Seeing Red: Rothko in Pop Culture

Seeing Red: Rothko in Pop Culture

Posted by: Teresa Rende at 10/26/2011 04:00 PM

Photo of Edward Gero by Liz Lauren. In Red, playwright John Logan paints Mark Rothko as the anti-cool, anti-pop, anti-name-brand-recognition man. As I watched the play and heard Rothko furiously exclaim the likes of Jasper Johns and Andy Warhol were “…trying to kill [him]!” I couldn’t help but wonder what he’d think of his own place in pop culture today. Not only did the thought of a soup can as art infuriate Logan’s Rothko, but he also believed that artists like Jackson Pollock suffered early deaths and artistic stagnation because of their popular success.

In Red, Rothko himself steps back from this direction by recanting his big commercial commission and keeping his work. While he saved the murals the dubious distinction of “over mantels” by pulling them from the Four Seasons before they arrived, he did not save himself from the eye of pop culture. Some might argue that his change of heart made him an even more iconic figure than if he had simply handed the paintings over.

Where do these ruminations of popular recognition lie now? It may surprise you just how much pop culture Rothko presently permeates.

Musicians have used Rothko as fodder for their songs, and one 1997 band went so far as to make Rothko their namesake. London’s ambient band, Rothko, continues to release work under their founder’s label, Trace Records.

In September 2008, the popular AMC television series Mad Men featured a Rothko painting in one episode. Burt Cooper, the co-founder of the extremely profitable Sterling Cooper Advertising agency, buys himself a Rothko. A number of employees sneak into his office to see the very expensive painting, and while some describe it as “fuzzy squares,” others have a deeper sense of the work. One employee, Ken Cosgrove, hits the nail on the head in conversation with his colleague, the agency's art director, Sal Romano.

KEN: I don't think it's supposed to be explained.

SAL: I'm an artist, okay? It must mean something.

KEN: Maybe it doesn't. Maybe you're just supposed to experience it. Because when you look at it, you're to feel something, right? It's like looking into something very deep. You could fall in.

In a March 2011 article, author John Naughton aligns colors to culture with GQ’s Pop Culture Color Chart. Rothko appears as color 13 of 30, “Rothko’s Four Darks in Red,” alongsid comment that such a palate should be available as a Fired Earth interior design scheme (a notion that would surely illicit reaction from Rothko).

Whether in music, print, or TV, Rothko continues to pervade popular culture in more spaces than just canvas, screen, or stage. What would he have to say about that?

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