Painful experience has taught me to approach movies or plays about artists and their art with low expectations. For someone like me — an art critic for longer than she cares to recall who before that held various small-time jobs around the art world — these dramatic forays into the studio tend to fall gratingly wide of the mark.
The first glimmer of promise was the sight of the carefully detailed set, depicting Rothko’s studio in 1958. There’s no curtain; the studio is on view when the audience enters. Just seeing that gloomy, gritty space — the slop sink, the grimy windows, the phonograph and records, the coffee cans full of paintbrushes, the overloaded rolling work table — brought back the essential thrill of visiting an artist’s studio, something I did frequently when I was younger.
And there in the middle of it all, as the audience filed in, was Alfred Molina, who plays Rothko, sitting in a big wooden lawn chair in his studio with his back to the audience, studying one of his paintings. This little theatrical appetizer makes touchingly real the notion that artistic originality requires a great deal of thought, scrutiny, silence and isolation. An artist makes a painting and then scrutinizes it closely for flaws and weaknesses, tearing it apart mentally, thinking about whether it is finished and how to make it, or the next canvas, better.
Then the play actually started, and I spent a while wishing my seat had an ejection lever.
The artist rises from the chair, lights a cigarette and looks at the painting up close, running a hand across the surface. Suddenly a young man named Ken walks purposefully into the studio; he’s come for a job interview. Without turning, Rothko raises his hand traffic-cop style, then waves his visitor in with the words “What do you see?” Cringe.
“Let it pulsate. Let it work on you,” Rothko continues. “Now what do you see? Be sensitive.” Double cringe. I wanted out. There was too much talking — it seemed loud even for theater — and it was too obvious and moving much too fast for an artist’s studio.
Within a few minutes the central plot of the play had been set: Rothko has just accepted a commission to paint murals for the swank Four Seasons restaurant that will open soon in Mies van der Rohe’s Seagram Building on Park Avenue. He needs an assistant’s help, and Ken, a painter himself, is hoping to pass muster. But this doesn’t stop him from quickly voicing his doubt about Rothko’s conviction that a restaurant lined with his canvases will feel like a chapel. It’s the first of many instances of often adversarial dialogue that also struck me as off, out of keeping with the subdued energy of a studio and the deference you’d expect in this relationship, especially as it begins.
I didn’t quite realize it at the time, but I think I was disturbed by the noise, speed and off notes in “Red” because they clashed so violently with my memories of the studio visits I experienced in the two decades after the action of the play. Those ritualistic experiences of looking, talking, looking again and talking some more were in some way essential to who I became and how I see art. They may even have been the most important part of my art education, as close as I ever got to graduate school. And for the most part they were quiet, slow, often awkward experiences, during which I started to learn the relationship between seeing and articulating what I saw, and the basic fact that art takes time.
Also, corny as it may sound, as a young Kansan new to New York, I was always struck by the possibilities of self-invention and the autonomy and individual will that a studio represented, almost regardless of the quality of the art I encountered there. The basic message — especially powerful to a daughter and granddaughter of academics — was that you can do anything you want to; you certainly don’t need a degree or tenure. An artist made this place called a studio and then used it to make this thing called art that no one knew was missing or needed until it existed. (“We are making it out of ourselves,” to quote Rothko’s contemporary Barnett Newman.)
“Red” necessarily speeds up time, compressing several months, if not years, of artist-assistant exchanges into 90 minutes of almost nonstop debate, and sometimes heated argument, about aesthetics, literature and the Oedipal kill-the-king dynamic of artistic progression. Much of what gets said is true to Rothko’s ever-shifting worldview, judging from James E. B. Breslin’s exhaustively researched 1993 biography. But it was Rothko himself who said, as he says in the play, “Silence is so accurate.”
And while some of the repartee in “Red” was fun to listen to — and fun to hear a large non-art-world audience listen to — the studio, not the play, was the thing for me. “Red” righted itself for me whenever the actors stopped talking and turned to the business of moving the big (surprisingly convincing) “Rothkos” around, preparing stretchers and canvases, mixing colors. That’s when Mark Rothko seemed closest at hand and the magic of theater most amazing. The wordless choreography of the wheeling, turning canvases brought back the ephemeral intimacy of one artist’s inner sanctum 50 years on, verifying the often profound accuracy of silence.
New York Times