There is so much reading to do to get a handle on the biographical man before beginning the theatrical version of Rothko in the play. The considered definitive biography is MARK ROTHKO, A biography by James E. B. Breslin. Published in 1993 by University of Chicago Press, it is a thoroughly researched tome of some 700 pages. It is out of print and the paperback issue I purchased used from Amazon ran at a daunting 75.00. Hardcopies are astronomically priced.
There are several other books, The Rothko book which accompanied the retrospective at the National Gallery, a great collection of plates of his work, but it is the Breslin where I am currently endeavoring to plow through. It is quite readable, but very rich. It is no light reading. But that makes sense given the impervious nature of the subject. The descriptions of the art works are extraordinary. The first line of the play is “What do you see?” and that question becomes a trope throughout the play. We get to check in throughout the play to reconsider and examine what we bring to the viewing of his art. A clever and effective means to deepen our own understanding of how we engage any art. But Breslin’s analysis is thorough and insightful. I will share some of that later.
Among the many scholars, and apparently there is a vibrant and perhaps contentious group of authors and biographers, is Noah Hoffman. Mr. Hoffman contacted me when he heard I was doing the play and sent me a brief of his work. He is focusing on the little known connection Rothko had to Native American Art, which has been secret for a long time and not included in the Breslin book. I share here his email to me and my response to him. It begins a conversation about the evasive nature of the subject and the compelling nature of wanting to understand Rothko. So here it is:
From Noah G. Hoffman
First off, let me congratulate you for winning a most challenging and important role. I want you to know that I did make earlier efforts to inform Mr. Logan and Alfred Molina about my work. Alfred did see the project but the show had already opened in NYC. I understand Logan’s point of view on historical matters which is that this is a dramatic piece; subject to the creativity and skill of the author and Logan is a superior craftsman, judging by his previous work.
My work documents Rothko’s prolific indebtedness to American Indians and mostly, as a result of Rothko’s secrecy, this part of his life has been overlooked. You will not find it in Breslin’s book nor in the essays by David Anfam which are part of the Rothko Catalogue Raisonne’: Oils on Canvas which was published by Yale and the National Gallery of Art.
You will find an obscure mention, by Rothko himself, in the Remiro book of Rothko letters. The letter is from New Mexico and he describes attending an Indian dance outside of Santa Fe in 1949. Recently, an important New Mexico scholar and curator told me of a Rothko visit to New Mexico as late as 1952. Dore Ashton — Rothko biographer and friend — also told me that he used to stay with her first husband at his house in Albuquerque. In the same conversation she also told me that Rothko’s observations of Hopi ceremonies was “not important.”
I’ve attached an updated version of the presentation I gave at Columbia University where I was invited to address an international symposium on Jews and Native Americans. I’ve recently received an invite from Harvard. Aside from presenting the new ethno historic view on Rothko, I’ve been the first major Rothko researcher to utilize social media as the primary platform for growing and sharing the project. Hundreds of artists, curators, scholars, even the Director of the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian, have been following and commenting. The noted critic, Jerry Saltz is also an active Facebook friend.
Christopher Rothko, The National Gallery, Simon Schama, and other published Rothko experts are all familiar with my work. Indigenous influences on modern art have been written with NY School painters, mostly with Pollock. (He admitted to being inspired by the Navajo sandpainters.)
Why am I concerned about informing an actor playing Rothko in a play? In my opinion, much of his angst and guilt are connected with his appropriation of American Indian art and when you take a look at the attached piece, you’ll see what I mean. Yes, the art world is filled with as much racism as in any other realm and my work has really struck a chord with a very diverse group of artists of American Indian descent and this inspires me to go forth.
At this time, I’m based in Chicago. I’ve also attached a letter written on my behalf by the former curator at the Art Institute who is a Contributing Editor to Art in America.
Forgive me for the lateness of my reply. I am currently away on vacation before the rehearsals begin, reading as much as I can and beginning to assimilate the sense of Rothko the man which I hope to use in building the performance.
Your presentation is compelling and clearly significant insights into the influence of Native American art in his color palette and other areas. As I do my reading, Breslin at the moment, I find Rothko’s privacy makes him quite a remote figure to comprehend. He seems driven to understand himself, which I am not sure he is adept at, making him even more difficult for others to do so. I speak for myself in that regard.
I strive to find connections, as is my wont, with the characters I create to make comprehensible, or rather, recognizable, the struggles we share in the journey of being human. In that regard, I am struck by his search for self identity. Am I Jewish. American. who am I as a painter? I recognize that in myself. Gero is not my actual family name. It was changed in the 30’s by my grandfather, Rothkovitz’s contemporary. It is Cieri (pronounced Cherry). The assimilation stress, the anti-Italian sentiment of the time, I believe, contributed to Giuseppe’s need to become Joseph Gero. I learned all this in the last 10 years when I researched and found my family in Italy, learned the language and spent significant time with them researching family history. That sense of identity is further compounded, in my case, by the pronunciation of my last name. That has changed too. JEER-o, became JEH-ro, became jeh- RO. Some pronounce it with a hard G…So to find that I am actually Cieri, now partially ensconced in Italian culture and Italian American culture and becoming a Shakespeare actor for the last 30 years. all contributes to a fluid sense of identity. So I am starting from that resonance. The journey of the man in the play leads to Ken’s statement in the final scene. “Now you are Rothko.” So I begin with the drive to “become” the authentic person, as do we all, who lurks behind the name tag, Mark Rothko.
As you point out, Logan is interested in a theatrical event that uses the platform of Rothko to meditate on other issues: art, popular understanding of it, the pervasive overtaking of pop culture over more “serious” art, and so forth. That question and debate is operative in the theater world, too. Our audience is aging. What is the theater’s place in the cultural landscape with the advent of film, tv, computers, iphone, internet, etc? RED encompasses, or attempts to encompass significant questions all in 90 minutes. Ultimately, I will have to take on that text on its own merits and inform my understanding of it through insights such as yours, Breslin’s, curators, artists and, as is the craft of the theater, reduce all of that into what I hope to be bold and plausible physical choices, expressive emotional choices, clear speaking, and all within sound intelligent analysis of the man and his work.
Your insights are all a part of the mix and I am grateful for the contact and your input. I look forward to more.