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The Mysteries of Rothko’s Red

By Steven Rosen · October 19th, 2011 · The Big Picture
thebig_pic_red_brian_dykstra_matthew_carlson_by_jerry_naunheim_jr_2Brian Dykstra and Matthew Carlson - Photo by Jerry Naunheim Jr.

When I first started learning about contemporary art, Pop ruled. There was a wicked humor in Pop that was subversively accessible — taking the imagery of recognizable objects, often consumer products, and liberating them from their “official” meaning. It seemed both radical and fun in an ironic, distancing way. 

It wasn’t too long before I learned about the movement that came just before Pop — the Abstract Expressionists. It was hard at first to know what to make of those great swoops, splatters and drips of paint, especially when it was explained that they represented a Hemingway-ish, heroic gesture against the uncaring universe. Somehow, against a deadpan Warhol soup can, they just seemed so, well, old.

Except Mark Rothko, the Russian-born U.S. artist. His color-field paintings — bands or rectangles of muted, blurred (and sometimes dark) color against a background of the same — never seemed so much about the act of painting, or the subject of it, as it did about transcending painting. He used art’s gift for divining human expression in color and light, in the mysterious evocation of shape. Abstract Expressionism versus Pop? Rothko’s work was beyond such temporal concerns. It was spiritual. 

In fact, Rothko helped teach me to love other Abstract Expressionists and to realize contemporary art needn’t be solely about its relevance to today. 

I’ve had the pleasure of seeing Rothko paintings in many museums, including several spectacular settings where they became installations in rooms.

There is the beautiful Rothko Room, holding four of his paintings, at Washington’s Phillips Collection. And this year, I made it to Houston’s Rothko Chapel, where people respectfully sit and meditate while surrounded by 14 black (with subtle changes in intensity) murals. It’s one of the world’s essential art-pilgrimage sites.

I’ve yet to get to Tate Modern, where nine of the red paintings from his aborted, 1959 Four Seasons Restaurant/Seagram Building mural commission are displayed in a special room. (He gave them to the Tate as a gift just before his death by suicide, at age 67, in 1970.) But it’s also on my must-see list. 

Rothko, his fame on the rise, had been commissioned by Seagram to fill part of its new building’s luxury restaurant with his abstracted paintings. It was a breakthrough for him and contemporary art — some say the $35,000 fee was the largest ever at the time. But while he worked on it, he seemed to be conflicted. Did he despise the intended clientele and want to fill their dining area with “blood?” Or did he hate himself for making art for “fat cats?” But at some point, he apparently just couldn’t stomach the idea of seeing his art in such a place and withdrew. Why, exactly? And it’s so strange. We’re taught that it’s poverty and lack of recognition that drive artists into personal crisis — Van Gogh is the great example? But fame? 

John Logan’s Red, formally opening tomorrow at Cincinnati Playhouse and continuing through Nov. 12, attempts to address this great mystery and the larger issues it raises about art’s role in a capitalist society. First premiering in London in 2009, it won six Tonys, including Best Play. The Cincinnati production stars Brian Dykstra as Rothko and Matthew Carlson as his assistant Ken, and is directed by Steven Woolf.  

“The drama of it is at a couple levels,” Woolf explained in an interview. One key level, he says, is about how Rothko struggles with the project. “Rothko is trying to come to terms with what the Seagram (paintings) are, and how he can surrender to the commercialism of the project and put paintings in a high-end restaurant. And then how he can believe people will be able to look at it.” 

For art-lovers, a must-see play.

CONTACT STEVEN ROSEN: srosen@citybeat.com



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