In our Go See series, Superunion Creative Partner Paul Cardwell recommends current highlights from the world of creative arts to stimulate and inspire CR readers. His latest column concerns the London revival of a brilliant play about the creative process: Red
We have a rare chance to see a dramatic and compelling play about a surprising subject: painters and painting. We also have an extraordinary opportunity to see the pictures themselves because fate, and artistic perversity, has delivered them to London.
John Logan’s play Red [originally staged at the Donmar Warehouse in 2009] is not just about painting, it’s about the most elusive of all artists, Mark Rothko.
It’s a battle. A raging argument between Rothko and his young assistant. It’s youth v age. Old artist and young. Changing fashions in creativity. The 50s are ending and the 60s are clamouring at the door, keen to get the party started. The abrupt, dramatic shift from the austere mysteries of abstraction to the garish, jukebox joys of Pop. What is quality? Where is truth? Then – and this is why we should all see it – what do you do when you find yourself working for a client that you don’t approve of?
And it isn’t just talk. At the end of the first act Rothko and his assistant stretch and a prime a huge canvas – whilst conducting a raging argument – and you really do feel ‘this is what it must have looked like’. It is a spectacular theatrical moment. I cannot think of another instance where the hands-on business of making a picture has been so convincingly brought to the stage.
It’s 1959. Rothko is working on the series for the Four Seasons restaurant on Park Avenue. It is vital to understand the significance here. This was the most important commission of its time. The drinks giant, Seagram, having thrived in Prohibition, has become respectable and now wants a landmark to commemorate its place as a pillar of American society. They have commissioned a tower at 375 Park Avenue. It is to be the biggest tower in the most prestigious location in the world, just north of Grand Central. They are thinking big. Big. The architect is Mies van der Rohe. The interiors, Philip Johnson. They had a Picasso for the hall and they wanted a major artist for the main room.
The man they chose was Rothko. The fee was $35,000 dollars. The equivalent fee today would be about five million – a colossal sum for a living artist.
Rothko didn’t want to do it. His clients were surprised by that. (Although not half as surprised as they were later when he returned their money and gave the pictures away free, but I’ll get to that.)
We don’t know why he took the job. He probably just didn’t want anyone else to do it. He was a dark and difficult character, intense and brooding. Latvian Jewish refugee family, wound up in Portland, Oregon. He was a brilliant child and got a scholarship to Yale. Predictably, hated it. Hardcore left, of the old, Leninist, school. He didn’t like many people, but reserved a special anger for ‘rich bastards’. His final end, suicide, shocked everyone but surprised no-one.
When all’s said and done he wasn’t the obvious choice for a Hospitality brief.
To manage the huge canvasses Rothko rented a derelict gym in the Bowery, then a hangout of bums, today, hipsters. Plus ca change. This space is beautifully recreated on stage at Wyndham’s. (How casually we take for granted the truly magical experience of taking a seat in a theatre that was built in Victorian times, and has been working continuously ever since, then when the lights go down find ourselves transported to 50s Manhattan).
Rothko fought with the paintings. Working and re-working and destroying and starting again. This intensity, this questioning, is brilliantly captured in John Logan’s dialogue. Alfred Molina inhabits the part.(You may remember him as Diego Rivera in Salma Hayek’s Frida where he demonstrated that he is an actor who can hold a brush and not look like he was grasping the live end of an electric cable.)
We see Rothko’s pictures as serene and meditative. He saw them as a response to the ‘wild terror and suffering’ that is at the heart of the human experience. By the time he started on the Seagram murals his mood and his colours were becoming darker. Just before he died he was working on a series of Blacks, pushing planes of purples and blues to the point where the colour had been drained from them. But that was to come; here he was working on reds. The base red he found on a trip to Pompeii. He felt at peace in the City Of The Dead (of course, where else?). The ground for Pompeian murals is a heavy dark red ochre, faded almost to brown. We can see the echoes, 2,000 years later, in these canvasses.
When all’s said and done he wasn’t the obvious choice for a Hospitality brief
Then, finally, he made a trip to see the room where his pictures would hang. Not a good idea. He hated the place, but not half as much as he hated the people. Rich bastards. He sent their money back and kept his paintings.
Rothko was a mystic. He believed his pictures were alive, that they responded to people. (This is not quite as loopy as it sounds. If you are trying to see a Rothko in a room full of people who aren’t paying attention – or who are, for instance, children – then the pictures seem to close down. They contract. In a silent room, they expand.)
He knew that he wouldn’t, he couldn’t, leave his pictures alone with these bastards.
So, he did an extraordinary thing. He gave them to the Tate in London. Which is where they hang today: the Seagram Murals on the third level at Tate Modern.
It was a huge gesture, and one of the last that Rothko made. The pictures arrived on February 25 1970, the same day that he died.
He sat on a chair in the centre of his studio and, with a new blade in the box-cutter that he used to trim canvas, he cut deep, deep into his right arm, not at the wrist but the joint of the elbow. Suicides often panic and try to snatch back the life they are throwing away. Not Rothko. He knew exactly what he was doing. He sat and watched his bright red life gush onto the floor at his feet. Ever methodical, he had raised his canvasses off the floor.
At Millbank, the curators gathered in the basement to see the pictures arrive. As the huge wooden cases were gently set on the floor, four thousand miles way Mark Rothko’s head fell forward for the last time.
See this play. Really, see it. Then go to see these pictures.
“I am not interested in the relationship between form and colour. The only thing I care about is the expression of man’s basic emotions: tragedy, ecstasy, destiny.”
Red, starring Alfred Molina and Alfred Enoch, is at Wyndham’s Theatre, London, until July 28. Writer: John Logan, Director: Michael Grandage. Designer: Christopher Oram. Details here
Paul Cardwell is Creative Partner at brand agency Superunion
All photos: Johan Persson