Sunday, April 29, 2012

A Study in Red - Mark Rothko

John Logan, the screenwriter who gave us Hugo, Gladiator, the Aviator, was filming Sweeney Todd in London, and walked into the Tate Modern art museum and went to the room with the  Seagram Murals, painted by the artist, Mark Rothko.  John Logan reports he was profoundly moved by the paintings and found them "moving and kinetic in a strange way. I went to the wall and read a little description about how Rothko painted them originally for the Seagram Building and then decided to keep them and give the money back.  I thought this is an interesting story. So I decided that I would read a little more about it and the more I read, the more I thought that it was a play."

The play "Red", which is now playing at the Berkeley Rep Theater, begins in 1958 at Rothko's rented studio in New York, soon after the Seagram Beverage Company asked Rothko to paint a series of murals.  These murals were to go in the newly completed Seagram Building in Manhattan.  An elegant new restaurant, The Four Seasons, was to go on the first floor, and they wanted Rothko's paintings to decorate it.  Rothko readily agreed.  The commission fee was $35,000, which in today's money would be more like $2 million.  

Rothko rented a studio that closely matched the dimensions of the restaurant and set to work.  The play begins with two men in the studio; the artist and his assistant.  It is through their dialogue we get to know the artist, his thoughts, feelings, emotions, tirades, philosophy, and how he worked.  We hear the music of Mozart, Shubert, and Bach and how this background of sound packaged each separate brush stroke on the canvas.

Black on Maroon

Red on Maroon

Red on Maroon

Black on Maroon

Red on Maroon

Black on Maroon

Red on Maroon

Black on Maroon

Light Red Over Black

Rothko believed that art mattered and it should be a religious experience.  According to Berkeley Rep Magazine, "Rothko truly believed that art was important to the human spirit and he was rigorous about exploring those themes.  To create something that is profoundly simple and moving there is no clutter, there's nothing unnecessary.  They are pure and strong. He created art earnestly and completely with his heart and soul."

The end product of an artist's work sometimes feels like it is their child.  It is something they have created, sweated over, changed, groomed, nurtured.  It has often been a gut-wrenching emotional experience.  It is as if a part of their soul has been mixed with the paint and is now on display for the world to view, ignore, criticize, or embrace.  Needless to say, it is often difficult to release this child they have created and set it free into an unknown world.  

This story of Mark Rothko creating this huge murals specifically for an upscale restaurant, and then recognizing this was not where he wanted his children to live for eternity.  This restaurant, was not a sanctuary.  His art would just be decorations on the wall. He could not let his children live for eternity there. 

Rothko returned the commission.  Another abstract expressionist's art was displayed instead; Jackson Pollock.

"After completing the commission, with his health and personal life in shambles, Rothko committed suicide in his studio in 1970, the day several of his Seagram Murals arrived at the Tate Modern Museum in London." (Berkeley Rep Magazine)

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