‘Red’: A critic takes the red pencil to the Rothko play

John Logan, author of the hit play “Red,” gets pop art and minimalism all wrong. Those may seem like small details given the phenomenal success of his London and Broadway hit, which won six Tony Awards in 2010, including best play. The drama centers on a critical period in abstract painter Mark Rothko’s career when he was creating a set of high-profile murals for the new Four Seasons Restaurant in New York City. It isn’t directly concerned with either pop art or minimalism, movements that helped organize the art world as a younger generation of artists succeeded Rothko and his peers in the late 1950s and ’60s. But in mischaracterizing what came after Rothko, Logan gets Rothko wrong, too. And much more.

The plot tunes into the years 1958-59, when Rothko, a Jewish emigre from Vitebsk, was struggling to complete a series of paintings designed to hang in a glamorous restaurant in the new Seagram Building, an enormously influential icon of the International modernist style. It is a trophy commission, paying $35,000, a princely sum in those days and an indication of how high Rothko’s star had risen in the New York art firmament.

“No other painter comes close,” says Logan’s Rothko, an arrogant, abusive and solipsistic tyrant of a man.

But Rothko, at the peak of his fame, is also at the precipice of selling out, an insoluble dilemma for some of the best artists of his era, who defined themselves as rebelling against traditional ideals only to find success and become themselves the new embodiment of the artistic establishment.

The drama is amplified by the presence of a new studio assistant, Ken, who slowly learns to face down the tirades of the imperious Rothko. In the end, it is the fictional Ken who helps explain one of the great mysteries of Rothko’s career: Why did he give up the Four Seasons commission, return the money and keep the paintings he had labored over for months? It is Ken who convinces Logan’s Rothko that the “Red” series is beneath the dignity of the artist-rebel.


Edward Gero as Mark Rothko in ‘Red.’ (Liz Lauren/Courtesy Arena Stage)

“You would have turned them down?” asks Rothko in the play.

“In a second,” says Ken.

And so Rothko rejects the project, ending a neatly wrought drama that rehearses all the old cliches of the artistic life: the dramas of the mentor-disciple relationship, the rage against an amorphous idea of philistinism, the endless self-laceration of hewing to ideals of purity and honesty, and a warm, sensuous celebration of the spiritual and the sublime.

Critical to Rothko’s change of mind is his confrontation with the art being made by younger figures such as Jasper Johns, Frank Stella, Robert Rauschenberg, Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol, who are all lumped together despite their divergent tendencies to pop art, minimalism and other reactions against the dominant abstract expressionism of the day. Encounters with the work of these younger artists unsettles him, and forces him to think more deeply about his own values. But it also makes him paranoid.

“These young artists are out to murder me,” thunders Rothko.

Logan has every right to dramatic compression and distillation. But worse than conflating pop and minimalism, his play defines them both as generically pretty and popular. As Ken challenges the old master, suggesting (dubiously) that the new artists are agreeable to the public and that fashions change, Logan’s Rothko lumps them all together as empty panderers to popular taste.

“You know what people like?” asks the fictional Rothko. “Happy, bright colors. They want things to be pretty. They want things to be beautiful.”

This seriously misrepresents the affront that pop and minimalism posed to the generation that pioneered new kinds of abstraction in the 1940s and ’50s. And it leaves out an essential philosophical tendency of the artists who came after Rothko: They were trying to refine art, remove the ego of the artist and the often physical traces of the artist’s self-aggrandizing emotional encounter with the canvas. Material borrowed from pop culture, or material so immaterial that it seemed to disappear altogether in minimalist works, was attractive not because it was pretty, but because it was neutral or self-deflating.

Logan’s play, however, suggests that they were offering up something more like hotel wall art, or cozy cottages in the treacly manner of Thomas Kinkade. Granted, the play puts this mischaracterization into the mouth of its lead character, who is deeply flawed and given to misunderstanding anything that doesn’t fit his view of artistic seriousness. But Logan’s foil, the character Ken, never challenges Rothko on the real substance of the artists who were displacing him. Their challenge wasn’t just to the art Rothko was producing, but to the monstrously self-important ideal of the artist that Rothko represents in Logan’s play.

Fiction about art tends to cliches, to an easy grab bag of well-worn narratives that stress ideas of the artist as rebel, loner, narcissist and misunderstood genius. Rothko, in this play, represents an old-fashioned sense that art is about a super-genuine, hyper-emotional, quasi-transcendent communion between the viewer and the work, and ultimately the play devolves into an essay about purity and philistinism. As a drama, it works well. But like too many fictions about art, it focuses too exclusively on a very exaggerated picture of the artistic life.

And that’s unfair, ultimately, to Rothko. Contemporary accounts indicate he was, indeed, a formidable figure, especially to younger artists. He is said to have remarked (perhaps self-defensively) that he intended the Seagram paintings to “ruin the appetite of every son of a b---- who ever eats in that room.” But despite his depiction as a tormented, insufferable egotist in this play, he also tended to self-negation in his art. He painted large pictures not because they were “very grandiose and pompous,” but because with small pictures, the artist commanded the work too much, whereas large formats created a space into which people could enter more freely. And though his temperament, and his suicide in 1970, connect him to the hard-living, self-destructive, self-consciously heroic abstract expressionists, he always resisted the “expressionist” side of this term, which never suited the work he made. He stressed clarity, and “the elimination of all obstacles between the painter and the idea.”

When the National Gallery of Art hosted a major Rothko exhibition in 1998, the catalogue included interviews with some of the artists who the fictional Rothko might reasonably have worried were “out to murder me.” Ellsworth Kelly, whose “hard edge” style is often seen as a direct reaction to spontaneity and personal expressivity of abstract expressionism, emphasized Rothko’s “proportion and measure,” stressing that “there was no real sort of idea in the paintings.” Kelly found in Rothko not the arch-romantic of the play “Red,” but something more classical and restrained. That Rothko existed, too, and helped build the creative and intellectual space in which the artists who came after him would work. But he’s not much present in the play “Red,” which borrows its lead character from central casting.

Philip Kennicott is the Pulitzer Prize-winning Art and Architecture Critic of The Washington Post. He has been on staff at the Post since 1999, first as Classical Music Critic, then as Culture Critic.
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