The Spirituality of Mark Rothko

One Way to Heaven

Why you should care

Here’s a thought for those debating what Jesus looked liked. Maybe it’s better to not depict him at all.

Can’t we all just get along – and stare at paintings with rectangles of colors? Mark Rothko would have wanted it that way.

Fox news host Megyn Kelly ignited a firestorm of debates recently by referring to Jesus as racially white despite the fact the Bible does not say much at all about Jesus’ physical appearance or skin pigment. While she says her comments were “tongue-in-cheek,” she is likely drawing from Western depictions of Jesus as a pale skinned, blue-eyed man.

Black and white headshot of Mark Rothko wiht glasses, hat and cigarette in his mouth

Mark Rothko

Rothko’s triptych paintings are inspired by paintings of the Crucifixion. “Iwanted to paint both the finite and the infinite,” said Rothko.

Perhaps we can learn something from the spirituality artist Mark Rothko brought to his abstract paintings, particularly his work from the 1950s and 1960s.

”Art to me is an anecdote of the spirit,” Rothko said. His most famous art consists of layers upon layers of paint applied in thin washes to create stacked vertical rectangles as blocks of colors. He loved the abstract for its lack of representation and urged his audience to seek clarity and personal spirituality by projecting their own internal ideas onto his canvas. He revered the ”elimination of all obstacles between the painter and the idea and between the idea and the observer.”

Rothko was born in Russia and moved to the United States with his family at age ten. He dropped out of Yale in the 1920s and moved to New York City. He taught children at the Center Academy of the Brooklyn Jewish Center and he was inspired by the emotional approach and unconventionality children brought to their art. His images became more and more symbolic and, inspired by surrealism, he developed abstract imagery.

”It was with the utmost reluctance that I found the figure could not serve my purposes,” the National Gallery of Art quotes him as saying. His deformed figures kept transforming until eventually he focused on painting his signature blocks of color, which often darkened during the years he felt depressed.

The Rothko Chapel in Houston is one of the artist’s greatest masterpieces. His work was commissioned by John and Dominique de Menil and he worked on the paintings between 1964 and 1967. The paintings in the Rothko Chapel were created in New York, and Rothko never saw the Chapel in person. He worked with two assistants to paint the layers of browns, reds and blacks on to large canvases. He wanted viewers to be enveloped by the canvases, inviting them to stand extremely close so they would feel “intimate and human.” 

”I also hang the largest pictures so that they must be first encountered at close quarters, so that the first experience is to be within the picture,” said Rothko. ”This may well give the key to the observer of the ideal relationship between himself and the rest of the pictures.”

The chapel was originally meant to be Roman Catholic, and Rothko’s triptych paintings are inspired by paintings of the Crucifixion. Now, the chapel is non-denominational, inviting people of all faiths to come and enjoy their own personal spiritual experiences.

”I wanted to paint both the finite and the infinite,” said Rothko. Sadly, he was overcome by his own struggles with depression and his physical illness, and he committed suicide in 1970. Many art critics revere his work and people flock to see the culmination of his spiritual artwork in Houston – while others say he overreached with his abstractions and that spirituality cannot be reached through his chapel paintings.

Dominique de Menil is a believer. “We are cluttered with images and only abstract art can bring us to the threshold of the divine,” she said at the dedication of the chapel in 1971, a year after Rothko’s death.

Rothko’s philosophy can be summed up in this personal statement, written in 1945. “If I have faltered in the use of familiar objects, it is because I refuse to mutilate their appearance for the sake of an action which they are too old to serve, or for which perhaps they had never been intended.”

Maybe the lack of physical depictions would unite us to share in spirituality, in whichever manner we desire, in whichever faith or personal beliefs we ascribe to. And perhaps we should all spend a little less time judging each other, and more time with a Mark Rothko painting.



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