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