Art History Happy Hour: Mark Rothko

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Welcome to Art History Happy Hour where we help you party your way to a liberal arts degree. We provide the liquid courage and the conversation topics to give your next social function some artistic flair.


Today in art history we toast what would have been the 112th birthday of Modernist master Mark Rothko.  Born on September 25th, 1903 in the Russian Empire, Rothko emigrated to the U.S. through Ellis Island in 1913 to become one of the most recognizable abstract artists of all time. You have seen his art, or an imitation, somewhere.


Look familiar? No, that’s not a Mai Tai with a dark rum float, you lush. It’s Rothko’s  No. 9 (Dark Over Light Earth/ Violet and Yellow in Rose).

Conveniently for me, Rothko’s paintings look a lot like those layered shots popular amongst the college crowd. Unfortunately for me and my post-graduate tastes, those drinks are gross and I cannot with good conscience suggest you imbibe them. Or perhaps I can’t recommend them because my many, many failed attempts to successfully layer these recipes left me without a viable sample and drunkenly cursing my lost youth.


Behold, the bane of my sobriety! Like Dante’s Divine Comedy, each layer represents a different layer of human suffering.  But it does look like a Rothko painting, right?!

After some much-needed sobering glasses of water, I decided to scrap the color-blocked layers and use the same ingredients to create a Rothko-inspired play on the Manhattan. Forgoing the obvious and hilarious “Rothkocktail”, I’m calling it the “Black on Red” for nerdy art history reasons I’ll go into next. No layers required and very paletteable (I’m not sorry).

So, why the title? Well, the recipe I’d found for the devil drink pictured above called for gin and Armagnac. I bought Seagram’s Gin and brandy because who the hell can afford Hendricks and Armagnac? Turns out that my budget gin of choice was fated in the art stars. It so happens that the beverage company Joseph Seagram and Sons funded one of the most infamous incidents in Rothko’s career.  Developers commissioned Rothko to create paintings for the Four Seasons Restaurant in the then new Seagram Building in Midtown Manhattan. (Is my inspiration becoming clear yet?)


Black on Maroon was one of many pieces created for The Four Seasons restaurant…and my gloomy inspiration to get crunk.

Rothko created forty paintings, including Black on Maroon, only to divulge in a Harper’s interview that he opposed the affluence of the restaurant’s future guests and that he wanted to create, “Something that will ruin the appetite of every son-of-a-bitch who ever eats in that room,” thus justifying the opinion of many-an elementary school child on a museum field trip that abstract art is a form of punishment. The incident was the basis of a 2009 play titled Red starring Alfred Molina, who also played Diego Rivera and, most importantly, Doc Ock.

How does one make this drink that so brilliantly ties its ingredients to a moment in art history referenced in a play reflected in the colors of the drink itself? This is the moment where I’d drop my mic if my mic hand weren’t holding a delicious cocktail.

Here’s what you do:


1 oz Seagram’s Gin (it must be Seagram’s to properly honor Rothko)

1 oz Brandy

½ oz Sweet Vermouth

1 to 2 dashes Aromatic Bitters

Luxardo Maraschino cherries for garnish (the almost black color is important to our theme)

Cherry juice (optional/ to taste)


Pour Gin, Brandy, Vermouth, bitters and cherry juice (if you like it sweet) over ice in cocktail shaker. Shake. Serve in martini glass and garnish with cherry. You should have a drink that looks something like this black and red beauty and tastes like the type of beverage an alcoholic artist would enjoy.


Blog and beverage brought to you by Sarah Oesterling

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Sarah Oesterling


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