VR Sees RED
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.)
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.
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.
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.