Seeing Red, Part 1: The Play

Alfred Molina contemplating a "Rothko"
Image via the Internet: Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

I have been seeing a lot of red lately—a play, a dress, and several very good paintings.

Let’s start with the play. Of course I’m talking about John Logan's Red, on Broadway at the Golden Theater, which looks at several months in the life of Mark Rothko in 1958.

When I take my seat at 7:50, the artist is already seated in his green Adirondack chair, back to the audience, before a large red painting. There’s no curtain, so from my primo spot in the mezzanine I am able to fall visually into his studio. On the painting wall facing the audience is the red canvas. My view of it is broken only by the artist in his chair. To the right of the chair is a table laden with paint cans and brushes. Nearby, a slop sink. On either side of the studio are other large paintings in red and black. There’s a phonograph and record albums. All that’s missing is the smell of turpentine. (Really, the set designer should have provided at least a whiff of it.)

As the lights go up, Rothko rises from his chair and caresses the surface of the painting he has been studying. A hopeful job applicant enters and Rothko barks, “What do you see?”

“Red,” responds the applicant, who, we learn, is an artist himself. What follows are some 10 minutes of bombast as Rothko carries on about the importance of seeing, the subtleties of hue, and the inner turmoil faced by the painter who is striving to create meditative space. I suppose the playwright has to, well, set the stage for an audience of non-artists. And why else would we see the artist caress the surface of his painting like a lover, not one but twice? But, jeez, Rothko is the art professor from hell.

I’m not the first person to say this, but as soon as the expository dialog is out of the way, the play takes off. We get a sense of the rhythm of the studio as artist and assistant work, sometimes in tandem, sometimes at their specific tasks: stretching the canvas, priming it (with more dramatic flourish than the last act of Tosca), mixing paint, cleaning brushes, and carrying out the countless mundane chores required of studio practice.

What we learn:
. Rothko (born Marcus Rothkowitz in Russia, he tells the assistant) is working on a $35,000 commission for Philip Johnson’s new Seagram building on Park Avenue
. His paintings will create a sanctuary of contemplative color that flows from painting to painting
. He is one angry, compulsive, didactic, overbearing sonofabitch
. He smokes way too much
. He drinks (a lot) and eats in the studio and frequently covers himself in paint; so much for studio safety
. Despite the care with which the assistant works, Rothko treats him carelessly until the day the young man explodes, reminding the overbearing painter that these canvases are “for a restaurant” for chrissakes. That would be The Four Seasons.

The restaurant commission is eating at Rothko. When the assistant walks into the studio one morning, he finds the painter asleep over a bucket of red paint. His arms have fallen into the liquid and he’s dripping red up to his forearms. There are gasps at this neat if overly dramatic bit of foreshadowing. (In 1970 Rothko would suicide by slitting his writs.) There follows the denouement and then the lights go up.

Alfred Molina is sublime as the tortured and tortuous artist; Eddie Redmayne as the assistant grows confidently out from under Rothko’s thumb. The paintings are pretty good facsimiles and the lighting designer renders them nearly incendiary.

Red is a narrow but intense slice of a post-war, pre-feminist art life set in a grimy but glowing New York studio. Go see it if you can.
Read more:
. Roberta Smith and Ben Brantley, New York Times (separate reviews, excellent pics)
Next up: Red, The Dress (and the artist wearing it, Marina Abramovic)


Lori Landis said...

Thanks Joanne for providing us with a view of a painter by another painter.

Sally Veach said...

Thank you for posting this blog and providing glimpses into the professional world of art--for me (a nobody), for your colleagues, and for your fans. I have been out of the art scene for 25 years since I got my BFA from Syracuse. Never really broke into it, except through my own art activities. But now that I am almost 50, I am starting to paint again. I am so inspired by mostly abstract painters, but my work is still representational. I am just dipping my toe in--and since I live in a rural area and half my life is over, I don't think I will ever go swimming with the big fishes. But your and other artists' blogs do help people like me learn about professional the art world. Thank you so much!

Hylla said...

The restaurant commission is eating at Rothko.
Love that.

Cynthia said...

I live in Texas and unfortunately am pretty sure I won't be seeing the play. I'm an artist and I've been reading with interest about "Red" in various publications, but your review really gave me the visual clues I needed. Thank you Joanne; I really enjoy your blog!

AscenderRisesAbove said...

oh; i saw BBC talking about this last week. would love to see it.

Rico said...

It's interesting to hear from someone who's seen this. Rothko is a big influence, so I bought the script when it came out.

Frankly, I was disappointed. I know Alfred Molina is a terrific actor, but the script is not very well-written and seems to borrow very heavily from Simon Schama's "Power of Art" series, specifically his section on Rothko. Sadly, as hokey as those segments often were, this play reads a bit worse.

As my wife is a theatre director, I know one has to see a play live to truly see it. I'm not going to start or join the chorus about historical accuracy, because it is, after all a work of fiction.

(The script really does call for the smell of turpentine, btw)

As always, I love the blog.

Joanne Mattera said...


Simon Schama wrote the essay for Playbill. He's not my favorite writer, but it was informative at least.

Re the script: You really need to see the action. The dialog was just so so. And that opening diatribe was dreadful. But the set, and the actions of the actors on the set, is what makes this play.

BYOT: Bring your own turp.