The Eye: Mark Rothko’s Multiform Series

“I’m interested only in expressing basic human emotions—tragedy, ecstasy, doom,” he said. “If you… are moved only by… color relationships, then you miss the point.”

Mark Rothko (1903 – 1970) experimented with a number of early styles before striking on the series that would assure his place in art history:  The Multiforms. These deceptively simple boxes and rectangles of humming, pulsing colors loomed large before the viewer, evocative of doorways or windows to some uncharted realm beyond rational description. Rothko himself suggested that the viewer stand quite close to the canvases- some as large as 8 feet tall and 6 feet wide- so as to let the size, color and texture overwhelm them. The experience is intended raw, emotional, and abstract.

The works themselves were deeply personal to Rothko. An alcoholic and depressive, his health and outlook deteriorated in his later years. As they did, the vitality and energy of the multiforms grew figuratively and literally darker. The black series paintings of his final years, now located in the non-denominational Rothko Chapel of Houston, suggest a man reaching the end of his life who’s soul is filled with despair and foreboding. In the decades following his 1970 suicide, the multiforms have come to sell for astronomical amounts. The latest came in 2012, when “Orange, Red, Yellow” (1961) sold for $87 million at Christie’s, breaking all records for postwar paintings. Probably something that Rothko, an outspoken socialist, would not have found appealing.