Rothko in Mad Men

Mad Men is a period piece television series that takes place from the 1950s to the 1970s that tells the stories of the employees of an advertising agency and weaves in historical events, politics, and trends of the era.  In one episode, the boss of the agency hangs up a Mark Rothko piece in his office.  Many of the employees do not understand the piece and insist that there exists some secret meaning.  One character insists, “I’m an artist; it must mean something!”  But another character speaks up and replies, “Maybe it doesn’t.  Maybe you’re just supposed to experience it.”

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Rothko’s works were groundbreaking because of the overwhelming scales of the pieces and the visually pleasing hues painted on unprimed canvas.  Paintings on such scale with such abstraction hadn’t been seen much before in the public art sphere.

These scenes demonstrate the transition to a-political art—and the initial reaction of confusion to this new concept.  Rothko’s works are also gestural as they represent the very action of spreading paint and creating art.   A-political and gestural art is supposed to have no meaning—it exists just as it is presented.  These pieces have no significance nor are the representations of concepts.

This style of art was in reaction to the War and a budding and evolving patriotism for America.  This is reflected in Abstract Expressionist works, such as Rothko’s, as the very act of painting on such a grand scale and by spilling paint is “liberating.” A very emphasized motif in Mad Men is the evolution of American identity.  How do characters deal with shifting socio-political identities of America, from the emergence of civil rights to the issue of growing commercialism?  The Rothko scenes begin to address this discussion of American identify through portraying multiple points of view of the work: confusion, dismissal, frustration, and acceptance.

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