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Red Painting

Heralding a Fate, 2010, oil on canvas, 36 x 36, private collection

Red.  The color of February.  The color of anger, love, energy, danger.  I infrequently paint with red, but as I did here, with the burnt umber and asphaltum, the result was something people remember.  Bold, yet minimalist, I think it carries in it all the polarities of the color itself–

Rothko used a lot of red/maroons in his Four Seasons paintings which are now permanently installed at the Tate Modern in London. Here from the NYTimes (April 2011) a review of the play Red.

Red, John Logan’s two-man bio-drama about Mark Rothko and his studio assistant.

“What do you see?” he asks in the play’s first line, with an urgency that is part hope and part despair, with despair in the ascendant. By this time we have looked into his eyes. What we see, above all, is an artist seeing, and it’s impossible not to feel thrilled by the privilege. “Red,” which arrives as fresh, yes, as paint from its recent premiere at the Donmar Warehouse in London, initially registers as a visceral exercise in art appreciation. Fortunately though, it turns out to be more a study in artist appreciation, a portrait of an angry and brilliant mind that asks you to feel the shape and texture of thoughts. Set in a New York studio on the Bowery in the late 1950s, the play follows the initiation of Ken (the excellent Eddie Redmayne), a newly hired assistant, into the uncompromising aesthetic of Rothko (1903-1970), who at that time was working on a commissioned series of paintings for the new Four Seasons restaurant. Rothko was known to be a man of fierce opinions and didactic conversation, attributes that Mr. Logan latches onto gratefully and fruitfully. Much of “Red,” directed by Michael Grandage, unfolds as a combative Socratic dialogue between teacher and pupil, a master class of questions and answers about the methods and purpose of Rothko’s art. “I am not your teacher,” Rothko says, shortly after meeting Ken. But he sure sounds like it. Rothko, you see, wants to be understood. And that requires understanding the whole history of Western painting, and Nietzsche and Freud and Jung and Shakespeare, to cite just a few of the cultural names that are not so much dropped as flung here. Ken, a fast learner, is soon giving as good as he gets. Sessions in the studio become heated debates on the Apollonian and Dionysian impulses in Rothko’s painting, per Nietzsche’s “Birth of Tragedy.” This may suggest an all-too-familiar Broadway recipe for flattering middlebrows into feeling highbrow, allowing audience members to signal their sophistication with knowing laughs at intellectual references. Mr. Logan, whose previous work includes the drama “Never the Sinner” and the screenplays for “Gladiator” and “The Aviator,” doesn’t entirely avoid the expected conventions of fictional works about real (and usually anguished) artists, an often embarrassing genre. But as much as any stage work I can think of, “Red” captures the dynamic relationship between an artist and his creations. (Only the Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine musical “Sunday in the Park With George” comes to mind as being similarly successful.) It’s one thing to say — or to have a character say — that an artist regards his paintings as his children. But it’s another to be able to look at that artist looking at his paintings, as Mr. Molina’s Rothko does, with a fraught, fatherly anxiety and wonder. These feelings are not only parental. An obsessive lover’s possessiveness and perplexity glitter in this Rothko’s eyes like a fever as he runs a tentative, caressing hand over a canvas or looks out at the (unseen) painting on the fourth wall between the stage and the audience. His own work — which is exquisitely presented in facsimile by the designers Christopher Oram (set) and Neil Austin (lighting) in ways that reflect Rothko’s own conscientious theatricality — seems truly to speak to him. Watch him look up, abruptly and wounded, as if one of his paintings has just called to him and is not necessarily saying what he wants to hear. That’s the primary relationship in “Red.” But there’s another one too, of course, one that allows it to exist as a proper play, with dialogue and confrontation and resolution. I mean the relationship between Rothko and his protégé, though Ken might argue that Rothko is too much a monomaniac to sustain such a human bond. Mr. Logan presents the younger man as the voice of both a puritanical conscience and a new generation of artists that threaten Rothko’s rule. Ken is there to challenge his employer’s dismissal of the likes of Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg and Andy Warhol (all of whom Rothko says lack depth and substance), and to plant doubts about the appropriateness of hanging contemplative paintings in a temple of consumption like the Four Seasons. So there are assorted, distinctly Oedipal clashes between the two men, played for all-out dramatic fierceness, and a gloriously frenzied, feral canvas-priming scene (staged to a swelling Gluck aria). Mr. Grandage (“Frost/Nixon,” the Jude Law “Hamlet”) is a canny craftsman of the theater, and he makes sure that the play’s intellectual arguments are sensually grounded. Each character is given to pointing out the reductive sentimentality and banality in the arguments of the other, which conveniently allows Mr. Logan to stave off criticisms of being clichéd himself. The play also saddles Ken with some cumbersome dramatic luggage, including the obligatory Secret From His Past and a concluding scene that rounds off things a little too resonantly and expectedly. Mr. Redmayne, who last month won the Olivier Award (the British version of the Tony) for his performance, keeps his character from ever seeming like a mere device. His Ken has a spine and a mind of his own, and you can feel both growing stronger throughout the play. That he is able to hold his own against Mr. Molina’s Rothko is no mean achievement. In his strongest Broadway performance to date, the dauntless Mr. Molina embraces the artist’s egotism unconditionally, and he makes us feel the necessity of an overweening, humorless vanity and — to use a word that for Rothko denotes a cardinal virtue — seriousness. It’s risky these days to play someone who speaks in grand statements and capital letters about Art and Immortality. We’ve become accustomed to the safe distance of winking quotation marks. But when this Rothko says there is “tragedy in every brush stroke” of his work, we believe him. The fear and hubris that never leave his eyes as he looks at his big but so vulnerable paintings guarantees that.

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