Rothko and RED



I promised at the end of my last blog that I’d tell you about the play RED. WOW, that’s all I can say about the play written by John Logan about the time when Mark Rothko was painting the Seagram murals (1958/9). I lie – that’s not all I can or will say about this 2010 Tony award-winning play.


This powerful and intelligent play opens on Rothko’s Bowery studio bathed in red light. A large space, the studio contains massive canvases facing the wall, a table with a hotplate and various bottles of pigment and tools beneath, a laundry tub near the back, another small table with record player, and three paintings representative of the work Rothko was doing to fulfill his commission: paintings for the Four Seasons Restaurant in the brand new Seagrams Building in New York City, designed by Mies van der Rohe in collaboration with Philip Johnson.


The opening stage for the play RED as seen at the Belfry Theatre. The studio on stage seems larger than the entire audience area at the Belfry. I want this studio!!


The play is fabulously expressed by two actors, one playing the artist Rothko (Oliver Becker) and the other (Jameson Matthew Parker) his imagined assistant Ken who acts as a foil and a catalyst for Rothko. The detailed and far-ranging script reveals much about Rothko (1903-1970), the man and his artistic life and beliefs, but is set in 1958/59 and centers around his struggle between retaining artistic integrity and the prestige attached to the commission of murals for the high class restaurant. The commission offered a staggering $35,000 (equaling about 2 million today) as well as 500-600 square feet of wall space.

Given carte blanche, Rothko saw the opportunity as a place to show a grouping of his work, each the companion to the other, and he produced about thirty works – mostly in reds and blacks and browns – from which to choose.


Untitled (Seagram Mural), 1959. Oil and mixed media on canvas, 104.5 x 113.5 in. A copy of this painting was on stage.


Through conversation, humour, artistic philosophy, silence, bullying, creative lighting, passionate outbursts from both men, descriptions of how Rothko sees his paintings and what he wants the viewer to experience (“I want to stop your heart, not paint pretty pictures”), we begin to see the inner workings of the great artist – his fear of the new Pop art generation of Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein, his dislike of comparisons with his contemporary Jackson Pollack (who had died two years before the commission), his disdain of the modern world (“everything these days is ‘fine’ – How are you? fine, Do you like the painting? It’s fine …”), his disgust at the simplistic view offered by some of his work (“my kid could’ve painted that”), his intellect and literary knowledge, and finally, his inner turmoil about the commission itself – how to stay true to his art when really, the commission could be considered mere decoration for a ritzy restaurant. The decision to quit the commission is made after Rothko dines at the Four Seasons where all he hears is the clatter of cutlery and the chatter of diners who are totally unaware of their surroundings.


Untitled (Seagram Mural) A copy of this painting was on stage.


One of the bonuses we the audience experience is the preparation that goes into making a painting – the ‘cooking’ of pigment and other ingredients, and the stretching and priming of canvas.


Rothko cooks up pigments -from RED at the Belfry Theatre. Photo by David Cooper


Ken stretching canvas - from the play at the Belfry. Photo by David Cooper


Rothko (Oliver Becker) and Ken (Jameson Matthew Parker) prime canvas on stage. Photo by David Cooper.


Here’s a short piece of the script from the opening of the play:

Ken, a young man in his twenties arrives at the studio for the first time. He’s dressed in a suit. Rothko beckons to him and indicates the painting he wants him to look at (he looks out at the audience).

ROTHKO: What do you see?

Before Ken can respond –

ROTHKO: Wait. Stand closer. You’ve got to get close. Let it pulsate. Let it work on you. Closer. Too close. There. Let it spread out. Let it wrap its arms around you; let it embrace you, filling even your peripheral vision so nothing else exists or has existed or will ever exist. Let the picture do its work – But work with it. Meet it halfway for God’s sake! Lean forward, lean into it. Engage with it!…Now, what do you see? – Wait, wait wait!”

He hurries and lowers the lighting a bit then returns to Ken.

ROTHKO: So, now, what do you see? – Be specific. No, be exact. Be exact – but sensitive. You understand? Be kind. Be a human being, that’s all I can say. Be a human being for once in your life! These pictures deserve compassion and they live or die in the eye of the sensitive viewer, they quicken only if the empathetic viewer will let them. That is what they cry out for. That is why they were created. That is what they deserve….Now….What do you see?

KEN: Red.


"What Do You See?" - from the play at the Belfry. Photo by David Cooper


Some lines (not exact) I completely relate to are: “Painting is about 10% putting paint on canvas, 90% looking” and “The blank canvas isn’t what’s scary, it’s all those canvases done by Manet, Monet, Rembrandt….”


If you haven’t seen the play, go if you can!! It’s on this week in Victoria until 14 October. Also, I think this week they are having discussions following the performances. Tempting….very tempting.


Ken has mixed the pigments, Rothko's about to paint....maybe.... Photo by David Cooper


To give you a sense of the play, here’s a youtube clip with the original Broadway actors, Alfred Molina and Eddie Redmayne.


I had heard about Rothko years and years ago but it was seeing Schama’s Power of Art (eight episodes covering eight artists) that brought my full attention to this master. I have watched the series over and over with my good friend Bettie Pellett followed by plenty of discussion. Here’s a taste of the Rothko episode. I can’t recommend this series enough!


And here’s a fascinating webpage I came across on my research. It’s about the Reflections and Ruminations on the Road to Rothko and RED.

As you can see, I am crazy about this play! I think I may even buy the script of Red.


Three of the Seagram murals at the Tate Gallery. You can really see the size compared to the figure. I would have thought Rothko would have preferred the paintings to have been hung lower on the wall.... The final series of Seagram Murals was dispersed and now hangs in three locations: London’s Tate Modern, Japan’s Kawamura Memorial Museum and the National Gallery in Washington, DC.


When I started this blog I had imagined I would write about the play and the Seagram Murals and then talk about Rothko’s other work but I got carried away just covering the play so I guess the rest will just have to wait.


Thanks for taking the time to be with me.


~ Gail

PS. To top off this blog, just yesterday, one of Rothko’s Seagram murals was vandalized with grafitti. Click here to read more. Rothko donated a number of his paintings to the Tate gallery shortly before he died in 1970.

The vandalized edge of Rothko's painting Black on Maroon


Black on Maroon (Seagram mural)


PPS. By the way, apparently Rothko wasn’t too keen on plein air painting – “easel falls over, ants get in the paint…”

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