Rothko was born Markus Rothkowitz in Dvinsk, Russia — now Daugavpils, Latvia — in 1903. As a boy he emigrated with his family to Portland, Oregon. Rothko undertook brief periods of study at Yale University, at the Art Students League with Max Weber and at the New School of Design with Arshile Gorky. His early paintings were figurative, influenced by a mixture of Impressionism and German Expressionism.
During the 1930s Rothko began to associate with a group of artists that included Adolph Gottlieb, Milton Avery, Barnett Newman and others. His interest in Surrealism would eventually give rise to a language of biomorphic abstraction that he pursued throughout his so-called ‘multi-forms’ of the 1940s. As World War II raged, Rothko began to explore the Greek tragedians and the writings of Nietzsche. Drama and theatre would become important metaphors in his later art: he explained that his paintings were about ‘tragedy, ecstasy, doom’.
In 1949, Rothko arrived at his mature style. His floating zones of colour, positioned upon coloured grounds, would define his practice until his death in 1970. Though Rothko never explicitly associated himself with any movement, he is widely recognised as a leading figure of the New York School, taking his place alongside Newman, Willem de Kooning, Clyfford Still and Jackson Pollock. Through his manipulation of colour, form and light, he sought to tap into basic human emotions, and to communicate with his viewers on a profound level. Many were — and still are — reduced to tears in front of his paintings.
Rothko died in 1970. Today, his works achieve top prices at auction, and Christie’s has been responsible for some of his most expensive paintings. The landmark sale of Orange, Red, Yellow (1961) in 2012 set a new world record for the artist, realising $86,882,496. Outstanding results have also been achieved for masterworks including No. 10 (1958) and Untitled (Shades of Red) (1961) from the collection of Anne H. Bass.