Whether or not the actual Mark Rothko was as irascible and violent-tempered as playwright John Logan depicts him in Red, the 1950s American art scene did feel his impact. So will those attending the powerful production at the Gamm Theatre, through December 16.
An emotionally volatile Rothko, portrayed by Fred Sullivan, Jr. and directed by Tony Estrella, pontificates lovingly about art as energetically as he fulminates about galleries allowing his inferiors to share walls with his works. Audience members will leave the theater glowing, their notions about art illuminated by this theatrical TED talk.
Often grouped with the Abstract Expressionists, Rothko wasn't one to burst forth with their bold, gestural swaths. Really a more subtle color field painter, in his influential period he created hovering rectangles that drew in viewers, paintings both meditatively still and mysteriously dynamic. "They ebb, they flow, they shift," as the artist describes them here. To what purpose? As the Gamm program cover quotes him from the play: "I am here to stop your heart. I am here to make you think. I am not here to make pretty pictures."
We see him here in 1958 and 1959, at the peak of his career, when he was painting a series for the Seagram Building in Manhattan that would be visible from the posh Four Seasons restaurant. Since it wouldn't do to have him talk to himself for 90 minutes, he and we are provided with a listener to engage him on our behalf. In this presentation, Rothko is not accompanied by the wife and child he had at the time but rather an admiring studio assistant named Ken (Marc Dante Mancini), a painter himself.
Although Rothko insists that the young man is wasting his time if he expects a mentor instead of a gruff employer, playwright Logan has the master dropping aperçus and insights like bread crumbs on the way to fuller understanding of his work. "These pictures deserve compassion," the elder artist insists. "They exist only in the eyes of the empathetic viewer."
The most impressive teachable moment taken up by Rothko, despite his ostensible disdain for instructing, is when his assistant suggests adding red pigment to a paint bucket. Rothko explodes, shouting that there are too many shades to just say "red." There is the red of rust, there is the red of arterial blood, and that of an "atomic flash," he specifies in a lengthy enumeration that is one of Sullivan's best moments, supplying earnest concern and not just temper. At another point, Rothko claims that Matisse's red room painting ("The Red Room: Harmony in Red") is the source of all his own paintings.
This little slice of Rothko's career isn't presented in a context vacuum. We don't come to understand why he dropped Surrealism, but we do share his glee at such departures as "destroying" Cubism: "We stomped it to death!" Nevertheless, he thanks Picasso "for teaching me movement is everything."
But perhaps our greatest insight into understanding Rothko is when he observes that in his work, "There is tragedy in every brushstroke." After all, visual artists aren't the only ones to consider their efforts momentary stays against confusion (and inevitable demise). As this artist puts it: "One day, the black will swallow the red."