In a surprising intersection of pop culture and avant-garde art, a scene from AMC’s hit television series Mad Men centered on a painting by abstract expressionist Mark Rothko in a 2008 episode. In the scene, word gets around the Sterling Cooper advertising agency that eccentric co-founder Bert Cooper has bought an outrageously expensive painting for his office. A few employees decide to sneak a look.
A secretary calls the painting’s colored rectangles “interesting.” Media buyer Harry Crane, panicked that this might be Cooper’s way of testing his employees’ aesthetic acumen, decides to search the office for “a brochure that explains it.” The agency’s art director, Sal Romano, immediately recognizes the artwork as a Rothko and admires it. But only account executive and part-time writer Ken Cosgrove seems to feel it.
KEN: I don’t think it’s supposed to be explained.
SAL: I’m an artist, okay? It must mean something.
Sal’s on the right track. Rothko himself said, “There is no such thing as good painting about nothing.” But Ken instinctively grasps that the artist intended for viewers to feel an intimate connection to his often huge canvasses, to be “enveloped within” the work, in Rothko’s words.
KEN: Maybe it doesn’t. Maybe you’re just supposed to experience it. Because when you look at it, you do feel something, right? It’s like looking into something very deep. You could fall in.
Mark Rothko, born 99 years ago today, September 25, persevered through various stages of artistic development to find a way to relieve modern man’s spiritual and creative emptiness. Through his blurred blocks of rich colors, devoid of landscape or human figure, he strove to express transcendent but basic human experiences like tragedy and ecstasy. “The fact that a lot of people break down and cry when confronted with my pictures shows that I can communicate those basic human emotions . . . The people who weep before my pictures are having the same religious experience I had when I painted them.”
His style is instantly recognizable—two or three contrasting, yet complementary, symmetrical rectangles of color and light—and deceptively simple. Like a lot of abstract expressionist work, it’s the kind of thing some look at and claim, “My six-year-old could do that.”
If so, then that six-year-old would be worth countless millions of dollars. The Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas, which opened only last November, was devoid of an impressive draw in its modern art collection until last week when it purchased a 1960 Rothko entitled “No. 210/No. 211 (Orange)” for an estimated $25 million.
Also last week it was announced that one of the big-ticket items in Sotheby’s New York fall auction series will be Rothko’s 1954 “No. 1 (Royal Red and Blue),” which Sothesby’s expects to sell for up to $50 million. Last May, Rothko’s 1961 “Orange, Red, Yellow” went for a record $86.9 million at auction house competitor Christie’s.
Tragically, Mark Rothko’s spiritual search through his art didn’t save him from his own personal suffering: bad health, a bad marriage, and depression led to his suicide in 1970. But he established himself as one of America’s greatest artists and he continues to make his presence felt in pop culture even today. Aside from the Mad Men episode, for example, dramatist John Logan wrote a powerful play about Rothko called Red, starring Alfred Molina (Spider-Man 2, Chocolat). Red was nominated for seven Tony Awards in 2010 and won six, including for Best Play.
Most significantly though, Rothko left a unique artistic legacy which, as Ken Cosgrove recognized, envelops us in its spiritual beauty and emotional power.
Mark Tapson, a Hollywood-based writer and screenwriter, is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center. He focuses on the politics of popular culture.