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Mark Rothko – The Controversial Genius
 
Mark Rothko was born Marcus Yakovlevich Rothkowitz, on September 25, 1903 in Dvinsk, Vitebsk Governorate, in the former Russian Empire (now Latvia), to the family of Jacob Rothkowitz. Fearing that his sons would be drafted into the Imperial Russian Army, Jacob emigrated from Russia to the United States - first by himself, and later, in the winter of 1913, bringing his wife and children. Jacob's death a few months later left the family without any income, so Mark had to work selling newspapers.
 
Marcus proved to be an exceptionally talented pupil, accelerating from third to fifth grade, and completed the secondary level with honors. Rothko received a scholarship to Yale, but at the end of his freshman year, the scholarship was not renewed, and he had to - again - earn money to pay for his tuition, working as a waiter and delivery boy. At the end of his sophomore year, Rothko, disillusioned by "the elitist and racist" Yale, dropped out and did not return until he was awarded an honorary degree forty-six years later!
 
In the autumn of 1923, while visiting a friend at the Art Students League of New York, he saw students sketching a model. This was the beginning of his life as an artist. He later enrolled in the New York School of Design, where one of his instructors was the artist Arshile Gorky. 
 
The early influences on Rothko were the works of the German Expressionists, the surrealist art of Paul Klee, and the paintings of Georges Rouault. In 1928, Rothko exhibited works with a group of other young artists at the Opportunity Gallery. Later, in New York, Rothko had his first East Coast one-man show at the Contemporary Arts Gallery.
 
In 1936, Rothko began writing a book, which he never completed, about the striking similarities in the art of children and the work of modern painters, namely primitivists and abstractionists.
 
On February 21, 1938, Rothko became a citizen of the United States, prompted by fears that the growing Nazi influence in Europe might provoke sudden deportation of American Jews from America. Two years later, concerned about anti-Semitism in America and Europe, Rothko changed his name from "Marcus Rothkowitz" to "Mark Rothko." 
 
In 1958, Rothko was awarded a major mural commission by the beverage company Joseph Seagram and Sons, for their new luxury restaurant, The Four Seasons, on Park Avenue. Within three months, Rothko completed forty paintings. Later he disclosed to the Harper's Magazine, that his true intention for the murals was to paint "something that will ruin the appetite of every son-of-a-bitch who ever eats in that room...."!
 
Despite his declared political views, Rothko's personal wealth continued to increase - his paintings began to sell to notable collectors, including the Rockefellers. And in January 1961, Rothko sat next to Joseph Kennedy at John F. Kennedy's inaugural ball. 
 
In 2012, his 1961 painting Orange, Red, Yellow was sold by Christie's in New York for $86.9 million, setting a new record for a postwar painting at a public auction.
 
In the spring of 1968, Rothko was diagnosed with a mild aortic aneurysm. Ignoring his doctor's advice, the painter continued to drink and smoke heavily, avoided exercise, and maintained an unhealthy diet - as if he was not planning to live until old age...
On February 25, 1970, he was found in his kitchen, lying dead on the floor and covered in blood. He had sliced his arms with a razor; the autopsy later revealed that he had also taken an overdose of anti-depressants.
 
Sources:
Achim Borchardt-Hume. Rothko (London: Tate Gallery, 2008)
Crow, Kelly, Out of Nowhere, a Rothko, The Wall Street Journal, 2011-04-13
Waters, Florence (9 May 2012). "Why Mark Rothko is still setting records". The Daily Telegraph.
 

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