The great artist came to Colorado once, when he taught at Boulder for eight weeks in 1955. It was a chance to get out of town, make some extra cash and be idolized in the provinces. James Byrnes, the head of our Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, drove up in hopes of finding him at home. Instead he found Rothko on the road a few miles away, about to abandon an old car with steam erupting from under the hood. Rothko had just bought the car for sightseeing, but didn’t realize automobiles needed something more than gas and oil. He was a big city boy. Byrnes invited Rothko down to the Springs, and he came to our town for a weekend. He enjoyed himself, praising his excellent hosts, but he also told Byrnes to get out, and that his enterprise here was both “shoddy” and too safe. And Byrnes did get out—he directed the FAC for only two years, though in that time he managed to add O’Keefe, Marin, Dove, Avery and other modern artists to the collection. But no Rothkos, alas.
Rothko himself went back to New York where he belonged. He was not an outdoors man; he hated nature. He liked to eat, smoke, drink and paint --- indoors. He was already famous when he came to Colorado, and he was about to become even more so. Samuel Bronfam, the head of Seagram’s Liquor, was building the greatest, the most important and the most beautiful office tower in New York. At the top would be the posh Four Seasons restaurant, with a lot of designated space for large mural paintings by a great modern artist. Rothko was Seagram’s choice; he was given a very handsome fee (about $2,000,000 in today’s money) to paint more than 500 square feet of paintings. It was the greatest commission of its time.
John Logan’s play, Red, takes off from this historical moment. Rothko has a lot of work to do; he needs an assistant. A young painter is given the job and gets a lot more than he bargained for. From the moment he walks into the studio he gets Rothko exploding like a radiator on a hot day in Colorado. Rothko was not an easy man. He was prodigiously self-preoccupied, a steaming fountain of anxiety and indignation, and a titanic bully. Sometimes he was a bore, but he was always a force. The Seagram’s commission excited and alarmed him. It was an irresistible invitation for the officially designated “greatest living artist” to put his grand stamp on an eternal monument, and Rothko did not shrink from comparing the Seagram murals to the Sistine Chapel. But there were difficulties.
Rothko was no longer a young man; he was the old champ feeling pressure from young contenders, pleasant and cool artists like the one he has just hired as his assistant. Thirty years ago he and his fellow abstract painters had taken on Cubism and triumphed. As Rothko says, he and his gang destroyed Cubism: “We stomped it to death. Nobody can paint a Cubist picture today.” But now, he fears, he and his movement are the new dinosaurs; it’s their time to go. Pop Art is ready to take out Abstract Expressionism. But Rothko is going down fighting. The Seagram’s murals will reassert his dominance and seal his immortality. Maybe.
There are further problems. The greatest living artist dreaded showing his work to anyone anywhere. Before an exhibition he would be throwing up and taking to his bed. He liked very much being honored as a genius but at the same time feared that exposure of his work would reveal him as a fraud. He lowered the lights when showing his work in his studio. He was as protective of his paintings as we are of our little children. As he says to his assistant—and to us—in his first words of the play: “Be kind. Be a human being, that’s all I can say. Be a human being for once in your life! These pictures deserve compassion and they live and die in the eye of a sensitive viewer.” Sending his pictures out into the world was as hard as dropping your kid off on his first day of school.
Rothko dreamed of a sacred, contemplative space for his work, and he finally got one, years later in the Houston Chapel. But the Seagram’s murals were to be mounted in a restaurant, in a temple of commerce, anathema to Rothko’s purist ideals. As he revealed to a friend, he had been “commissioned to paint a series of large canvases for the walls of the most exclusive room in a very expensive restaurant . . . a place where the richest bastards in New York will come to feed and show off.” Rothko confessed to a friend that he had accepted this assignment “with strictly malicious intentions.” He said, “I hope to ruin the appetite of every son of a bitch who eats in that room.” His paintings were to be so powerful, so oppressive they would overwhelm and punish the corrupt feeders, who would suddenly feel trapped and dining as if in a circle of Dante’s hell.
Rothko’s rationale for accepting the Seagram’s commission reveals much about the man and his time. The two dozen or so New York artists who fought and drank and painted big pictures in studios as large as gymnasiums were a special breed, mostly men and a few women. They thought of themselves as titans, as saints, as rebels, as revolutionaries, as intellectuals and Promethean fire givers. In retrospect, through the lens of post modern irony and detachment, they sometimes sound full of romantic bluster, slopping the paint around while quoting Nietszche and Kierkegaard, given to orphic utterances like, “I am nature!” (Jackson Pollock, famously).
And yet this group constituted the last heroic age of American art. Rothko and his contemporaries acted as if art actually mattered. Painting was the most important activity in the world. Art was not decoration; a real painting was not painted to be an “overmantle”---something to hang over your color-coordinated fireplace. Real painting, heroic painting, comes out of high seriousness and aspiration. It asks everything of the artist, and of the viewer. It is Dionysus and Apollo, it is red and black, it is an exaltation of the spirit; it is the blood of life itself: “Stand closer. You’ve got to get close. Let it pulsate . . . Let it wrap its arms around you; let it embrace you, filling even your peripheral vision so that nothing else exists or has ever existed or will exist. Let the picture do it’s work—but work with it. Meet it halfway for God’s sake.”
Rothko speaks to us as I sometimes want to speak to my audiences before a production of Shakespeare, Ibsen or Chekhov: “Lean forward, lean into it. Engage with it!” There’s something truly exhilarating about encountering an artist of such high purpose and uncompromising intensity, and in Red we do. John Logan, the playwright, is also one of the best screenwriters of our time (his credits include Gladiator and Skyfall, and he has been assigned to write the next two James Bond movies). In Red Logan brilliantly weaves together much of Rothko’s own words and writings—most of what Rothko says here he actually did say. But Logan also understands how to bring old fashioned “real men” to life and put them into action; he is an action writer. In Red Rothko rides roughshod over his mild assistant and the theatre audience for about an hour. He is as terrifying and thrilling as Genghis Khan. And then the mild assistant finds his legs, and that’s reason to cheer and wonder. You will see.
Rothko never came back to “shoddy” Colorado to threaten and inspire us, like Tamburlaine, with his “high astounding terms.” He preferred the dim light of his studio, pulsating with his red paintings. So we have gone to New York to engage a director and two wonderful actors. We will be bringing them and Rothko’s New York studio here. It was located in the Bowery, in what had been the YMCA gymnasium, modified to seal off virtually all natural light. You will meet Mark Rothko in his chapel as he was: full of revelation and contradiction, oblivious and highly aware, sophisticated and naive, fearful and courageous, violent and vulnerable, pompous, sensual, passionate, and, finally, all alone in the dark. He always feared that his black would devour his red, and eventually it did; after suffering a heart attack and increased depression in 1970 he slit his wrists and was found in a pool of his own blood. He was 66.
But here it’s 11 years earlier and all his blood is on the canvas. You won’t forget your time with him, or your journey into the molten heart of his creation.