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.