The type of modern art that some people find infuriating is perhaps best exemplified by Mark Rothko’s paintings — smudgy squares writ huge, with no story, no figures and usually not even a title. If you’re looking for the right answer about what the painting means, Rothko offers no clues and no mercy.
“We’re used to seeing art tell a story. Rothko was interested in taking the figure out completely and creating pure emotional content,” says actor Edward Gero, who portrays Rothko in Arena Stage’s biographical play “Red,” which runs through March 11. “We have to fill in with our own experience what the painting does to us: It asks us to look inside rather than the painting doing the work.”
The Seagram Murals, whose creation is the subject of “Red,” are displayed on the lower level of the National Gallery of Art’s East Building. Every day, people come through, trying to figure out modern art. They know they should like it — it’s famous enough to be in the National Gallery! — but nobody stops to look. The murals are in the same room as a large Jackson Pollack piece, and anyone who does stick around stands in front of those iconic squiggles rather than spending time with Rothko’s giant red canvasses. Most people walk through the room without stopping.
But examining a Rothko up close is entirely different from glancing at it from across the room. “Look at these drips, these splatters,” says Gero, getting right up next to the painting and pointing out sprays of orange droplets against the red that indicate how swiftly and passionately the painting was made.
Gero believes the window that “Red” offers into Rothko’s creative process will help audience members appreciate the care the artist took with his work. “Making-of stories always do very well, because you get a sense of what it takes,” he says. “It’s a thrill to go behind the scenes.”
Part of the appeal of a process story, especially when it details the process of making art, is the idea that non-artists can glimpse the moment that the spark of genius appears — and then trace all the tiny steps required to make that moment of inspiration into a finished work of art. Once you know the pain that goes into a painting, you have to give it more consideration. Right?
At that moment, an elderly couple wanders up to one of the Rothkos, closer than anyone else has, and looks at it for a full 30 seconds. “I think it’s interesting,” the woman says to her husband, “but I don’t like it.”
Rothko ’Round the Mall
Russian-American painter Mark Rothko (1903-1970) is best known for his large-scale, abstract expressionist colorblock paintings. His art doesn’t translate well to prints — as with the work on Vincent van Gogh, it’s essential to see the brushwork. The sheer size of Rothko’s canvasses is central to the experience — stand in front of them and you can lose yourself in the wall of colors. Washingtonians can see multiple Rothkos on display right now in three museums:
National Gallery of Art: The NGA is the place to go if “Red” is your entry point to Rothko’s work. The entire play details his 1958 creation of the Seagram Murals, and three of the works from that series are now on display in the East Building.
Hirshhorn Museum: Of course the Hirshhorn has Rothkos! Currently on view is his colorful 1961 work “Blue, Orange, Red.” Fun fact: The Hirshhorn website allows visitors to add digital “tags” to the painting’s record. The first seven tags for this painting are: “Blah blah blah rawr poop wtf whatisthis.” Despite that, we assure you that it’s a thought-provoking piece of art.
Phillips Collection: The Phillips is the holy grail for Rothko fans, containing as it does a Rothko Room, which was created in 1960. Rothko himself had an influence on the room’s design (he’s responsible for the bench seating, for example), and the space is meant to aid in contemplation of the four paintings on display. It’s comforting to sit there after watching the Rothko of “Red” speak of his yearning to create “a place where the viewer could live in contemplation with the work … like a chapel.” That’s exactly what the Rothko Room is.