Thursday, December 1, 2011

Seeing Red

Haven't been to an opening night in ....  I can't remember how long.

Lucky for me, Kaarina's date wasn't able to make it so I tagged along to the Canadian premiere of Red.

This Tony award winner had an outstanding script and I enjoyed how red was punctuated in the lighting: during a scene transition, on the character's fingertips;  at the end of a burning cigarette; in the warm glow of the hot lights.

The stand-out scene for me was when the actors flung themselves at the canvas with their brushes and turned the blank white slate into a red scream.  Live, and in less than three minutes. It was literally breathtaking (the actor playing Rothko was left panting).  To me this is a central, powerful metaphor.  Most of the time the characters talked about, looked at, pondered, paced, mixed, poured... yet so little time was actually spent in the physical creation of the art itself.

The dynamic between the artist and his assistant was fascinating to watch.  Rothko was cruel, self-absorbed.  The assistant was a blank canvas.  At the play's end, the young man is given his freedom and sent off into the world.  Like a Rothko painting, perhaps?

Orange Red Orange - Mark Rothko
I enjoyed the production, the direction and the actors' interpretation so I was surprised by how nasty the Toronto Star review was the next day in its attack on the Director. It seemed so vitriolic it made me wonder whether the reviewer had some snub he was trying to settle.  The Globe and Mail was far more generous. The National Post a bit less so.

In the play, another scene transition saw copies of Warhols, Jasper Johns, and Lichtensteins dance across the stage. Rothko felt these pieces unworthy to displace his work and saw them as meaningless representations that demanded little from the viewer.

Some of Rothko's paintings were exhibited this past summer at the AGO.  Over the years I've come to appreciate abstract expressionism, and can even claim a visceral connection with many.  Like Orange Red Orange, which I interpret and react to differently, depending on my mood.  I can't say I've ever been moved to tears, though:

Pop art, relying on figurative imagery, was the antithesis of Abstract Expressionism. Whereas Warhol often utilized "found" imagery in his paintings, Rothko used abstract forms and colour - although he denied being an "abstractionist" as recalled by Selden Rodman in his book Conversations with Artists.
Mark Rothko: "You might as well get one thing straight... I'm not an abstractionist."
Selden Rodman: "You're an abstractionist to me... You're a master of color harmonies and relationships on a monumental scale. Do you deny that?"
Mark Rothko: "I do. I'm not interested in relationships of color or form or anything else."
Selden Rodman: "Then what is it you're expressing?"
Mark Rothko: "I'm interested only in expressing basic human emotions - tragedy, ecstasy, doom, and so on - and the fact that lots of people break down and cry when confronted with my pictures shows that I communicate those basic human emotions... The people who weep before my pictures are having the same religious experience I had when I painted them. And if you, as you say, are moved only by their color relationships, then you miss the point!"
(Selden Rodman, Conversations with Artists (NY: Capricorn Books, 1961) pp. 93-4)
Despite his denial of being an "abstractionist" Rothko and other Abstract Expressionists had fought hard over several decades for public acceptance of abstract art - through exhibitionsprotests and writings. When Pop reared its figurative head in the early 60s, Rothko saw it as a step backward rather than forward. When Sidney Janis presented many of the Pop artists (including Andy Warhol) in his 1962 exhibition, "The New Realists," Rothko, along with Adolph Gottlieb, Philip Guston and Robert Motherwell, resigned from the gallery. Guston's daughter Musa Mayer recalled that "Overnight, it seemed, the art world changed. My father was in despair over the selling of art, over the slick, depersonalized gloss - not only of Pop Art, but of Minimalism as well - that was taking center stage in New York. Art was no longer struggle; art had become marketing."

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