Rothko came of age at a time when painters itched to break completely from the confines of representation. Building on forays into abstraction pioneered by their modernist predecessors, like
, Rothko and his fellow Abstract Expressionists wanted to remove all
allusions to the physical world in their work. Instead, their paintings would embody metaphysical forces and interior worlds. As art critic David Cotner put it
, Rothko “used colors, shades and gestures as moving evocations of mythology itself.”
Indeed, Rothko emphasized that “the most interesting painting is one that expresses more of what one thinks than of what one sees.” Likewise, he placed great weight on abstraction’s ability to convey what is most important to humans—not the world around them, but their emotional life. “[Shapes] have no direct association with any particular visible experience, but in them, one recognizes the principle and passion of organisms,” he wrote, in the art journal Possibilities.
While Rothko was a master colorist, as evidenced by his signature monochromatic rectangles, whose deep reds and blacks reverberated against each other, he routinely emphasized that his paintings weren’t simply about a selective palette. “If you are only moved by color relationships, you are missing the point,” he once told writer Selden Rodman. “I am interested in expressing the big emotions—tragedy, ecstasy, doom, and so on.” He believed that these emotions, when conveyed through abstraction, would stoke intimate, profound emotional experiences in the viewer, as well. “One does not paint for design students or historians but for human beings,” Rothko stressed to curator William C. Seitz, “and the reaction in human terms is the only thing that is really satisfactory to the artist.”