He left Yale prematurely and proceeded to New York. In 1925 he studied under Max Weber in the Art Students League. He participated in his first group exhibition in the Opportunity Galleries, New York, in 1928. During the early 1930s Rothko became a close friend of Milton Avery and Adolph Gottlieb. His first solo show took place in the Portland Art Museum, Oregon, in 1933.
Rothko's first solo exhibition in New York was held at the Contemporary Arts Gallery in 1933. In 1935, together with William Baziotes, Gottlieb, along with many others, Rothko founded the Ten, a group of artists sympathetic to abstraction and expressionism that exhibited until 1940. He implemented easel paintings to the Works Progress Administration Federal Art Project from 1936 to 1937. By 1936 Rothko understood Barnett Newman. In the early 1940s he worked closely with Gottlieb, creating a painting design with mythical content, simple flat shapes, and vision inspired by so primitive art. By mid-decade his work integrated Surrealist techniques and graphics. In the fall of 1943, Rothko returned to New York. He met with collector and art dealer Peggy Guggenheim, but she was initially reluctant to take Mark Rothko artworks. Peggy Guggenheim gave Rothko a solo show at Art of This Century, New York, in 1945.