VIDEO: A Moment in Art History: Mark Rothko’s Seagram Murals – A Dramatic Commission Cancellation

It was the opportunity of a lifetime: an enormous commission for a well-known company’s high-class dining space. In today’s Moment in Art History, we’ll talk about the commission’s dramatic cancellation and Mark Rothko’s motives for walking away from a major project.


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Parts of the video script were sourced from Wikipedia:

About the Author: Jason Horejs

Jason Horejs is the Owner of Xanadu Gallery, author of best selling books "Starving" to Successful & How to Sell Art , publisher of, and founder of the Art Business Academy. Jason has helped thousands of artists prepare themselves to more effectively market their work, build relationships with galleries and collectors, and turn their artistic passion into a viable business.


  1. While I was writing my book, An Artist Empowered, I asked art critic Dore Ashton if Mark
    Rothko, whom she knew, had a philosophy on persevering, she revealed the following:

    In 1955, Rothko gave this advice to a fellow painter who was on the receiving end of rejection:

    “You are part of an underground. You are a partisan, a freedom fighter. You are on your own. Don’t expect help, or reinforcements.”

    —Mark Rothko

  2. I came across Mark Rothko in art school. Art school was a huge shift of terrain for me. I went from an 12 x18″ world of genre type assignments to a place where one had to have “art ideas” and be able to express them writ large. My drawing pads were 18 x24″ and finished drawings bigger than that sometimes.
    Art History was an ugly “art in the dark” disaster.

    And then I went to NYCity to visit an art school friend one summer during school.
    I don’t remember much except MOMA. It was there I was catapulted into the terrain I now inhabit. Rounding a corner, I came into the room with the 3 Monet Waterlilies. If the bench wasn’t there, I would have fallen down. They were huge beyond anything I had ever seen. The slides of art history were in an 18×24″ world and were a lie. And then, I came into the presence of “Guernica”. Everyone did the same thing. They backed up as far as they could and still could not escape being “in the painting” so to speak.

    In 1971 I went back to NY to see the massive “New York Painting and Sculpture show.” I sought out Mark Rothko’s work. (I had apparently seen some examples before hand). And there they were. I can remember thinking about how many tubes of red did it take to cover that real estate? But what was really exciting was the dynamics of the colors- they were not static nor were the edges precise. It was as he had always claimed it was- the raw emotion of the color. I can’t tell you what referential emotions I might have tried to have. I can tell you that time and space stopped, and I could feel in internal kind of movement.

    One of my first paintings after art school was a 40 x 60 vertical painting with the heavy glazing that Rembrandt was noted for and the brilliant reds I have seen in Rothko’s work. I needed to paint an acre or red.

    Rothko is a constant informative presence in my studio to this day.

  3. An excellent example of an artist holding to his principles.
    An interesting twist to Mark Rothko’s attitude toward the upper crust dinner patrons is that these wealthy patrons now pay millions for his work. This reminds me of another artist (also with a Marxist background) who did a similar rejection of the client that hired him. Diego Rivera was commissioned by Rockefeller to paint a mural in the lobby of a new skyscraper.
    It was discoverd on completion that he had painted the syphilis microbe over Mr Rockefeller’s head.
    The mural, a stunning, powerful masterpiece was duly ordered destroyed and sandblasted off the wall.

  4. I remember Rothko from my art history studies in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. I liked his work a lot at that time. I was awed by the subtleties of the color blends in the edges of his huge rectangular color fields. It certainly was more impressive in real life than what I can see in the video you have shown us. I did not learn any of the details you told us, however, and it is tragic that he took his life. I don’t know what I think about his rebellion against the elite. I may be a bit more pragmatic. Why bite the hand that feeds you? Kind of an entitled attitude if you ask me. But I may have very different thoughts later. And I do have the kind of nature that wants to stand up for political causes.

  5. Living in Chicago allows me to easily visit the Art Institute. My first destination is always to go to the Mark Rothko area, receiving an artistic massage.
    It is impossible to look at his work any other way than in person. His use of color depth – colors bleeding through other colors – can only be observed in person.
    I don’t intend to spend a long period of time in that area, I just do. I leave more relaxed and refreshed each time

  6. Direction…? context? Emotive Content? The viewer? I have always felt as an artist works they are developing and constructing a meaningful visual dialogue with themselves and the outer world which supports and denies the artists construct. Keep with the vision you have and pursue your work diligently no matter the genre, style, and work in the present and the past. Craft your work and let a professional gallery or representative work with marketing. It all seems to be mashed -up together sometimes, but keep it simple as possible and give yourself the benefit of the doubt.

  7. A Moment in Art History….thanks so much. I stop everything to listen to who or what you may present. Rothko’s Seagram murals….i had no idea this occurred and find it extremely amazing to learn of the brilliance put forth in his works. I now want to read the book. His emotions are felt and i wonder what he would be doing if still alive. Thank you, once again.

  8. Thank, Jason. This was a good video. Rothko’s control of his work and it’s environment reminds me a lot of Clyfford Still. Still was notoriously picky about who got his work (public and private) and how it was displayed. He too made large paintings that were fields of blacks and off blacks with other contrasting colors hashed in. They are beautiful. Much like Rothko, he wanted his paintings to convey something beyond the outwardly visible.

    You can read about him here …

    Here is an excerpt … Still began to describe painting “as an instrument of inner comprehension.” In other words, instead of illustrating external life as we know it—portraits, for example, or still lifes or landscapes—he wanted to push deeper. As far as Still was concerned he was painting nothing less than the landscape of the human soul.

    He and Rothko are conceptually quite similar.

  9. Every time I go to London, I make a point of sitting with the “Roomful of Red Rothkos”, as I have always called them. There is something at once luminous and oppressive about them that induced me into a state of meditation, at a time in my life where I didn’t even know what meditation was. All I knew was that sitting there and letting myself be absorbed by the layers upon layers of color made me lose all track of time, and it was oddly and intensely satisfying to realize that when I finally emerged from this state, one hour or more had elapsed without my even being aware of it.
    I haven’t visited London for several years now, and I now know what meditation is. So next time I go, I’ll honor my standing date with the Roomful of Red Rothkos and go get carried away by them.

  10. Jason –
    Fascinating story about Rothko! A couple of thoughts – 1st the artwork that remained at the 4 Seasons, which had been installed supposedly on a temporary basis, but remaining there permanently when Rothko cancelled his commission was Jackson Pollock’s Blue Poles which is an astoundingly beautiful artwork, and though I didn’t know of Rothko’s commission cancellation during the period of time that I ate at the Four Seasons on several occasions, at that point in time I would have said “Absolutely no loss [that Rothko’s work was never displayed there] – Pollack is a far far better painter anyway !!” Though I have now come to appreciate Rothko’s work, it took a long long time, and now I have even been influenced by his work in the making of some of my artworks (Green Gray and Blue Gray in particular – link to artwork in my FAA portfolio here – – though I still maintain that Pollack is still a far better, more important, and more collectable painter.

    As for Rothko’s absolute hatred of and disgust with all things upper class (which he though of as bourgeois, though in fact bourgeois is actually a term the upper class, who were the first to use it, reserves for middle-class social climbers, trying to pose as upper class by ostentatious, but totally tasteless, displays of what they think is upper class grandeur), I find Rothko’s hatred of the rich to be stupid, petty, and totally hypocritical – at least he was willing to return his commission advances – if rich people weren’t willing to spend large sums buying, collecting, donating, and supporting art and artists, virtually the only art from the past that would exist today would be works commissioned by the church (which though often great art, are in the end totally for propaganda purposes of promoting the church) or political art with the same propaganda purposes – with would mean that over 90 percent of the art people enjoy today would either have been lost or destroyed upon there artists death, or would never have been made in the first place, as no artist would actually be able to make a living from their art, relegating all artists to hobbyists who painted in their spare time while earning their living doing something else (the waiter/actor syndrome). Rothko might has appreciated his artworks hanging in museums where they can be seen and enjoy by “the everyman” – but that means he totally didn’t understand that without the rich he so disdained, the would be no museums for the public to see his artworks hanging in! (or there would be government supported museums whose criteria for the “art” hanging there would be determined by politics, and the taste of bureaucrats – a dreary thought indeed!).

  11. PS – I can also say that just being in the 4 Seasons restaurant was an incredible experience of art and design – the entire place was art – from what was hanging on the walls, to the shape of the rooms and their lighting, to the furniture, to their cutlery and china, to .. well.. everything. And the food was absolutely incredible as well (you might say: “Well for those prices it certainly ought to be”!! But in my experience very very expensive restaurants don’t always serve great food – I can name another, at the time of the 4 Seasons restaurant, considered to be “there most expensive restaurant in NY”, and still incredibly after 60 years, still existing today – Le Grenouille, whose food I found totally lacking (I only ate there once as a guest of a woman, whose brother, a dealer in Louis 14 & 15 antiques, was hosting her birthday dinner there, and after sending my food back 2 times, told the waiter, who was waiting for me to re-order again, “No, I think I’ll content myself with your wine list!” [which was truly extraordinary] – and proceeded to have a “liquid” dinner.

  12. I see no artistic value to painting squares, rectangles etc. I know, what is ART, right? The “Rothko chapel”?: depressing, dull. I’ve seen a few of his paintings when he had a more traditional style, and they were IMHO just average. Agree with a previous comment (Ken Lerner) and I saw the play “Red”. The guy seems to have been a jerk and a hypocrite. He probably was already wealthy when he rejected the Seagrams, so…
    What I don’t understand or condone, as one of the many starving artists in the world is the fact that collectors pay millions of dollars for his works.
    It seems that to be famous and sell your art at exorbitant prices you must have been a drug addict, black, committed suicide, etc etc.
    It’s also interesting to note how critics and art lovers in general tend to parrot each other. For instance, if you hear many people applauding a play you didn’t like that much, you also applaud of course. You don’t want to be the odd one.
    I appreciate the chance to comment.

  13. Loved hearing you speak about Rothko, but I have never been a fan. I think he fooled everyone by presenting his paintings as emotional art. Obviously, he wasn’t a ‘happy camper’, and committed suicide to end his torment. To me there was no rhyme or reason for the paintings. I think he was an angry, unhappy individual who just put whatever on a canvas.

      1. Me, too. As I was reading along here, I thought there must be something wrong with me. Glad to know that others feel the same way as I do. So to say “I don’t get it” is my perspective on his art.

  14. I lost a $40,000 commission for a brick sculpture in Palm Beach because I wouldn’t carve war eagle. I presented a mother eagle embracing a gathering area. Looking back, it was an expensive way to make a statement nobody would hear.

  15. Rothko without Clement Greenberg, is Rothko without fame. As far as I can tell Greenberg was a ‘king-maker’ in the art world during the rise of Abstract Expressionism. A particularly strange time when an art critic could dominate an art movement. I have often wonder what the galleries and collectors were doing while Greenberg determined what was art in the 40′ and 50’s? Would Rothko just be big stripes and Polluck just drippings? I have just finished reading, “conceptual art and the politics of publicity” by Alexander Alberro. A very interesting read into how a art movement that was basicly was without art was promoted. Sometimes the con works.

  16. As an artist and a therapist I can see both the emotional drive to express his clearly deep and conflicting emotions and the resentment that often comes with being dependent. We create because we are driven to do so. At least I am. Then, when that most important part is completed after huge personal investment of time and soul, it needs to find its way into the world. That’s the hard part. In the explanation of Rothko’s past and his family’s struggles, he would presumably have very complex feelings about who supports his art and how it is presented. His suicide seems consistent with that kind of inner turmoil. His art, as is the case for many artists with dark sides in need of channeling, transforms into something of beauty.

  17. I also love Rothko and color field paintings in general.
    My #1 artist is Richard Diebenkorn and his Ocean Park and figurative paintings.

  18. I feel he was a fraud…much like Warhol, that was talentless and produced work that was redundant and lacked depth and intensity.

    He was an emporer without clothes…a product of the New York “art” snobs/elite.

    1. Thank you for sharing your perspective. It’s always interesting to hear different viewpoints on art and artists. I respect your opinion on Rothko and Warhol, though I personally have a different take. Having spent considerable time in front of Rothko’s paintings, I’ve been deeply moved by the scale, layers, and transparencies in his work. He remains one of my favorite artists, precisely because of the emotional depth I perceive in his art. Similarly, I appreciate Warhol’s work, albeit for different reasons. Art is indeed subjective, and its beauty lies in the diverse reactions it evokes from each viewer. It’s this diversity in perception that enriches our experiences and discussions around art.

  19. The paintings of Rothko contain a profound spirituality that one either “gets” or doesn’t. It’s an emotional connection that few can explain. The first time I saw a Rothko painting at the Met in NYC in the 1970s I was captivated. The radiance of his work is breathtaking. My training at that time was limited to traditional still life and landscape painting in oils. And yet with such limited exposure to other possibilities, I was affected to my core. It is a mystery.

  20. Thank you Jason for the informative & educative video on Rothko’s work. At first, many years ago when I saw his work for the first time, I did not spend much time looking at it but I found myself going back to it at exhibits and/or books about his work. The more I looked, the more I got taken by the intense energy within the color and into the color- I am unable to explain it in another way. As Mira Kamada states “it is a mystery”.

  21. Maybe if I saw one of his works in person I would have a different opinion, but they are just big blobs of color, and I don’t “get” where the emotion comes in. As far as taking the commission, if he hated where the paintings were going to hang and the people that were going to eat there, why not be an adult and say no thank you and let some other artists who would have truly Loved to have their work in that space and environment take the commission? This was an act of selfishness and mean-spiritedness. Standing up for your rights and beliefs is absolutely a thing to do, but wanting people to hate what they were eating and to hurt the people who commissioned him speaks to more than that and IMHO a mental illness that was taking over his life and led to the way he died. If the pieces were what he intended, why would they have ever reached their destination? One would hope that we would use our art to bring good into the world or at least thought-provoking works, not meanness and spite.

  22. I never appreciated Rothko’s work until I saw them in person. Looking at this work in a book, or online, just doesn’t convey the power of the paintings. Scale is an important part of the work. I felt the same way about Agnes Martin’s paintings. The only analogy I can offer is seeing a video of a hurricane on your cellphone, and BEING in a hurricane! The emotions are quite different!

    So how can a gallery evaluate an artist’s work without actually seeing the work?

  23. Thanks for the look at Rothko. It made me more curious about his life so I may try to read that book. I’ve seen many Rothko paintings in various museums, and at the Rothko Chapel in Houston. I do like his work. I liked it when I saw it in books in college, where I first learned of him. There are some artists I did not appreciate until seeing the work in person, but I liked his right away.

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