|Paul David Story and Mark Harelik in Red.|
Still, Red is not a portrait of a tormented artist disintegrating under the corrosive force of his own misunderstood genius (think, the Hollywood version of the Van Gogh story). It’s true, Rothko has his demons, and he will eventually take his own life, but that won’t happen until ten years after the end of Red. The two-year period in which Logan’s play takes place, 1958-59, is actually the time when Rothko experienced his ascendancy as one of the leading artists of the 20th century.
As the play begins, he has been given a commission—a sizable one —to paint a series of murals that will hang in the newly erected Seagram Building, itself a masterpiece of mid-century American architecture. Rothko should need no further proof that, after 30 years of professional striving and frustration, he has finally arrived. The commission might have gone to any of a number of other, arguably more prominent abstract expressionist artists. But the renowned architect Philip Johnson has come to him, and the honor means as much if not more to Rothko than the money.
And yet … (There must be an “and yet,” or there would be no drama.)
And yet, his success feels terribly fragile. He remains convinced that people don’t understand his work, even if they’re willing to pay top dollar for it. He distrusts the very idea of the artist as celebrity, of art as commodity—but he can’t help feeling perturbed that other artists are more famous, that their work hangs in the best galleries and museums while his does not, that a has-been like Picasso can make a fortune selling misshapen pots and doodles on napkins, while at the same time a new generation of artists breathes down Rothko’s neck, rejecting the tenets of abstract expressionism and looking to replace it with a kind of self-aware, ironic “pop art” that Rothko finds altogether execrable. And the work of those unworthy upstarts—Warhol, Lichtenstein, Rauschenberg, et al.—is hanging in the same galleries that previously exhibited Rothko’s paintings.
So yes, this lucrative commission offers a kind of validation and vindication.
And yet … how can he take the money without feeling that he has sold out to the very anti-artistic forces that he has long vilified? Part of the problem is that the murals are destined to hang not in some grand foyer or dedicated gallery space, but on the walls of the Seagram’s Four Seasons restaurant, a “Temple of Consumption” in the words of Rothko’s assistant, Ken. Rothko has decided that this improbable setting will provide him with an opportunity to confront and provoke the richest, most powerful members of society with his work. A leftist since becoming politicized during the Depression, Rothko enthusiastically embraces the subversive possibilities of this commission.
And yet … “Selling a picture is like sending a blind child into a room full of razor blades,” he tells Ken. And he means it. Although Rothko has a flesh-and-blood daughter (and will soon have a son), he thinks of his paintings as his progeny, to be protected at all costs from unfriendly eyes, uncomprehending hearts and the maws of unscrupulous predators. So how can he consider letting them hang amidst the ravening and maneuvering and dinner-table palavering of New York’s power elite?
That’s what so perplexes and frustrates the young assistant, Ken. An aspiring artist himself, he signed on for this job because of a true admiration for Rothko and his work. Ken has lived his own story of pain and hardship at an early age, which makes it possible for him to understand in a deep way Rothko’s insistence that art must spring from a tragic impulse, that there must be “tragedy in every brushstroke.” Although Rothko insisted when hiring Ken that he had no intention of serving as his mentor, his rabbi, his father-figure or his therapist, he eventually becomes all of those to some degree. The more time Ken spends in the studio, listening to Rothko, working with Rothko, communing with Rothko, the more Ken’s admiration deepens.
And yet …
Although Red uses art—and the psyche of the artist—as its specific dramatic material, its human concerns are more universal than that. The goings-on in Rothko’s studio, the day-to-day business of a working artist, are fascinating (and in one instance, even thrilling), but they are only the surface layer of Logan’s story of two men grappling with the conundrum of life from two very different perspectives. Ken is just starting out as an artist and a man; Rothko is very near the pinnacle of achievement, a vantage-point from which one inevitably begins to consider the possibility of decline and loss. Ken needs to understand; Rothko needs to be understood. Ken still sees life as a process of addition; Rothko understands that it is inescapably a process of gradual subtraction and simplification (a process that has also informed the development of his art). Ken is young and hungry; Rothko is getting old … but he’s still hungry. Red is about the synergy that arises between them as they pursue a common goal and discover their connection.
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