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Off-Campus: Mad for Mark

In this weekly feature, we will share our ideas for what you can do “off-campus” while the museum is closed. Today’s post comes from Sadie Burzan, Vassar College class of 2011 and Art Center student docent.

It’s rare that a popular TV show has a smart and interesting relationship with the visual arts. AMC’s Mad Men, a series about advertising big wigs on Madison Avenue in New York City, has succeeded in bringing Mark Rothko, Japanese prints, and Frank O’Hara into contemporary popular culture.

The show has been lauded for its historical accuracy, both in its portrayal of gender roles in the early 1960s and its depiction of the New York advertising world. In the early 1960s, Mark Rothko was at the height of his fame, selling paintings to important collectors such as the Rockefellers and being commissioned to paint murals by the Four Seasons. In 1961, MoMA held a retrospective of his work. The art-savvy viewer is therefore not surprised to see that the character Bert Cooper (a wealthy and influential man who is one of the founders of the fictional advertising firm, Sterling Cooper) purchased a Mark Rothko painting and hung it in his office.

In this scene, some members of the creative team are led by a spunky secretary into Bert Cooper’s office to look at the Rothko painting. Their reactions still resonate today, as Rothko continues to invoke varied and often strong reactions. Rothko himself, disgruntled by critics’ attempts to label him as an abstract expressionist, wrote that he was interested

“only in expressing basic human emotions — tragedy, ecstasy, doom, and so on. And 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. And if you, as you say, are moved only by their color relationship, then you miss the point.”

Mark Rothko (American b. Latvia 1903-1970), No. 1 (No. 18, 1948), Oil on canvas, gift of Mrs. John D. Rockefeller 3rd (Blanchette Hooker, class of 1931) 1955.6.6

On January 20, 2011, you will be to once again stand before the Rothko from the Art Center’s permanent collection. We wonder how you will respond when you stand before the over five foot canvas. 

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