years to his very last works. Rothko’s stacked rectangles, that first appear in the 1930s in a bureau’s drawers, or a building facade, or a subway station, lead inexorably into the backgrounds of his surrealist-inspired organic work of the early 1940s, reassemble themselves in a series of transitional works before 1950, and then emerge triumphant in his familiar “signature” format, upon which he played more or less successful variations for the rest of his life.
Of all our century’s art movements, Abstract Expressionism in general, and the “signature styles” of its artists in particular, deal with such big symbols — if only because they have rejected any form of “realism” in the sense of depicting objects of quotidian visual experience. That decided, they had no other “subject” than what made them, as individuals, human. Each found their abstract equivalent of a self-portrait, and they painted that reality — that song of self — with a passion, bravura, and decisiveness unequaled in modern art. This is the greatest contribution of Abstract Expressionism.
The term “Abstract Expressionism” was first used in Germany in connection with Rusian artist Wassily Kandinsky in 1919 (referencing the German Expressionists with their anti-figurative aesthetic), but later became more commonly associated with Post-WWII American Art.
The works of Mark Rothko:
Untitled (three nudes), 1933/1934 – http://www.nga.gov/feature/rothko/early3.shtm
Self-Portrait,1936, – http://www.nga.gov/feature/rothko/early5b.shtm
No. 8, 1949 – http://www.nga.gov/feature/rothko/abstraction4.shtm
Untitled [Blue, Green, and Brown],1952 – http://www.nga.gov/feature/rothko/classic4.shtm
Untitled,1953 – http://www.nga.gov/feature/rothko/classic6.shtm
Untitled, 1968 – http://www.nga.gov/feature/rothko/late4a.shtm
Untitled,1953 – http://www.nga.gov/feature/rothko/late5.shtm