Thursday, October 27, 2011

RED, red, and Rothko

Mark Rothko, as presented in the play RED, is irascible, self-centered and selfish, in love with his own opinions, domineering .... the justification for such a personality looms over audience and players, the large RED painting meant to represent Rothko's actual work. When I saw RED (the play) recently, I found it to be meaningful but not as compelling as I had expected, partly because I thought the actor playing Rothko didn't have enough gravitas for the role. I'd like to see it again, with another actor, to see what it would be like. (the photo is from the NY production with Al Molina, which got rave reviews - not the one I saw) But that's ART, whether on the stage or on canvas. Rothko did miraculous things with the color red, but the same color is scrawled across handmade valentine cards and schmaltzy paintings of sunsets. The difference (noted in the play) is significance. One artist picks up a brush, a pencil, a piece of paper or cloth, and a few bits of color and creates an object that stirs deep in the soul and moves you to reverie or to tears; another makes a painting that goes well with the sofa. The glory and the frustration of being an artist is striving for significance and always fearing you'll just end up over the sofa. RED features a series of paintings - a 'mural' that was commissioned from Rothko by Philip Johnson, architect of the iconic Seagram's Building on Park Avenue in New York, to be placed in the high-style Four Seasons Restaurant. Rothko was paid a great deal of money and set to work, but somewhere along the line he apparently became to fear the 'sofa' problem (the play centers his doubts in a studio assistant who challenges his motives but the true reason is unknown) - he returned the money and refused the commission. The 30 paintings he did for the commission, however, remain to testify. (Some are at the Tate Modern, some in Japan and elsewhere) Rothko was known for his 'pickiness' - his insistence on proper lighting (very dim) and placement, and when 'he' explains on stage that he can't allow his work to be trivialized as a backdrop for the clank of silverware and the empty prattle of rich diners, it rings true.  There is a spirituality about Rothko's work that resonates deep and long with profound significance - it's no surprise that one of the most successful installations of his work is in a specially built Chapel in Houston. Red, of course, was not his only color, but it spoke a language that he understand like few others. The great painting Red Studio by Matisse, a supreme colorist, is mentioned in the play - another iconic use of this rich complex color. There is also word play with a litany of red shades and hues that is one of the delights for any painter - "cadmium, vermillion, alizarin...." Red has a myriad of variations, some deadly in pigment form. 10 years after the play was set, in February 1970, Rothko killed himself in his studio. His life and work, and then death, were defined by color - the colorful reds gradually disappeared over that decade, replaced finally by dark, heavy blacks, mud browns, and greys.

If you're interested in color you'll like this blog, full of information about colors, pigments, history, and uses

What does color mean to you? What color defines YOUR life? 

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