Last night I was treated to a performance of Red, the acclaimed Tony Award winning play that just opened at Arena Stage. The play is about Mark Rothko, the Russian-American, abstract expressionist painter who was active in the mid 1900s. You know: the colored squares guy.
I don’t refer casually to him as “the colored squares guy” to be sinister or suggest his work is silly. In fact, I’ve come to really appreciate and enjoy many of the seemingly mundane subjects of abstract expressionism over the years. In the play, Rothko’s character discusses his paintings as being highly vulnerable objects that pulsate, glow, and he even goes so far as to suggest that they have emotions. This hour and forty minute long show has only two cast members, and focuses on the relationship between Rothko and his fictional assistant, Ken, as he works on a commission for the Four Seasons restaurant in Philip Johnson and Mies Van der Rohe’s Seagram Building; three of these paintings are on view at the National Gallery of Art right now. As the title if the play may suggest, the works are largely in red tones.
I chuckled when Rothko’s character mentioned that he rued the day that his paintings would grace living rooms as decoration, or that people would pair his thoughtful, serious color blocks with chips from the Sherwin Williams fan deck. I can’t say I recommend matching art to your throw pillows, but as a designer, I advocate some semblance of purpose or cohesion. I’m guessing he wouldn’t like these much:
The art history student in me was thrilled to hear the names of so many artists: the characters discuss Caravaggio, de Kooning, Matisee and others throughout, and if you are at all familar with the history of art you’ll be reminded of many favorite images (and appreciate the dialogue on a much deeper level). They talk about what red means to them, what black represents, and what white connotes. There’s back and forth between the men about different shades of red that lasts a few minutes, and the color theorist in me was thoroughly entertained. There’s a gorgeous set, wonderful lighting, and real painting action happens right on stage mid-performance. If you sit in the front row don’t wear anything you like too much (you’ve been warned).
The discussion of the point of abstract expressionism — more specifically, Rothko’s work; or to generalize, art on the whole — is a central theme. Rothko, as the artist, obviously has a stake in making his work mean something important. His assistant, on the other hand, suggests that “Sometimes, you just want a f*cking still life.”
Feel free to form your own opinion sometime over the course of the next five weeks: Red is running at Arena Stage, in the Kreeger Theatre, until March 11th 2012. You can purchase tickets here.
Arena Stage provided the tickets to this performance.