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.” Accountant 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.