Waiting for the subway to pull into the station can be a collective experience.
But not for the people in Mark Rothko’s Subway Series paintings. These figurative scenes, completed in the 1930s, depict isolated, Giacometti-esque New Yorkers who appear to be trapped in their own individual worlds.
These subway paintings “enabled him to focus on the horizontals and verticals, treating the figures as tall, spindly, stick-like forms,” according to the caption accompanying one of the paintings on the website for the virtual Musée Historique Environment Urbain.
“They are flat, stiff and inexpressive and yet suggestive of an inaccessible inner drama.”
A 2012 biography of Rothko by James E.B. Breslin had this to say: “As in all his subway paintings, Rothko’s interest is not in the trains but the platforms: modern, public, urban spaces where strangers come and go—or wait.”
“His stations are not grimy, dark, hellish underground spaces; nor are they filled with quick-moving, shoving, noisy rush-hour crowds. Rather, they are bare, compressed areas which contain a slow, quiet, and solitary mobility.”
Rothko, born in Russia and raised on the West Coast, moved to New York in the 1920s and soon began his career as a painter. Classified as an abstract expressionist, he spurned the label his entire life.
An earlier post on the most famous painting in the Subway Series.