Andy Warhol's iconic images of American consumerism have become symbolic of an entire culture and lifestyle, but when he painted them in the early 1960s, that was still a distant future and the standardization of suburbia was only achieving more tenuous beginnings mostly forgotten or unbelievable to modern generations. While the Pop art Warhol pioneered was a fairly early innovation he explored for the rest of his career, Mark Rothko's "Untitled 1953" marks the maturation of decades of evolution for Rothko and fellow travelers from the New York School, the Ten, Surrealism and post-Impressionism that many still fail to come to terms with today. This is ironic because Rothko was attempting to speak to psychological elements he and many others particularly psychoanalysts following Carl Jung, believe are common to all regardless of origin, status, nationality or culture. This approachability, or universal language all viewers should be able to understand, in Rothko's case given the willingness to perceive what he is trying to coax them into recognizing, seems to be the only element these two paintings share in common besides their imposing size. The stylistic syntax and grammars they speak to us in are so vastly different, that this extra-cultural universality takes some work to identify.
Warhol painted a series of some sixty products in various configurations in the early 1960's, mostly Campbell's soup cans, Brillo scrubs, Coca-Cola bottles, and a smaller number of other commodities. This was new at the time and Warhol is usually credited with discovering "Pop" art, although the name was apparently invented later by Laurence Alloway (Warholstars.org). Anthony Grudin locates "100 Cans" (1962) in historical perspective, pointing out that since Warhol worked in advertising, he would have known that there was a struggle going on between national brands and local store brands, that the more affluent and educated consumers were believed to buy the retail (store) brands, but that national brands were increasingly marketed toward lower-class working consumers, particularly white housewives. The working class consumer purchased national branded goods, it was believed, because they could rely on product consistency, which implies they were afraid to take the risk of purchasing generics in case they weren't what they wanted, but also because national brands delivered social status which the middle and upper class didn't need. For the more affluent, status was achieved through higher-end consumption like homes, cars or exotic vacations (Grudin 213-14).
Grudin also describes Warhol's habitual and consistent use of wavering, shaky-handed line, to show intensity and emotion felt by the artist in composition, which he employed in several series of magazine ads for real consumer products, most notably in Grudin shoes. Since Warhol worked for a Madison Avenue advertising firm, there were presumably more; but this shakiness and erratic signature line shows up in "100 Cans," where the lines, painted by hand with the aid of stencils (Allbright-Knox Gallery n.p.) are not all perfectly parallel, there are ghost letters and extra marks, the gold medals are not completed, in general the labels are not particularly accurate where they could have easily been made so using a variety of mechanical methods widely known and available to a graphic illustrator working in mass consumer advertising. Warhol could have made the cans all perfect but instead did not. Likewise given Warhol's background in advertising, and the cynical candor with which the Madison Avenue advertising insider culture, evidenced in articles in Advertising Age and similar trade publications. discussed the status vulnerability of the working class who typically purchased national-label products (not the rich, or secure middle class but the white poor), would be and as Grudin demonstrates was constantly apparent and available to Warhol, then where we today see brand everywhere, permeating every facet of life, these brands were at the time of the original paintings 1962, viewed in much different light, in fact were even somewhat vulnerable as consumer options, threatened by the increasing sales of unadvertised local retail brands (220-222).
This local threat itself put the advertising industry on the run, if producers began to perceive that advertising national brand was unnecessary or ineffective. Was 100 Cans and the series it was part of, then an attempt to iconize and reinvigorate advertising itself? Were Warhol's sixty-some, large, bold and compelling product images actually 'real' ads trying to iconize brand for brand's sake? Warhol worked in advertising and used line and space to sell product every day. Were these images and pop then an attempt to reinvigorate advertising itself in the homes of those wealthy enough to own art, and the masses of middle- and lower-class art consumers who spent their lives and meager earnings fawning over and trying to imitate them? Or were they a confrontation to that world? The answer to these contrasting opposites is 'yes.' Since the subjects were of content stamped out of huge production lines by giant machines in a never-ending cycle of mass consumerism, this would indicate reflection of a culture produced in the same way, where everyone was the same, and spellbound by advertising into consumption of the most common and banal products. Warhol himself often commented as much (Warhol, in Sherwood 12). At the same time, the cans are not identical, and if seen as very similar but unique, and also as luring the poor with the seductive promise of social status, then this becomes a comment on the industry and its consumers, a uniform but only slightly varied block of somewhat shabby-looking, bottom-shelf product presented with boldly contrasting primary colors and very little subtlety, put over as something to look up to. This latter reading would then also reflect on art itself once presented as such, which would also be supported by Warhol's own commentary, as he later focused on the commercial aspects of art making, openly flaunting the swindle of it all through prominent and glittering personality intentionally lacking in emotional connection (Warhol, in Sherwood 5). Therefore at that time different social classes would probably have seen "100 Cans" and the rest of the series in different ways.
Mark Rothko's earlier "Untitled 1953" seems about as far away from Warhol's "100 Cans" as could be, and Warhol's approach, content and objectives seem to support such contrast. While both paintings are quite large, the Rothko approaching mural size, and both use paint on canvas, Warhol used oil and Rothko used a number of pigments in rabbit-skin glue on untreated canvas and then often mounted the canvas on boards (Walker Art Center n. pag.). Rothko used pigments in glue because he wanted faster drying times to achieve layering affects from broad, uniform swathes of color that nonetheless apparently have singularities of brush detail not often visible in photographs (Chave 77). Rothko often also made artistic pronouncements like Warhol later did but not generally concerning his individual works, but rather in response to critical disparagement of his showings which was common for abstract expressionism.
The content and objectives could hardly be more different. Rothko explained that "[w]e are for the large shape because it has the impact of the unequivocal" (Rothko and Gottleib 1) . His objective seemed to be to overwhelm the viewer into mythological, subconscious and transcendental psychological states that would reveal the common human potential for basic human emotions. What was just becoming revealed to popular awareness through Jungian psychoanalysis was the "collective unconscious," where, independent of personal life histories, experiences or predilections, all individuals similarly feel fear; awe; transcendent mystical inspiration, and such perceptions generated outside of and beyond the control of the daylight ego. Since the Second World War and the atomic bomb, artists, writers and public dialogue in the arts had had to cope with destruction and chaos on a scale never before encountered, and 'gesture painting,' 'action painting' since Jackson Pollock, automatism and abstract expressionism had moved away from the figure/ground composition, inherited from surrealism, cubism and ultimately from the post-impressionist and fauve experiments with softer forms and light effects. Likewise figure-ground had been attacked through Dada and the Surrealists through increasing abstraction from similar cultural angst after the First World War.
These unprecedentedly violent and destructive events, often perceived as meaningless and wasteful, led many artists to reject traditional form and composition in search for something less authoritarian but also rejecting dialectics of hero-action; Communist propaganda in the era of McCarthyism and the Cold War (Rothko was himself a Russian emigre), and contemporary values which many felt served the interests of those responsible for such catastrophes. For Rothko, this played out as an increasing abstraction from the figure in his younger career alongside the Surrealist period, to arrive at his mature "color field" style represented by "Untitled 1953." Rothko particularly attributed his inspiration to Neitzche, and thus to Romanticism, mythological themes in particular Greek tragedy but also through 'primitive' art which carried a connection to immediate themes of transcendent intensity, and the then-unfolding exploration of psychoanalysis that revealed the common human reactions to those mythological dramas (Rothko and Gottleib 1). This concern for the sublime and overwhelming was about as distant…