What is Art? Is it “Red”, arterial red, sunrise red, scarlet or rust? Is it the red phone that is connected to the Kremlin? Is it commie red? Is it over the mantle Sherwin William’s red? Is it dried blood-red? The Rep’s season opener, “Red”, asks these questions, about art, or more particularly about Mark Rothko’s art.
This two actor play explores the mid-twentieth century, New York art scene by focusing upon Rothko’s commission for the Four Season’s restaurant. Rothko, the trendiest artist of his day, was given the most lucrative commission of his day; all to cover the walls of what would become New York’s toniest restaurant. Before this play, I was ignorant of Rothko and his telltale black and red, abstract impressionism. As a study guide, I read the Post-Dispatch’s preview of this play, which concentrated upon the mechanics of art direction, with a detailed explanation of how the fake Rothko’s were created.
This research put me roughly on a par with the other actor in this play, Rothko’s new assistant. At one point in the play the assistant asks, “Do you really care what I think? “ Rothko answers, “Not at all.” Assistant and audience act as spectators to the main act that is Rothko. Rothko alternately rails against, and then revels in, the art scene that has made him famous. At the end of the play, Rothko repudiates his commission. He cannot bear the thought of his beloved artworks forever suffering, the haughtiness of the Four Season’s and its patrons, “I still can’t believe that I tried to impress the wine guy.”
The play alludes to, but never shows Rothko’s suicide, Van Gogh, Jackson Pollack’s convertible crash are both discussed. Rothko’s assistant even finds him “dead” drunk on the floor, but instead of slit wrists, coated in dried blood; it is only red paint. While Rothko relished toppling his cubist predecessors, he also reviled his pop-art successors, Warhol, Lichtenstein and Rosenquist. “Red” left me with the impression of a talented, but deeply troubled individual. He was one that systematically pushed away all friendship and love and in the end died by his own hand, a high price to pay on the altar of art.