Wyndham’s Theatre, 21st June 2018
The original production of John Logan’s play Red at the Donmar Warehouse in 2009 with Alfred Molina and Eddie Redmayne passed me by. More fool me. So I was looking forward to catching this revival directed by Michael Grandage, (who directed the original), with Alfred Enoch now playing fictional assistant Ken alongside Alfred Molina once again as Mark Rothko. It went directly to Broadway after the Donmar, and has popped up over 30 locations since, but this was the first revival in the UK.
Red isn’t a complicated set up. Ken pitches up to “interview” for the job. Rothko takes a shine to him. Their relationship develops. It is really just a device to explore the nature of art and artists in general, as well as specific, terms. Rothko wasn’t a jolly chap by all accounts but he thought long and hard, perhaps a little too long and hard, about what he did. The play focusses on the months in 1959 when Rothko had taken on the commission to create a series of panels, like a Renaissance great, to hang in the restaurant of the Four Season hotel in the Seagram building in New York, a commission he eventually refused to complete.
I have been fortunate/unfortunate enough to eat a couple of times in the restaurant. It is a cathedral to late C20 neo-liberal capitalism. It doesn’t need any paintings. It is certainly not a place for quiet contemplation. Apparently Rothko was partly inspired by the vestibule of Michelangelo’s Laurentian Library in Florence on a visit to Europe in 1959, another “f*ck you” little people, we’re the elite” OTT mausoleum. Apparently on an earlier trip in 1950 he was bowled over by Fra Angelico’s supreme frescoes at San Marco. I know which I prefer.
The set from Michael Grandage’s regular collaborator, Christopher Oram, complemented by the masterly lighting of Neil Austin, is a triumph. It imagines the studio in the Bowery where Rothko created the Seagram murals with representations of some of the 40 or so canvases/studies that Rothko created, three different series, in dark reds and browns, to meet the commission. We are afforded an insight into Rothko’s materials and (secret) process; in one marvellous scene we see real physicality as Molina and Enoch prepare a canvas with a wash. The activity provides a counterfoil to the initially one-sided, but increasingly argumentative, as Ken’s confidence grows, dialogue examining Rothko’s own frustrations with the Seagram commission itself and with the reaction of society to his own art.
Rothko was born Markus Yakovlevich Rothkowitz in 1903 in Latvia of Russian-jewish descent and came to America with his family in 1913. His father died shortly afterwards and Rothko questioned his religion. He was brought up in Portland, Oregon and initially set out to be a union organiser given his strong socialist beliefs. Fiercely intelligent, he gained a scholarship to Yale but dropped out, moved to New York and became an artist and enrolled at a design school where he was taught by Arshile Gorky and Max Weber. Initially he was influenced by German Expressionism, turning out some well regarded early work, though needing to teach at the Brooklyn Jewish to supplement his income. In the early 1930’s he entered a circle of artists, (including Alfred Gottlieb and Barnett Newman), who surrounded Milton Avery and took trips to paint in Massachusetts. In 1934 he had his first solo show which revealed his skill with deep colour, founded a movement called The Ten, exhibited in Paris and New York and worked with the Works Progress Administration alongside the likes of Pollock and de Kooning.
Rothko’s singular way with colour was emerging in his figurative work but he also experimented with surrealism and paintings drawn from mythology. The influence of Europe was still strong even as the modernists in the US took aim against the specifically “American” art of the inter war years. He separated from wife Edith for a short period in 1937 and took up US citizenship in 1938 and changed his name, fearing the wave of anti semitism might lead to deportation.
Rothko’s tireless search for an intellectual, cultural and philosophical framework for his art eventually led him to that other tormented soul Nietzsche, notably the Birth of Tragedy, which spurred a series of works drawn from Classical and Judaeo-Christian mythology. Following a less than successful exhibition at Macy’s department store in 1942 Rothko penned the following which about sums up the direction he was about to take. “We favor the simple expression of the complex thought. We are for the large shape because it has the impact of the unequivocal. We wish to reassert the picture plane. We are for flat forms because they destroy illusion and reveal truth.”
After separating from his wife again and a period of depression Rothko went to California and struck up a friendship with Clyfford Still who would become a clear influence on his work. I have a deep suspicion of much US Abstract Expressionism but Clyfford Still’s monumental slabs of bright colour, punctuated by jagged lines, and drawn from the landscape of his native North Dakota, are arresting and extremely beautiful. A return to New York, and another not entirely successful exhibition at the Guggenheim, saw Rothko move closer to pure abstraction which properly appeared from 1946 in the so called “multiform” paintings; blocks of colour devoid of human form, landscape or symbol. More essays, an obsession with Henri Matisse’s Red Studio and finally, in 1949, an exhibition of works which defined the Rothko style from there on in, and now a cornerstone of modern Western art. The two or three blocks of complementary, coalescing, contrasting colours flickering and shifting with the light, though initially the tones were often quite bright; greens, blues alongside yellows and oranges.
Rothko’s popularity, and the value of his work, spiralled but he became increasingly protective of his art, and one might argue, overly grandiose in his claims for it. He asked viewers to examine the works from up close to intensify the “spiritual experience”. The colours got darker maybe mirroring the increasing darkness in the artist’s own pysche Cliche or not Rothko certainly walked the talk of the tortured artist, as did Pollock in his own way. His politics left him uneasy with the trappings of commercial success (Fortune magazine singled out his work for “investment), though he still reportedly liked the money. He got lumped in with his Abstract Expressionist peers, much to his chagrin, fell out with Barnett Newman and Clyfford Still, who accused him of being a sell out, went through loads of assistants and became a father with second wife Mell. As his fame grew so did his alienation. Here was an artist who might have been happier to work in cloistered obscurity. Or would he?
That is were Red the play picks up the story. Now if I tell you that vast swathes of the potted bio above are referenced in the play, largely by Rothko himself, you will probably realise that you are in for a bit of a lecture here. However, by having Rothko pour it all out to Ken, himself an aspiring artist, though he never plucks up the courage to show his work to Rothko, it doesn’t feel ponderously didactic. It probably helps if you have a rough idea of what Rothko was about, and a smattering of art history, but it is by no means essential. the play stands as terrific entertainment even without that.
Which frankly in large part is down to Alfred Molina’s amazing performance. He just is Mark Rothko. I say this secure in the knowledge that I have no idea what Mr Rothko was like but, thanks to the illusion of theatre, I, and I would be willing to guess all the audiences that have seen this, believe that this is Rothko. Which means all of the references to his own life and art, to the history of art and to the relationship between art, society and economy, fall naturally out of the discussions with Ken. Above all you accept that MR didn’t go in for small talk, (which reminds me there is no little humour on show to leaven proceedings), and, for all his intellectual certainty there was something something lacking emotionally. in the man. An intellectual prize fighter, spoiling for a fight, but desperate for attention. Apollo and Dionysius. Which explains why he lets Ken stick around for a bit.
Rothko went on to even greater fame after pulling the plug on the Seagram murals, (some of which now hang in the special room at the centre of Tate Modern). Other mural projects followed culminating in the slightly preposterous conceit of the Rothko Chapel in Texas. However he was overtaken by Pop Art in the 1960’s, a movement he despised, but which is, in the play, championed by Ken.
A heart condition, fags, booze, bad diet, separation from second wife, smaller paintings and a Marat style suicide and an argument over his estate. There is probably another play here. 836 paintings, spread around public and private collections, including in his Latvian birthplace, books, posters, postcards, snapchats, there are few artists whose work is so well known. I always want to sneer and walk away whenever I see a late Rothko, (I haven’t seen enough of his earlier incarnations to make a judgment), but I never can. They cast a spell and, cliche alert again, invite contemplation. Such is the power of colour, paint, form and tone and Rothko’s special technique.
The play lasts just 90 minutes yet the Wyndham’s and MGC folk are asking you to shelve out full West End prices. Is this good value? I’ll leave you to decide but it is a superb play and better than most anything else in the West End right now. A Russian oligarch paid near US$ 200m for a 1951 Rothko painting a few years back. Presumably he thought he got value for money. Mind you he is the same fellow he recently sold the ropey Leonardo for US$ 450m and appears to have been conned by his dealer. Look him up. Quite a character.