Mark Rothko’s artwork of the early Abstract Expressionist era is the focus of the Tony Award-winning play, Red, which will be at the Walnut Street Theatre’s Independence Studio on 3 from Feb. 23 to March 20.
Markus Rothkowitz immigrated to the United States in the early 1900s, an unknown entity.
That anonymity didn’t last long. By the middle of the 20th century — and, indeed, stretching into today — his art hangs in museums, galleries and fortunate private homes all over the world. If his given name doesn’t ring a bell, perhaps his Americanized one will: Mark Rothko.
Rothko, an artist of the early Abstract Expressionist era, whose works can be seen everywhere from the Museum of Modern Art to the Tate Modern in London, became known for his colorblocking pieces — the most famous of which, a series of murals painted in light and deep reds, were commissioned — but never installed — for the Four Seasons restaurant in New York City.
It is this particular set of murals, known as the Seagram Murals, and Rothko’s decision about the offer to have them hang in the restaurant, that are at the focus of the Tony Award-winning play, Red, which will be at the Walnut Street Theatre’s Independence Studio on 3 from Feb. 23 to March 20.
David Volin, 49, plays the artist in the production and will attempt to give the audience a chance to empathize with Rothko and understand his choices.
“He’s really in his groove,” Volin said of Rothko during this time period. “He knows where he is, but he’s also struggling with what he wants to accomplish in art and what’s happening in society around him.”
The play takes place around the end of the 1950s and the early ’60s, as art movements such as Abstract Expressionism were on the rise, thanks to artists like Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning and, of course, Rothko, a “raging lion” as Volin described him.
“When playing a person who actually existed, there are many anecdotal stories” to draw from, Volin said. “He was at no loss to put down what he felt art should be about and is, and a lot of that is in the play verbatim from what he said and has written.”
Rothko was going into a whole “revolution in art and society at this point,” Volin added, and he had to come to terms with it.
“How does this raging lion now deal with the changes that are happening around him?” Volin wondered, as they began rehearsals and production of the play. “That’s what drew me to it. It’s a fascinating story and the experience that person had, and to be able to bring some truth to it on stage is a wonderful thing to be able to do.”
The play takes place over three months as Rothko works on the Seagram Murals. The two-person play also incorporates another character, Ken, a young artist who works as Rothko’s assistant during this time, played by Daniel Fredrick.
It explores elements of Rothko’s life from his art to his upbringing. Born in Russia to a Jewish family, Rothko’s family found a home in Portland, Ore.
“He does touch on — in the play — bits of what it was like growing up in Russia and certainly things that happened to him as an artist,” Volin said. His Jewish identity factored into his professional life as an artist as well.
Volin recalled a line in the play in which Rothko remarks that “my dealer said he had too many Jewish painters on the books.” Volin said he wasn’t sure if that was perhaps artistic license on playwright John Logan’s part, but Rothko changed his name nonetheless.
In mid-20th-century American society at that time, “you get the general ideas” of being Jewish at that time, said Volin, who is also Jewish.
“It’s not really explored in the play,” Volin said, “but you certainly get a feeling that this is where that man came from.”
The themes of the play are more universal than specific to being Jewish, however, he added, though he does feel that there is a connection to Judaism “bubbling underneath him.”
The themes stretch beyond Rothko’s religion.
Culture, mortality and vanity are also focal points, most notably, how Rothko hopes to be remembered and the way people take in his art — and the Seagram Murals were a key piece of that.
“During the course of the play,” Volin said, “it got into the whole idea of what happened to these murals. It’s not something I want to give away at this point — he received $35,000 for this commission, which for 1958 is a huge amount of money, and it was no small task. For him, it was a huge honor, but he also had other ideas of what he wanted to do with it. There was this conflict of, ‘I’m putting this in this big public space but I also have this idea that art needs to be viewed and taken in in a certain way.’ ”
It was a conflict of “what he wants to do with it and what they want to do with it,” he added.
And of course, as he is starring in a play about a famous artist, there must be art. Volin and Fredrick will do live painting each performance, priming a canvas every night, though he added with a laugh that it’s “not anything near” what it would actually be.
For Volin, some of his favorite moments have been the ones where he felt truly connected with Rothko.
“Just yesterday during rehearsals,” Volin recalled, “one of the moments Rothko is talking about seeing a painting by Matisse when he was younger, when the painting was first put up at the Modern, and he would go and look at it. Yesterday was the first time the speech had really sunk into my body, in my experience, to become as real to me as hopefully it was to Rothko. Those are the moments I am grateful for, those moments of pure truth.
“I think anyone who loves art and loves artists, especially of that era, should come see it because this person really does talk about a generation of artists: what their sentiments were, what their beliefs were,” Volin added. “Anyone interested in understanding what drives artists and anybody who wants to be entertained by a really powerful story will enjoy this play.”
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