Mark Rothko’s move to New York landed him in a fertile artistic atmosphere. Modernist painters were having more shows in New York galleries all the time, and the city’s museums were an invaluable resource for a budding artist’s knowledge and skills.
Among the important early influences on Rothko were the works of the German Expressionists, the surrealist art of Paul Klee, and the paintings of Georges Rouault.
Rothko met in the 1930’s Adolph Gottlieb, who, along with Barnett Newman, Joseph Solman, Louis Schanker, and John Graham, was part of a group of young artists surrounding the painter Milton Avery. Avery gave Rothko the idea that
the life of a professional artist was a possibility.
The “multiforms” developed into the Mark Rothko signature style. After painting his first “multiform”, Rothko had secluded himself to his home in East Hampton on Long Island. He invited only a select few, including Rosenberg, to view the new paintings. The discovery of his definitive form came at a period of great distress to the artist. Rothko happened upon the use of symmetrical rectangular blocks of two to three opposing or contrasting, yet complementary, colors, in which, for example, the rectangles sometimes seem barely to coalesce out of the ground, concentrations of its substance. The green bar in Magenta, Black, Green on Orange, on the other hand, appears to vibrate against the orange around it, creating an optical flicker.
For some critics, the large size was an attempt to make up for a lack of substance. In retaliation, Rothko stated:
I realize that historically the function of painting large pictures is painting something very grandiose and pompous. The reason I paint them, however … is precisely because I want to be very intimate and human. To paint a small picture is to place yourself outside your experience, to look upon an experience as a stereopticon view or with a reducing glass. However you paint the larger picture, you are in it. It isn’t something you command!
A picture lives by companionship, expanding and quickening in the eyes of the sensitive observer. It dies by the same token. It is therefore a risky and unfeeling act to send it out into the world. How often it must be permanently impaired by the eyes of the vulgar and the cruelty of the impotent who would extend the affliction universally!