|Mark Rothko, 1963.|
Told through a series of conversations between the artist and his new assistant, Ken, the play exposes how one of the greatest painters of the 20th century approached the act of painting and how he felt about art, consumerism, destiny, humanity and the march of time.
More broadly, though, the play offers historical insights into the types and scope of midcentury art world tensions. Possibly taking inspiration from Rothko’s canvases themselves, with their forms that seem to hover in a palpable tension to each other, the themes of the play uncover key conflicts.
The play makes it clear that the battle between the two heavyweights of post-war painting in America—Jackson Pollock and Rothko—was of concern to Rothko. The pull between the emotion of Pollock’s mature, all-over canvases filled with poured and splattered paint and the reason championed by Rothko’s cool detachment from the gestural act of painting establishes the two poles of expression for artists in the immediate post-war period. This tension is continued by the gap between Abstract Expressionism (as practiced by Pollock and Rothko) and the Pop Art movement that followed. The conversation between the older Rothko and his young assistant codifies this generational divide. At the play’s end, the two artists are left to their respective generations.
Outside of the particulars of New York City’s mid-century art world, the play extends its consideration to more universal clashes. Rothko wrestles repeatedly with the appropriateness of the decision to even undertake the commission, for it represented an unholy alliance with the very class of individuals the artist disdained. Early on, Rothko expresses his distaste for how successful Pollock had become by the time of his death, even going so far as to suggest that Pollock’s fatal car accident (in his Oldsmobile convertible) was an act of suicide. By the end of the play, Rothko must wrestle with the potential consequences of his own success. In Scene 4, Ken admonishes Rothko to “just admit your hypocrisy: The High Priest of Modern Art is painting a wall in the Temple of Consumption. You rail against commercialism in art, but pal, you’re taking the money.”
For Rothko, the commission might have provided him, in the words of playwright John Logan, “A place where the viewer could live in contemplation with the work and give it some of the same attention and care I gave it. Like a chapel … A place of communion.” In the end, Rothko’s decision makes it clear that he is unable to ensure the works have a proper place in the world.*
He was not equipped, either in real life or within the world of the play, to fulfill the terms of the commission. Yes, he could complete the paintings; and he did complete the works. That is assured.
In the end, though, it became to Rothko a wholly different endeavor. Ultimately, he could not control the paintings’ place in the world. Again, in the language of the play, Rothko came to regard the restaurant as the “place where the richest bastards in New York will come to feed and show off.”
(*A final chance to ensure his works had the proper place was realized in the 1964 commission by Dominique and John de Menil’s for the Rothko Chapel in Houston. It was here that the artist could be assured that his works would find their true place. The Chapel opened to the public in 1971. Unfortunately and in a sad twist of fate, Rothko never lived to see the works installed as he took his own life in 1970.)
Learn more and buy tickets.