by Christine Cariati

Red, a two-character play by John Logan, is about Mark Rothko and his young studio assistant (a fictional amalgam of various actual Rothko assistants) that pivots on the often-told story about the commission that Rothko undertook, and then ultimately rejected, to paint a set of murals for the Four Seasons restaurant in the Seagram Building.

At the time, around 1958, Rothko and his generation of abstract expressionist painters—Jackson Pollock, Barnett Newman, Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline—were beginning to be eclipsed by pop artists like Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns. Through Rothko’s often-heated dialogue with his young assistant, we get to eavesdrop on his ideas about art in general and his own work in particular—and to understand how he came to reject the commission and return what was then the enormous fee of $35,000. (The paintings are now at the Tate Modern in London.)

Mark Rothko, Black on Maroon Sketch (for Mural #6), 1958

The play attempts the near-impossible task of conveying something truthful about the thought and emotion that propels the creative process—and more often than not, it succeeds. Yes, the arc of the story is predictable, as is the evolution of the father/son, mentor/student relationship between Rothko and the assistant, Ken—but I thought that Alfred Molina and Eddie Redmayne transcended those limitations and often seemed to be having a real conversation.

As you take your seat in the theater, the stage, which reeks of turpentine, presents a believable recreation of Rothko’s New York studio at 222 Bowery. You then notice that Alfred Molina, as Rothko, is already on stage, sitting in a chair, studying the painting in front of him. Throughout the play, Rothko and his assistant are stretching canvases, mixing paints—and in one particularly moving scene, priming a huge canvas a brilliant red.

Mark Rothko, c. 1953
Photo courtesy Henry Elkan

Venetian Red particularly enjoyed Rothko’s violent outburst when he addresses the question: what do you see? to his assistant standing in front of a blood-red canvas. When the assistant tentatively responds: red, Rothko flies into a rage at this reductive answer, and begins to passionately enumerate the dozens of possible complex colors that the word “red” could represent.

Mark Rothko, Untitled Mural for End Wall, 1959

While Rothko is accurately portrayed as monstrously egotistical, pontificating and self-involved, that doesn’t mean that he’s not right or that he doesn’t have a lot of interesting and true things to say. Going in, I was not particularly a fan of Rothko’s work, but watching the play I got a better grasp of the intellectual and spiritual motivation for his work and its underlying sense of tragedy. And, yes, since seeing the play I’ve taken the time to look at his work more carefully.

What was important to me about the play was Rothko’s passionate insistence that art matters—that the artist must believe deeply in what he is doing. He also insisted that the viewer cannot be passive, but has to bring something to looking at a work art, not merely consume. When  Rothko badgers his young assistant that he must educate himself, read philosophy, great literature, look at all the art he possibly can—before he deserves to have an opinion—he makes a strong case. Rothko’s ego is enormous, but so is his passion. It was actually thrilling to hear someone talk with such fury about their work and the importance of making art, all with a complete lack of irony.

The only thing I care about is the expression of man’s basic emotions: tragedy, ecstasy, destiny  — Mark Rothko

Crucial to the effectiveness of the play is the lighting. The canvases—all saturated blacks and reds—are luminous. They are lit so that they glow, morph and radiate energy before your eyes, which fast-forwards the experience that unfolds more slowly when you sit for a while with Rothko’s work.

Red is playing in New York through June 27th. If you’ve seen it, let us know what you think.

Wider connections:
Joanne Mattera’s thoughts on Red.
Roberta Smith, New York Times

20 Responses to “VR Sees RED

  1. Thanks for this review of “Red” and for the images of Rothko and the video. You mention the turpentine smell. You must have been sitting close to the stage. I was in the second row, center mezz, and I got not a whiff of it. I even noted the lack of it. I’m glad it was there, if only for some. You couldn’t have had a studio at that time without it.

    Here’s a link to my own coverage: http://joannemattera.blogspot.com/2010/04/seeing-red-part-1-play.html
    (I’ve linked to VR from my post.)

    • Christine Cariati Says:

      I was in the orchestra near the back—in fact, I heard many people comment on the smell as they entered the theater. It was a very warm night, maybe that accentuated it. I think it’s in the Charlie Rose clip I linked to where Molina talks about how in London they were allowed to spray turpentine all over the set every night, but that with the health regulations in the U.S., they had to hire someone to create a turpentine “scent” to use instead.
      Linked to your post on Red—and enjoyed all of your red-themed posts.

  2. I saw “Red” on the 8th. Your write-up is the best I’ve read.

    I thought Molina was outstanding, his own hugeness entirely apt for the outsize persona he embodies (Molina, btw, spent some time in D.C. at the Phillips in its redone Rothko gallery, just sitting, as he does in the play as theatre-goers come in). His muscular and, I thought joy-filled, priming of the canvas with “Ken” (Eddie Redmayne) earned sustained applause in the packed house that night. It felt exhilarating.

    I also thought moving the scene where Ken lifts Rothko’s hands from the can of paint.

    There’s humor, too, in this play. I loved the lines about Pollock, for example.

    I spent a long time in the Rothko Chapel in Houston, when I visited there many years ago. It remains an unforgettable experience for me, as the canvases there draw you in, in a way that leaves you “lost” in them. Seeing the beautifully lit canvases on the “Red” stage brought that experience back to mind.

    For those interested, the story of the Rothko estate’s troubles is worth the read.

    • Christine Cariati Says:

      Thanks for your comments Maureen.
      There have been plenty of excruciatingly bad plays—and movies especially—about artists and writers, so I was grateful for Red, which had a lot of true and powerful moments. Watching the interview clip I posted, it sounds like it was a real collaborative effort among the actors, writer, director (and the lighting person!)—and that, I’m sure, was one of the reasons it worked as well as it did.

  3. I haven’t seen the play but I read the script and I’ve read a number of biographies, both of Rothko and other artists of the period. They reminded me of the passion that I and other art students of the era brought to our art. We saw art as encompassing all aspects of life and that the life of an artist required dedication and talent. We couldn’t imagine any other way of living. Of course, as we all know. times change. People change and the effort to live that kind of life took an enormous toll. But it was worth trying, even if “our” success rate leaves much to be desired. I thought of that as I reviewed the MFA shows from various art schools in the Bay Area. The lack of content, skills, honest and integrity were a sad commentary on what passes for art training today. Rothko and his fellow artists were not always men that I would want to know; I certainly don’t approve of their sexism or arrogance. But they created art that still speaks to us, if we would only stop and listen. I wonder what today’s art school graduates will create and how long it will last. I can’t imagine anybody writing a play about any of the stuff that I saw at Fort Mason this weekend, unless it was a bitter comedy on some pretty pathetic art.

    • Christine Cariati Says:

      I agree, whatever his personal faults, I loved that Rothko brought the full force of his intellect to his work at all levels. If Rothko was in despair about the likes of Andy Warhol, you can just imagine what he’d be thinking now. Once art became as effortless to absorb as advertising, the viewer was off the hook—no one has to be intimidated by the depth of anyone’s skill, knowledge, technique or levels of meaning—it’s all there on the surface, ready to be grasped in a flash, then move on.

      • I was thinking of Rothko and this review when I went to see the SFAI MFA show last weekend. I posted photos in my bog. For once in my life, words failed me – the work was utterly beyond bad. But I almost wished that Rothko and the great NY critics of his era were still around – they would have ripped those poseurs a new one. A well deserved new one. There wasn’t even enough to grasp – it was the epitome of emptiness. There was no there, there. But I sure got a lot of “anonymous” e-mails telling me that I didn’t know diddly and that they were the coming super stars of the art world.
        Lord help us all. Maybe it’s better that Rothko isn’t still around because he would have had a stroke.
        Have you seen Simon Schama’s series on great artists (I can’t remember the name of the series right now). The segment on Rothko was brilliant. I think we forget how erudite many of the artists of that generation were.

    • Nancy
      Having spent considerable time yesterday at the SF Art Fair and the SFIA MFA “show” there (see today’s VR post for wrap up), I could not agree with you more on this topic. I personally thought some of the artists in the MFA show should have asked for their tuition money back. Additionally, I agree with your assessment about the intellectual depth of the Ab-Ex generation—Robert Motherwell was a particularly insightful favorite and appears often on VR pages. See

      Robert Motherwell: “On the Humanism of Abstraction”

      Among the newly-minted MFAs were there any you thought showed promise?

      • Actually, yes (with severe reservations) but they sure need better teachers. There was one artist (I don’t have my notes here or I’d get the name) who did two pieces on wood, using a burn, carving and etch technique that I thought had possibilities. Some of the painting and photography was decent but oh-so-routine; again, where are their teachers? I usually find one or two artists in each MFA show worth writing about – see my recent posts on Monica Lundy – but my overall impression of this show was so bad that I just gave up trying to dig out a few complimentary words. I didn’t post any of their names because I hoped they would improve in the coming decades and that it would be embarrassing for them to have such bad student work out there. But I have been spammed with derogatory e-mails, mostly likely from SFAI students, impugning everything from my taste to my knowledge to …well.. you know. If the students have the courage to sign their name, I’ll post it but I don’t allow anonymous comments on my blog. Their response made me even sadder – they don’t even know that they don’t know. If they think my comments are bad, wait until they try to hit the big time. Oy Vey!

  4. I loved every minute of this play. It was raw, passionate, tragic and gave us a look into Rothko’s tortured soul. We got to witness the, “Swagger and despair” that Liz Hager wrote about a few weeks ago in her post. While the themes were all framed around art and the making of art, they were also universal in the sense of a man struggling with his inner demons, trying to make something of his life,wanting his life to matter. As an artist I felt (somewhat smugly) that I had an insiders knowledge of the language and struggle of the creative process, yet the two young people in their 20’s that I went with with found much to relate to and also loved the play. What does it mean to “sell out”? Does beauty even matter in the great scheme of things? Is art making a worthy pursuit? Wlhat is the line between creative genius and insanity?

    The dialog between Rothko and his assistant felt real and seamless to me. It could have been a dialog between Rothko and his inner, younger, idealistic self, before depression and alcohol took over his life and ultimately took his life. One of my favorite scenes in the play was watching the two men prime a hugh canvas together. It was a dance, a fury, a drama, that transcended everything else between them.

    I didn’t smell the turpentine, darn!

    • Christine Cariati Says:

      Enjoyed reading your passionate response to the play. I would think that most people, at least for the duration of the play, believed that art matters—it made a good case, his passion was infectious. I think for Rothko, art was an exploration of the tragic, a journey into, and back out of, the dark. I thought it was very moving in the play when he was talking about attempting in his work to do what Rembrandt did—bring the the light out of the dark—and I actually saw that in his work for the first time.

      Maybe someone spilled a bottle of that turpentine scent the night I was there, it was really pervasive.

  5. Sounds like a wonderful play, one that gives the audience much to consider. I love those intimate thoughtful works. Alfred Molina must really like painters! He’s such a fine actor. Wish I lived close to the city. Thanks for the review.

  6. I just wanted to post a thank you note to Liz for these (and many other) thoughtful posts. That they are insightful is wonderful but that they generate such discussions (rare on art blogs) is an added bonus. The comments about turpentine brought back one of my fondest memories. The first time I visited the SFAI (oh yes I went there my dears – back in the 60s), a young lady came out, wearing paint splattered jeans and smelling of turpentine. My rigid parents were appalled but I was enchanted and knew immediately that this was my life path.
    Viva turpentine! Brava Liz and long may VR flourish!

    • Christine Cariati Says:

      Thanks for the kudos to Liz and your support of VR.
      The post about Red was one of mine–but Liz and I are both pleased when a post attracts feedback from our readers and sparks a discussion.

  7. OH – I am sorry! I should have been more careful. Of course, my hat’s off to you as well; you’ve written several of my favorite posts.
    Can we put it down to a senior moment? After all I am 60+ (ahem…can we avoid the real number).
    Anyway, thanks, good ladies, thanks, thanks and again, thanks!

    • Christine Cariati Says:

      Thanks Nancy
      Hope to cross paths sometime. Liz and I will be doing Open Studio in the fall at Hunters Point, maybe you’ll be able to stop by.

  8. I fell across your blog’s doorstep while home with a cold, and it brought some happiness to my groggy stupor.

    We’re working on a production of Red at Berkeley Rep. The designer has still to work out which (if any) of the Rothko paintings we’ll be replicating. Given the anti-fragrance sentiment at Bay Area theaters, I doubt we’ll be wafting turpentine out over our audiences.

    • Christine Cariati Says:

      i’d like to see another production — Alfred Molina really inhabited his part, as did Eddie Redmayne, it’ll be interesting to see what Berkeley Rep does with it. By the way, at one time turpentine didn’t have an odor, which was much more dangerous — they gave it one so you’d be aware of what you were dealing with and be careful.

  9. Thanks for this informative article! I just wanted to share, for those who like it, an article about some suggestions on how to look at Rothko’s work.

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