Where's the reality of Rothko in 'Red'?

October 12, 2011

Recently, WBEZ producers Kate Dries and Robin Amer took in the Goodman Theatre’s production of John Logan’s acclaimed play, Red, based on the real-life commission abstract expressionist painter Mark Rothko received in 1958 to create a series of murals for the Four Seasons restaurant in New York’s Seagram Building.

The play centers on two characters, Rothko and a fictional assistant named Ken, and it takes place entirely inside Rothko’s studio. As such, the play offers a rare glimpse of an artist at work inside his studio space.

But is it an accurate glimpse? We asked Kate and Robin to take a look at the Goodman’s staging of Red, to see how reality meets fantasy, and how close this production comes to getting “the art part” right.

DRIES: The studio where all of the action in Red takes place is similar to Rothko’s in that it’s supposed to look like an old gymnasium. But according to our conversation with Set Designer Todd Rosenthal, they wanted to spice it up a little, which means things were added, like the interesting windowed section to the left of the stage that is supposed to resemble an old office. But still, it’s a slightly glorified, very accurate artist's studio.

AMER: I loved the set. I liked that it was highly realistic and very detailed. The walls were grimy, the shelves were cluttered, and there were dirty dishes in the sink. Only the floor was conspicuously clean, especially for a painter’s studio! (Although they did show the assistant mopping up at one point.) The reproductions of the paintings, however...

DRIES: I think that you and I both struggled with whether knowing these paintings are fakes distracts from the work, and that’s actually something I’m still thinking about. I’m not sure.

Smoke and mirrors: 'Red' and Mark Rothko

John Logan's acclaimed play 'Red' is essential not just to visual art but to understanding the theater as well. By Jonathan Abarbanel

AMER: Rosenthal told us that the reproductions used in the show were copies of Rothko’s actual Four Seasons paintings, and were created by the production staff. He acknowledged that it would be very difficult to capture the luminescence of actual Rothko paintings. Rothko used so many translucent layers of paint that his paintings really do glow. To recreate them as theater props would be extremely time consuming. Unfortunately, the paintings used onstage read as static objects, kind of dull and lifeless, not these living, breathing things referred to in the text. The paintings on stage don’t do what the characters are asking of them. I stopped counting the number of times they claimed the paintings “pulsated.” These reproductions did no such thing, nor did they “glow,” “vibrate,” etc.

DRIES: Agreed -- The actual glowing painting used at the conclusion was perhaps one of the few transcendent moments in the play.

AMER: Yes, for me that was the one exception. That final reproduction was front lit with a spotlight covered in a red gel, according to Rosenthal. The painting did literally glow in a way the others had not - and it came to life in a way I realized I had been missing. In this case they used the elements of theater at their disposal to say something about the life of the images/paintings rather than treat them as objects.

When it came depicting the act of making these paintings on the stage, the Goodman had its work cut out for them. Painting can be toxic, messy, and labor intensive. The process involves grunt work that’s boring to watch. That said, I think they transposed the act of painting to the stage with mixed success. (Although they certainly did it better than the production I saw years ago of Sunday in the Park With George, the dopey Sondheim musical about the creation of Seurat's pointillist masterpiece on display at the Art Institute, "A Sunday on la Grande Jatte.")

DRIES: The curious part of me wants accuracy, but the person who knows "what good theater is" is reminded that this isn't a PBS documentary, and we don’t need to see Rothko painting the way he did back in the day. I keep thinking of an artist like Pollock, who’s physicality while working was so famous, accuracy was required, and definitely delivered, in a movie like Pollock.

AMER: Yeah, same for me. As someone who has painted for a long time it was interesting to see what they got right - and what they didn’t. I tried not to be distracted by it but I think you saw me squirm in my seat a few times! I enjoyed watching the depiction of the way they would mix various pigments to achieve the perfect shade of red, but when the assistant is shown stretching a canvas he does it incorrectly, in a way that would result in the canvas puckering and bunching. Also, most of their action is unexplained. At one point they drop an egg into the paint mixture: It’s perhaps an old egg tempera technique, but I wondered what that would look like to the untrained eye.

DRIES: One thing I’ll say is that it felt like they could have been more physical with the artwork, and that the standing around and talking sometimes would have felt more natural if they've actually done some of the techniques of his work more extensively.

AMER: Yes, they show very little actual painting on stage, and very little action. The exception is the scene where they are shown vigorously applying a base-coat of dark red paint. It was a rare moment of physical action in an otherwise kind of low-action play. It stands out, but it was very exaggerated, very “staged” if you will, and felt more like it was played for comedy.

DRIES: And so, like arguably most modern theater, Red takes liberties with its subject and the representation. But it begs the question: How helpful is it for the viewer? In this case, we do know that Rothko was commissioned by the Seagram Company to create a series of murals for the Four Seasons restaurant in New York. And we know that Rothko did the paintings, but eventually returned the money, apparently after a crisis of consciousness. But there’s actually little historical research into what went through Rothko’s mind while this was happening, and why he had the change of heart. That, however, is the entire basis of Logan’s play. And throughout Red, Logan crafts a wide-ranging philosophical and emotional dialogue between Rothko and the fictional studio assistant named Ken. It’s a neat trick, but is it even Rothko's story once all is said and done? Throughout the play, I wondered why the unsettled feeling I had was similar to the one I get when watching a biopic like The Fighter or Ray, where the intro titles read "based on a true story".

AMER: Yeah, I think the reason this “historical fiction” techniq ue worked for me is because it’s used to explore these issues of art and commerce. The play is set in the historical moment when abstract expressionism is about to be overtaken by Pop Art as the dominant visual art culture. Artists like Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein are very consciously and purposely using corporate imagery and mass-production techniques in a fine-art context, blurring the lines between art and commerce, and one main question raised by the play, which is very much debated in real life, is: Is art corrupted when it’s sold, purchased or otherwise monetized? Can money corrupt not just the art, but the artist? In the play Rothko’s character argues, yes, and says that the tragedy of Pollock’s life was his success and the money that came with it (referred to in shorthand by Pollock’s fancy car, in which he ultimately died). The assistant character agrees that money is a corrupting influence, and later argues that Rothko is hypocritical for accepting the Philip Johnson commission. They debate whether hanging the paintings in a ritzy restaurant corrupts or poisons the work in a way that having the paintings on display in a “pure” setting, like a chapel, doesn’t. By the end of the play, Rothko comes to agree with this perspective by rejecting the commission. This theme also ties to the relatively modern notion that artists must sacrifice material wealth and comfort in order to make great work. This wasn’t necessarily the case say, during the Renaissance, when great artists had wealthy patrons or worked out of the court.

DRIES: Yes, and above all, it's when Rothko and Ken are debating the politics of the art world that I felt the most deeply immersed in the play - and the production rang the most "true" to me.  We've clearly both kept thinking about Red in the days since seeing it and, in the end, that might be the ultimate testament to its artistic power.

Red continues at the Goodman Theatre through Oct. 30.