Smoke and mirrors: 'Red' and Mark Rothko

October 11, 2011

Jonathan Abarbanel brings us Part One of a two-part series on the first play of the Goodman Theatre's 2011-12 season, Red. Abarbanel delves into a fundamental question in John Logan's acclaimed play that's essential not just to visual art but to understanding the theater as well.

"What do you see?" painter Mark Rothko asks his new, young assistant. They are the first words in John Logan's wonderful play, Red, at  the Goodman Theatre, and they also are the final words but one spoken in the play as Rothko and his assistant part ways after two years together.

Combined with "what do you feel?" it is the fundamental inquiry--the ONLY fundamental inquiry--one can make about the experience of visual art. To ask "What does it mean?"--which we critic types do a  lot--is an intellectual overlay, and not a visceral, primordial question.

Visual art includes theater, of course, even though theater also is literary and sometimes musical, which means that other parameters of judgment and measurement may apply. But in the broadest sense, theater is about seeing. The word theater comes from the Greek meaning "seeing place." We say, "I saw a show last night." We  don't say "I heard a show last night."

The question John Logan has Mark Rothko pose is essential to why I have devoted my life to theater, and much of my professional life to expounding upon theater, whether wisely or not. "What do you see?" is the question I need to ask myself, and answer, every time I sit in the dark and even more so every time I put my thoughts in front of the public.

When I first saw Red in New York in late March, 2010, I knew who Mark Rothko was, but I'd never seen any of his paintings in person. Since then, I've seen Rothko paintings up close and personal in museums in Paris, London and the United States, and I've formulated my own answer to Logan-cum-Rothko's question: "I see smoke."

The shapes of Rothko's paintings are square or rectangular as are the vast majority of paintings (why is that?), and within those similar and familiar frames he created a further series of, basically, oblong and rectangular shapes. Some even may call them color bars, although I believe that's a serious and flawed diminishment of his work. I prefer to call them smoke.

The textures of his black, brownish and red/reddish shapes are opaque like smoke, not solid. His colors are mottled, here deeper and there more pale or, seemingly, translucent like smoke. The textures and shapes-within-his-shapes change and shift as you move in front of his paintings, with light and shadow playing across them. Even the borders of his shapes are soft and smoky, ill-defined and fading into one another.

We think of smoke chiefly as white or sometimes black, depending on what is burning, but smoke can take on the colors of the light bouncing off of it or shining through it, green or yellow or orange or red. And so, if Rothko asked me what I saw in his works, I would say "I see smoke."

I have no doubt that the Rothko of Logan's play would have been as argumentative, dismissive and dissatisfied with my reply as he is with the answer his assistant gives him, and as challenging, too; for Logan uses the opening gambit to begin a profound dialogue and character examination, not to make a definitive argument about art.

Logan shows us, perhaps, the smoke and mirrors of art and of artists, and of abstract artists in particular. Representational art--a still life or a portrait or a seascape--may be well executed or not, but there's no question about what it is, about what you see. Abstract art, however, is entirely a matter of taste or even of faith, once you move beyond a certain standard of technical execution.

That taste and faith apply to the artist as well.

Rothko was, by all accounts, a thorny, self-absorbed and competitive individual, perhaps insecure in his own talent or in pursuit of his own ideas and images.

In Logan's play, he gives grudging but passionate respect to Picasso, who may be a good contrasting figure among Rothko's contemporaries. Similarly competitive and ego-centric, Picasso also was congenial and supremely confident in his own gifts and vision. No smoke in Picasso or his work, but, then, he wasn't an abstract artist, either.

As directed by Robert Falls at the Goodman Theatre, Red revels in Logan's gifts for crisp, smart language and sharp intellect, and yet it's far more than a play of talk; there's a lot of action and important (albeit secondary) musical elements.

With the exceptional talents of Edward Gero as Rothko and Patrick Andrews as his assistant (who's name is Ken, although neither character ever once uses the other's name), the Goodman production is remarkably different from the Broadway production (which played in London first) featuring British actors Alfred Molina as Rothko and Eddie Redmayne as Ken.

Molina's Rothko was downright ferocious while Gero is more introspective and frequently avuncular or even sentimental (especially in the closing moments). Andrews is far more definitively American than Redmayne, down to his period-perfect (1958) dungarees.

To say this Chicago production is a kinder, gentler Red is not meant to diminish it in the least from the Broadway version but only to differentiate it. It’s every bit as good in different ways, and some may think it’s better.

One of the wonders of theater is how the same words on a page, the same actions described, the same characters portrayed, can be so different in the hands of different artists. It is, after all, what you see, and this Red makes palpable the ache of the artist and the diaphanous smoke of art.

Red continues at the Goodman Theatre through Oct. 30.