Painter Mark Rothko made headlines in October, after a vandal defaced his 1958 painting Black on Maroon at London’s Tate Modern. Were he still alive to hear of it, the great abstract expressionist painter no doubt would consider such a crime deplorable. But, as playwright John Logan depicts his character in Red, Mark Rothko – while likely to condemn this particular response – also might have appreciated the fact that his work continues to elicit strong reactions.
Black on Maroon had a dramatic history long before October’s incident of vandalism and Logan’s 2009, Tony Award-winning play shone light on it. As part of the famous Seagram mural set, it was originally designed for the Four Seasons Restaurant in New York City. Rothko accepted the handsome commission from the Seagram Co. in ‘58. Then he changed his mind, returned the cash advance and decided to keep the paintings himself for a decade. He never had a chance to see nine of them hang in positions of prominence at the Tate Modern. Word of his suicide reportedly reached the gallery the same day his murals arrived in 1970.
John Logan’s Red takes place in Rothko’s New York studio from ‘58–‘59, imagining the period when the artist created the Seagram murals. In Logan’s retelling, an aging Rothko regales his young assistant Ken with passionate theories on art and philosophy. He rails against the Pop Art movement and the seemingly superficial tastes of modern society. He waxes romantic about the past and expresses grand hopes for his legacy. He’s unintentionally funny, unbearably arrogant and deeply sympathetic, all at once. Ken the assistant, though awed by Rothko’s talent and success, eventually summons the nerve to call him on his B.S. and give him fresh perspective.
PM recently attended a rehearsal of Red at the Gamm Theatre, where the RI premiere opens November 8 and runs through December 16.
With artistic director Tony Estrella at the helm and actors Fred Sullivan, Jr. and Marc Dante Mancini in the roles of Rothko and Ken, respectively, the production promises to be powerful. At a rectangular table, the two actors, their director, and a few of the crew sat discussing everything from emotional undercurrents to paint recipes (the script calls for raw eggs – but is that wise?). Estrella and Sullivan stuck around afterwards to share their own impressions of the play.
“It’s a play about seriousness, about taking yourself and your art seriously. Art can play a serious role in our lives,” Estrella explains. “Somehow in the last generation or two, we have succeeded in minimalizing art’s role and conflating it purely with entertainment.” Rothko fiercely believed in the significance of art, in its potential to evoke emotion and inspire new views of the world and our own internal workings.
“He’s fascinating because he’s so pure and serious of intent,” Sullivan notes of Rothko. “He’s so complicated and so human, and therefore it’s a real challenge to be him for five scenes and ninety minutes. Because he demands, and his character demands, every note you can play on your instrument. It’s incredibly personal and titanic in scope, the way he feels about things and the way he expresses himself.”
Sullivan admires how deftly playwright Logan encourages viewers to meet art halfway, to be open to it, to “let it wrap its arms around you.” Through Logan’s characterization of Rothko, Sullivan finds that he is “begging an audience to be generous, and to look at what people sometimes dismiss as fuzzy rectangles that their kids could paint as something else. As an attempt to do the impossible, to paint emotion.”
Red marks Estrella’s first time directing Sullivan in a show, though these veteran theater artists have collaborated for years. Both fell in love with the play upon reading it and, after Estrella secured the rights, dove headfirst into research, learning more about Rothko’s life, visiting museums to see more of his work and developing deeper appreciation for his genius. Estrella recalled a visceral reaction upon viewing the Seagram murals for the first time in 2005. Reading Logan’s play years later helped, he notes, to “really define and articulate what that response was and why I had it.”
Estrella revisited Black on Maroon and the other Seagram murals at the Tate Modern last month, in the course of his Red research. He happened to be there the very day before the vandalism. Hearing what transpired made him further consider art’s value, and its destruction. It became part of his ongoing discourse with Sullivan – What is art? Why do we do it? Why do we need it? Talking about art, of course, is an enjoyable pastime for many artists, Sullivan and Estrella among them. That’s part of their affinity for Red. As Estrella says of art, “For those of us who feel that the world cannot do without it, we are often pressed to say why. And I think this play makes a great argument for that.”