Reviews of RED cite its success at coming to terms with the challenging task of staging a play about a visual artist. The devices of theatre – tension and expectation, the palpable, sympathetic resonance of figures on a stage- seem irreconcilable to the quiet contemplation of flat objects on museum walls. And yet it is these qualities that Mark Rothko felt compelled to capture in painting. Dramatic yet vulnerable, eloquent yet obscure; these words describe the artist but also perhaps, his work.
Who was Rothko? He was born Marcus Rothkowitz in what is today Latvia, in 1905, to a family of industrious middle-class Jewish intellectuals who immigrated to the United States eight years later. Marcus proved an able student, earning a scholarship to Yale, but found its elitism alienating and moved to New York, where, thanks to a friend at the Art Students League, he decided to become a painter. Like many Americans of his generation, Rothko’s artistic education was prodigal; during the Depression years, artists of any stripe struggled to survive. At the same time, the Museums of Modern Art (1929) and Non-Objective Painting (later the Guggenheim, 1939) exhibited experimental Europeans like Picasso and Matisse. Getting by teaching children’s art classes, Rothko educated himself in museums and galleries, meeting mentors like Arshile Gorky and Max Weber, immigrants themselves with polyglot passions.
Rothko also worked as an artist for the WPA, a New Deal labor program, alongside notables like Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, Ad Reinhardt, Louise Nevelson and Milton Avery. Many of these artists would go on to develop a style called Abstract Expressionism, emphasizing spontaneous brushwork and intuitive symbolism. They were influenced by the European Surrealists, who used elements of chance (such as “automatic writing”) to liberate the unconscious, producing unexpected images with mythological and political overtones. Rothko, who had studied the psychoanalytic theories of Carl Jung, made connections between ‘primitive’ art and the art of children, in which free colour was the primary impulse.
After the war, the United States emerged as a superpower eager to prove that American culture was more bold, expansive and democratic than any that had come before. The Abstract Expressionists – whose approach to painting emphasized individuality, scale and physical energy – fit the bill. Rothko received his first significant praise from critic Harold Rosenberg, who coined the term, “Action Painting” to describe the way artists enacted conflict within the “arena” of the canvas. As both a Jewish artist haunted by the Holocaust and an avid reader of Shakespeare and Orestes, Rothko wanted to relate the catastrophes of contemporary life to an art that was “tragic and timeless.” Rather than tell stories, Rothko’s canvasses offered a testament to tension and anxiety, resolution and ecstatic calm.
Rothko crafted softly luminous surfaces, displayed without frames to encourage communion with the viewer, whom the artist hoped would feel “enveloped into” a paradoxical combination of intimacy and awe, at tantalizing proximity to “an unknown space.” For a painter interested in intangibles, Rothko’s method was nothing if not physical: pigment solution scrubbed into raw canvas, followed by scumbled skeins of overlapping brushwork; glancing and staining, burning and occluding. The paintings unfold in perception, yielding up structure to time and light. They are absorbing but also moving, a reaction Rothko sought when he described painting as a “religious experience” he wanted to share.
By the mid-1950’s Rothko’s work sold to notable collectors, skyrocketing in value. Success was isolating: stung by the scorn of less successful peers, Rothko also feared that his intentions went unrecognized by collectors who enjoyed his work as decorative. In 1958, the Seagram Company completed their architecturally significant headquarters on Park Avenue and commissioned Rothko to make paintings for the building’s luxury restaurant, The Four Seasons. Rothko was uneasy with making artwork for the enjoyment of wealthy diners, but the opportunity to produce paintings for a dedicated interior proved irresistible. For years, he had wanted to make a grand statement, a “place” that went beyond the effects of any single work.
Rothko designed horizontal compositions suggestive of architecture: columns, doors or windows. He travelled to Europe: the reds of Pompeii’s Villa of the Mysteries influenced his palette; while in Florence, the murals at Michelangelo’s Laurentian Library inspired visions of a space in which “all the doors and windows are bricked up.” In selecting these precedents, Rothko sought to measure himself against the European tradition, but also to come to grips with his conflicted ambivalence. The outcome of this struggle, between ego and integrity, ambition and authenticity, plays out in the closing scenes of RED.