Mark Rothko onstage.
by John Lahr April 12, 2010
Mark Rothko’s life was a series of abdications: from Russia, when he was ten; from his father, who died six months after arriving in Portland, Oregon; from Yale, after two years; and from life itself, when he committed suicide, on February 25, 1970. A fractious, hard-drinking, unhealthy, and unhappy soul, Rothko was a gourmand of his griefs. By contrast, his large, luminous abstract canvases—spectacles of subtraction of all subject matter, including the self—turned abdication into an art form. Rothko was the first to paint “empty” pictures. His blocks of floating iridescence were the public answer to Action painting; privately, they were also a kind of vanishing act. At a party where Expressionism was being discussed, Rothko leaned over to the art critic Harold Rosenberg and whispered, “I don’t express myself in my paintings; I express my not-self.”
In John Logan’s “Red” (elegantly directed by Michael Grandage, at the Golden), Rothko (Alfred Molina) is onstage twenty minutes before the play begins. He’s in his studio, a vast cave of consciousness that, subtly designed by Christopher Oram, also suggests a sanctuary. Rothko sits in a blue wooden chair with his back to us, surrounded by unfinished canvases that are propped against the high, dingy walls; he is studying one of five huge murals that he’s been commissioned to do for the new Seagram Building. His first gesture, once the play begins, is to walk up to the painting and feel the canvas with the flat of his hand. Rothko is already well inside the painting; the success of Logan’s smart, eloquent entertainment is to bring us in there with him.
For a month in 1949, Rothko went to the Museum of Modern Art to stand in front of Matisse’s “The Red Studio,” which the museum had newly acquired. Looking at it, he said, “you became that color, you became totally saturated with it.” Rothko turned his transcendental experience into an artistic strategy; his work demanded surrender to the physical sensation of color. “Compressing his feelings into a few zones of color,” Rosenberg wrote, “he was at once dramatist, actor, and audience of his self-negation.” Rothko escaped from the hell of personal chaos into the paradise of color. “To paint a small picture is to place yourself outside your experience,” he said. “However, you paint the large picture, you are in it.”
Fragmento tomado de The New Yorker.