As a painter I can attest to the fact it is exceedingly difficult to portray the act of painting in film or on stage. There are a number of reasons for this, not the least of which involves a lot of doing absolutely nothing but thinking. If you paint non-representationally, the act of painting looks random and silly. Hence the phrase, “my kid could do that.” There is something unique about art making that makes it less accessible. What painters do is very private involving years of processing a complex matrix of knowledge and experience and pushing it firmly up against the moment.
In John Logan’s play, Red, now playing (through the 18th of March) at Portland Center Stage, the act of art making is beautifully rendered. Logan does this in probably the only rational way he can, by never showing the actual act of painting. The only “painting” that takes place in the play is a two-minute segment where Rothko (Daniel Benzali) and his assistant Ken (Patrick Alparone) theatrically ground a large canvas in a solid red field of paint. The play is in the tradition of working plays, meaning there are no stage hands or faux constructs. The actors mix paint, build canvases and build stretchers. It creates an immersive environment where you believe you are secret witness to the machinations of a great artists’ studio. The stage crafting is very accurate in its portrayal of Rothko’s actual 53rdstreet studio, the one he created the Seagram Building murals in.
I have seen snippets of the Alfred Molina/Eddie Redmayne production that originated in London and then Broadway, and I have to say I am glad I saw the Portland production. All fairness to Molina’s Rothko and Redmayne’s Ken, their presentation appears less gruff. Perhaps it is in my notion of what a life long chain smoking, heavy drinker would sound like. Benzali not only looks more like the actual Rothko, I think he embodies his anger a bit more convincingly and of course his gravely voice fits my perceptions mentioned above. Perhaps it is more that Benzali and Alparone are Americans. We don’t have the benefit of audio or video of Rothko as we do with other painters of the New York School painters, but there are written transcripts of interviews and his own writings. This combined with the thoroughly researched, if not dryly written biography Rothko written by James E. B. Breslin provides a fairly clear picture of Mark Rothko’s tenor. As a man he was deeply cynical and felt persistently sidelined by the places he occupied. Russian born, and Jewish during a time of Cossack rampages, he left Russia at 10. Making his way to his merchant relations here in Portland, he was raised in the Jewish ghetto, now SW but never felt at home either in this city or amongst his peers. Excelling at school but living in a fiercely anti-communist, patriotic and gentile city, he was an outcast. It was clear early on that Rothko had the heart of a poet, not a pharmacist like his older brother Moise. His fierce intellect would have kept him from suffering fools lightly and his sponsorship by the wealthy Weinstein family, left him feeling a peasant in the land of opportunity. In 1921 he traveled to New Haven to attend Yale on scholarship but that ended up being disastrous as well. Surrounded by New England WASPs he was chided and would never be accepted as part of the Ivy League clan. He left Yale into his second year to “bum around New York.” These early experiences formed both a hardened shell of resentment and a never ending feeling of insecurity in Rothko.
The play captures this insecurity wonderfully through diatribes that wonder through Nietsche to angry rants on everything from the color red to Rauschenberg as well as withdrawn moments of depression. Although the play is called Red, the center of focus for the Rothko character is in fact black. At one point in the play he says his greatest fear is black, the absence of light, the absolute end to existence.
Despite his assistants protests to the contrary that black is just another color, a device for painters, Rothko is unpersuaded. He expounds on Matisse’s profound use of a tiny gash of black in his famous painting The Red Studio, in the mantle piece above the dresser. In a room completely consumed by red, Logan’s Rothko proclaims the black is necessary. It is terror and tragedy waiting to spread and no matter how much fullness of joy the red represents, the black, the tragedy must always be present. It is necessary, essential. Eventually, the black will consume the red and death comes.
Early in the play Rothko comments on the grandiosity of his paintings and the seriousness which must be brought to bear when experiencing them. He carefully directs his young apprentice to stand closer to the painting, but not too close! The audience found this amusing and on face value of course it seems absurd to demand such exactness in locating one’s work. But the play’s brilliance comes in bringing the audience into sympathy for Rothko, despite his rants, and megalomaniacal effusions. Despite Rothko’s anger and disputation with American culture, he is supremely American himself. He is profoundly precise and fully, almost ridiculously emotional. Therefore we can empathize with the character. Those are purely American traits that have both served our rise to supremacy and been our undoing as we have grown into empire. It is in capturing this tidbit of irony about Rothko where the play succeeds the most. Granting his and our shared need to live the American dream while also realizing its conceit and emptiness.
The play leaves you feeling a strong reverence for Rothko. You admire his poetic leanings, his robust thirst for knowledge and of course his deeply held emotion. The play makes it obvious why Rothko hated being called an Abstract Expressionist (which he was not) because he saw his task one of dispelling all personal expression in service to creating the dynamics for a fully immersive emotional experience on the part of the viewer. The content of a Rothko is our own. This is why reactions to his work are bipolar. The paintings can be dismissed as colorful, moody splashes of color or deep, penetrating zones of contemplation.
More than a biopic on Rothko himself, Red is centered on the conflicts that Modernism brought about and on our current relationship to art. The play begins with Rothko working on his commission to paint works for the newly built Seagram Building on Park Avenue in Manhattan. Situated inside the Seagram Building is a Philip Johnson designed Four Seasons restaurant and Rothko’s murals were to live there. They of course never did. Two years after he started them, Rothko ate dinner at the restaurant and promptly realized he was making a terrible mistake and pulled the commission. He returned the full $35,000, the largest commission ever paid to an artist at the time. This is the ripe center of the play. How have we reconciled, if we have at all, the majesty and utopian dreams brought forth by Modernism with our American desire for capital? Is the Seagram Building a monument to Modernism achievement, a temple of simplicity and elegance or a great black tombstone that says, “Here lies culture”? Certainly, Rothko came to believe it was the latter. However, many would argue that Rothko’s work itself is representative of death and an end. In fact the play dabbles with the use of red as a metaphor for blood, hinting at Rothko’s eventual suicide as well as the violence associated with the color itself. In the end of course, Pop Art won the day, and as Rothko rants in the play, “fine” wins. There are those that believe that Rothko’s realization of this Pop Art emergence in combination with his aneurism and subsequent impotence led to his demise, his suicide.
As a painter I celebrate any work of fiction that prompts an audience of 600 to applaud two people painting a blank canvas in solid red. That’s the art geek in me. Ultimately, Red leaves you contemplating those things at the core of being human, life, death and what’s it all about. It does this by drawing you into one of the most contentious, troubled and emotionally consumed figures of 20th century art — Mark Rothko. Rothko is the metaphor for our modern tensions. Reconciling our inner selves with the outer demands placed upon us.