It is so exciting to be coming back to the play after the two month break since closing it in Chicago the end of October. Although the time was filled with holidays and a run of “A Christmas Carol” at Ford’s Theater, the play remained alive in my bones – and short stubby hair! I reminded myself of the words from time to time and had the opportunity to read some of the scenes at a special presentation at the Phillips Collection in December. That event happened in between matinee’ and evening performances of “A Christmas Carol.” I took the opportunity to spend some time with the paintings in the Rothko room again, curious to see what perceptions had changed since I saw them last just before rehearsals began in Chicago. I was surprised to observe that I noticed more of the techniques left behind on the canvasses: the drips, the pieces of brush hair, the splatters. These small details revealed a sense of urgency in the process of making the works, and also a sense of mystery. Why were some of the drips going up, some down? It was fascinating. With the aid of Klaus Ottman and David Dower, a lively discussion ensued about the play and the artist. Most of the folks in that audience had not seen the play and were comprised of visual art patrons. I was so pleased to touch base with the skin and words of the play again and feeling the strength of the construction of the play on a new audience.
More excitement came with the announcement that the National Gallery of Art had decided to exhibit three of the actual Seagram Mural pieces in their collection to coincide with the run of REd at Arena Stage. I raced down to the East Building to see them shorlty after they were placed on exhibit. They are remarkable, particularly the large central picture.
As you can see, the setting here is very different from the Rothko Room at The Phillips Collection. This is a more open space, the pictures taking up one wall of a room that also contains related works, one by Pollock, in particular. Since it is a more public space, my first visit was shared with some young children running around. Not the most optimal of viewing experiences, but the sheer power of the paintings eventually overcame when the movement and commotion had settled down.
The picture on the far right is recalled in our production. (See below) It’s an amazing opportunity for audiences to have an interdisciplinary experience with the play and the actual pictures.
Through the good graces of the Arena Stage, I was able to visit the murals a second time accompanied by Harry Cooper and Ruth Fine. Harry Cooper is curator and head of modern and contemporary art at the National Gallery of Art, Washington. Since joining the Gallery in February 2008, he has organized The Robert and Jane Meyerhoff Collection: Selected Works and initiated a series of focus exhibitions in the Tower Gallery of the East Building on such artists as Philip Guston, Mark Rothko, and Nam June Paik.
Ruth Fine is curator of special projects in modern art at the National Gallery of Art,
Washington, DC, and the lead author of a multi-volume catalogue raisonné of Mark Rothko’s works on paper, projected for publication by the National Gallery in 2014.
Together we spent about 45 minutes in front of the three murals, talking about their power, the use of color and their mystery. The striations, the drip marks that go up or down, make definitive statements as to their correct orientation difficult. But the effect at distance is compelling. They do behave in much the way Rothko describes them in his writings, which is echoed in Logan’s play: they shift, they pulse, they move threw space. The large canvas in the middle seems convey the most sense of movement and depth. The central dark color lifts and moves toward the viewer, hovering over the orange red background. It’s remarkable in its sense of depth.
On close inspection we saw layers of color which made it difficult to discern exactly how it was done. What layer came first, and so on. It’s as Rothko says in the play, “You will see many things here… but they are all secret, You cannot talk about any of it.” There is a mystery about the process of the making of these works, and how he may have intended to install them. There is little mystery, however, in their affecting power.
Afterward, we adjourned to the research area where many of the 800 objects on paper in the Gallery’s possession are stored. Ruth had laid out a recognizable series of miniature sketches, that she explained she was only comfortable in describing them as work “related to the mural projects.”
They appear to this novice as if they could have been studies for the murals, but I was quickly abused of that notion. The works were done after the murals were completed as part of the preparation for the Tate Museum gift. They are compelling nonetheless.
For me, the most startling were the earlier works on paper, watercolors of familiar scenes to Rothko on Cape Cod and New York. Stunning and vibrant watercolors, figurative landscapes, surrealist pieces with Tanguy horizons, all pulsing with color. Many of the works have never been exhibited. The lack of signatures attest to that. I was so moved to have the opportunity to see these works in person. Photos and high res prints simply cannot do justice to the depth and vibrancy of seeing the colors with the naked eye.
I am deeply grateful to Harry Cooper and Ruth Fine for this opportunity to witness the journey of Rothko from watercolor, surrealism, to the “so-called” mature works of the murals. There is a sense of inner discovery and motion, ranging in style and approach that gives testimony to some inner yearning being worked out in his art. The visit gave me a real sense of launch to the coming work in the next weeks of bringing RED to Washington.
As I walked from the Gallery along the National Mall, I was struck by something that is characteristic about Washington that I had never noticed quite so clearly before. Washington is certainly a vibrant city of culture, a great and growing theater community for sure, but it became quite clear to me that the Mall, the central meeting place for American citizens is comprised of monuments to visual art. Filled with museum after museum dedicated to the vast array of visual art, sculpture, folk art, historical and cultural artifacts, Washington is, at its core, a visual arts city. It’s the perfect place for audiences to appreciate RED and Rothko.
Audiences will be pleased to know that both Harry and Ruth will be on a post-performance panel discussing Rothko and the play with audiences after the Sunday January 29th matinee. I am honored to join them for that discussion.
I will also join Klaus Ottman for his post-performance discussion on February 12th. Klaus will also be giving a lecture on Rothko and his use of color at the Phillips Collection:
Mark Rothko and Color
January 12, 2012, 6:00 p.m., Lecture
Phillips Curator at Large and author of “The Essential Rothko” Klaus Ottmann discusses how Rothko used color as a gateway to the soul. Rothko’s idea that color can express the full gravity of religious yearnings is evident in the Phillips’s chapel-like Rothko Room.
Throughout the run of RED, audiences will be treated to a post-performance discussion after each Sunday matinee. For more information visit Arena Stage website: RED AT ARENA
Karl Kochvar, Goodman scenic artist, did an amazing job at capturing the feel and color for Rothko’s work, no?
There will be a very short week before rehearsals being on the 14th of January. I am so looking forward to being with Patrick and being back in the skin of Rothko and Bob Falls’ exciting production of John Logan’s play. Rothko Madness comes to DC!
Next: Rehearsals at Arena