Archive for October, 2011

PostHeaderIcon “Red”: Paint, Emotion & Truth

Jackson Pollock Nunber 18

Jackson Pollock Nunber 18

The period following the Second World War was the heyday for a group of artists known as Abstract Expressionists.  They were a group of artists, different in style and personality, who came together in New York’s Greenwich Village and hung out at their “clubhouse”, the Cedar Tavern, drinking and debating artistic ideas.  Among the most famous members of this group were Jackson Pollock, Barnett Newman, Willem de Kooning, Robert Motherwell and Mark Rothko.

Ironically, none of them wished to be identified with that label. Asked by an interviewer to define Abstract Expressionism, Rothko replied, “I don’t get it and I don’t think my work has anything to do with Expressionism, abstract or any other.”

Pollock and de Kooning were highly physical, aggressive artists in putting paint to canvas while Newman and Rothko took a more cerebral approach. What united them was a belief that non-representational paintings, monumental in scale and manipulating color, line and form, could express emotional truths in the most direct way. They believed art mattered in a way that is foreign in today’s world. Rothko believed in the power of paint to express what writer Erin Hogan calls “nothing less than the condition of being human.”

"Red" at Goodman Theatre

"Red" at Goodman Theatre

This revolution in mid-20th Century art production is the backdrop for “Red,” the Tony award-winning drama by John Logan, now at the Goodman Theatre. It takes us into Rothko’s cramped Bowery studio. The time is 1958 and Rothko is busy at work on an important commission—a series of large canvases to hang on the walls of the Four Seasons restaurant in the Seagrams Building—and needs an assistant.

In walks Ken, a young art student eager to work with and learn from a master. It is a situation rife with master/servant, father/son overtones. At first, Ken is too cowed by the setting to respond when Rothko grills him about life and culture and finds him wanting.

Ken knows nothing of the philosopher Nietzsche or Bach’s Goldberg Variations, two of Rothko’s heroes. “You can’t be an artist if you’re not civilized,” taunts Rothko.

He points to the red and black canvas he is working on and asks, “What do you see?” Ken is too cowed to offer an opinion. Yet he gets the job.

Rothko & Assistant Ken

Rothko & Assistant Ken

For the next two years, Ken works, diligently prepping canvases for Rothko, washing his brushes, hanging giant canvases, enduring the artist’s outbursts of verbal abuse. “Red” charts Ken’s growing self-identity and his metamorphosis into a worthy artistic opponent.

Halfway through the intermission-less play, the mood shifts. Ken grows unafraid to express his opinions of what he sees and they are bitingly critical of a one-time hero. Visiting gallery shows, he has seen new works by Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg and Andy Warhol and finds their energy superior to the arid air in Rothko’s studio. Now, as equal combatants, Ken challenges Rothko to face a momentous moral decision that propels the play to its stirring denouement.

You should catch the final week’s performances of “Red” (through Oct. 30). Edward Gero and Patrick Andrews give blazing performances as Rothko and Ken. Gero is riveting in conveying Rothko’s arrogance as well as the agony underlying his  creations while Ken delivers a masterly turn from cowed acolyte to fearless artistic equal. Race while you still can to see Logan’s glimpse behind the tortuous artistic process alongside Rothko’s glowing achievement. Visit: www.GoodmanTheatre.org.

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