What Do You See?

Photo: Hans Namuth/National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution/Art Resource, NY

John Logan’s Red, set in 1958–1960 New York, cuts a window into the working life of Abstract Expressionist Mark Rothko as he embarks on a high-profile commission that will challenge his vision of what it means to be a working artist: a series of murals for The Four Seasons restaurant in the new Seagram Building on Park Avenue. Alfred Molina plays Rothko; Eddie Redmayne is Ken, Rothko’s just-hired assistant. Theater critic Stephanie Zacharek and art critic Jerry Saltz discuss the play, and wrestle with the question of what it meant to be Rothko.

Stephanie Zacharek: I confess my heart sank in the early moments of Red: Is there anything more dreadful than listening to an artist gas on about his work? Here we have Molina’s Rothko explaining to his new assistant, “Most of painting is thinking … Ten percent is putting paint onto the canvas. The rest is waiting.” It’s a snappy, perceptive line, but I began to fear this was going to be a play about ideas, as opposed to ideas emerging from the action, from characterization. Of course, that’s just how I felt at the beginning.

Jerry Saltz: OMG! I was squirming when Rothko ponderously asks Ken, “What do you see?” And when Molina is pacing and mumbling, “Rothko, Rembrandt. Rembrandt, Rothko,” I almost lost it. Except, Rothko really talked this way! Art critic Clement Greenberg, who loved Rothko’s work, called him “pompous” and said, “I hate to use the word hysterical, but … ” I guess Rothko’s zhlubby looks, his dark paintings, terrible depression, and suicide make one surprised that he wasn’t a moody slug. He was super-articulate, funny, and, according to Elaine de Kooning, “flirtatious”—although “the kind of flirtation that’s not intended to lead anywhere.”

Zacharek: The show does hint at Rothko’s strangely alluring qualities. I kept wishing he’d shut up, then I’d rush to write down one of his bodacious kernels of windbaggery, realizing that he was getting at elusive notions about art and work in a strangely unfussy way. Still, we’re hit with an awful lot of talking at first. At one point Rothko essentially says, Without movement, painting is dead. And I’m thinking, You could say the same thing about a play. But then the material worked on me exactly as it was supposed to—I hate when that happens! I love when that happens!

Saltz: It was great to get this window on the years when Rothko—the Russian who changed his name from the “too Jewish” Marcus Rothkowitz (he thought Rothko didn’t sound Jewish?!) and lived for decades in obscurity, coming up with Pollock and de Kooning—was now famous, in top form, and working in a former YMCA gymnasium at 222 Bowery on this huge $35,000 Four Seasons commission. It’s the stuff of art-world legend. I calmed down once I decided the play’s real content is depicting the crushing loneliness of the studio and the fear, self-hate, delusion, and shame that go into making art you believe in.

Zacharek: I was turned around when Rothko and his assistant go at that massive blank canvas, Rothko starting at the upper-left corner and Ken at the lower right, covering it with paint as if their lives depended on it. They’re moving blindly, feverishly, but with fierce exactitude, their movements so magnificently orchestrated.

Saltz: That fabulous scene was accurate. They really did paint at the same time, slathering five-inch housepainter’s brushes drenched with rabbit-skin glue and pigment all over the canvas and themselves, with classical music blaring in the background. But I’m struck by your saying that without movement a play is dead. I’m often put off by the artificial movement of theater, which can seem at the service of theatrical conventions rather than expanding the conventions of theater.

Zacharek: It is artificial. God, yes! Fake in every sense. Sometimes when the lights go down, my first unbidden, forbidden thought is, “What am I doing here? This isn’t real, this is stupid!” But maybe that’s part of the way good theater gets to you—the exaggeration, the unreality miraculously folds into your own experience of the world, or, better yet, casts it in a new light. Think about Alfred Molina’s Rothko. Visually, he’s a caricature, all glasses, eyebrows, and shiny pate. He’s cartoonishly big, emotionally and physically. In a movie, such blunt shorthand would be too much, but onstage the larger-than-life quality really translates. Molina’s performance is supposed to coax a rise out of us, and maybe it’s also an attempt to return us to the idea of the naked response: There’s pain in those paintings, but there’s also color and, well, paint. We look at a painting, think about it, and decide we know it. But how do we know when we’re done knowing it?

Saltz: One of the things I love about art is the way it can sometimes step outside of time. Rothko’s tremendous radiating Buddhist TVs do that. They’re like burning bushes—pulsating but not consuming themselves. But by 1959, he thought he was being sucked into the success machine of a new American culture industry. He dreaded peers calling him a “sellout.” But his demons weren’t just inside. Even fans were rough on him. Critic Harold Rosenberg famously referred to Rothko’s type of painting as “apocalyptic wallpaper.” Greenberg wrongly charged that “after ’55 [Rothko] lost his stuff.” One of the best things about Red is how happy it makes you that the art world is no longer about warring tribes of macho men trying to kill one another.

Zacharek: Red’s power is in sympathizing with Rothko without condescending to him. And in the end, it’s moving. It sends you home feeling that you’ve seen something, that you know how much it cost Rothko to be Rothko.

Saltz: In 1962, after his dealer Sidney Janis mounted a show of Pop artists, including Warhol and Lichtenstein, Rothko, along with Philip Guston and Robert Motherwell, quit the gallery. He committed suicide in early 1970. I love that Red shows you how hard art is. It encourages you to respect the sight of an artist, even a “windbag-y” one, pushing himself to psychic, creative limits to invent something new. It shattered my art-world bullshit detector.

By John Logan.
John Golden Theater.
Through June 27.

What Do You See?