Aspen Fringe Festival: ‘Red’ offers a revealing look at Rothko and art
June 21, 2012
ASPEN – Why do artists tend to struggle in disproportionate numbers with addiction and madness? Is it that the brain chemistry that lavishes creativity also plagues a mind with destructive thoughts? Is it the dedication combined with the uncertainty of success? Is it a matter of buying into the romantic notion of the tortured artist?
Maybe it’s none of the above. Maybe it’s that the ultimate goal for the most ambitious artists isn’t making a painting or scoring a symphony. It’s something bigger, more meaningful, and nearer to unattainable.
“We have this little thing: Can art change the world?” said David Ledingham, an Aspen actor and director. “Everybody, somehow, shares the hope that whatever they do – teaching, building, making art – if they love what they’re doing, dedicate themselves to that vision … . For a lot of artists, that’s what being an artist is about – that hope.”
Among those passionate creators was Mark Rothko. The Russian-born, New York-based 20th-century painter is the subject of “Red,” John Logan’s play that is being directed by Ledingham Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m. at the Aspen District Theatre, as part of the Aspen Fringe Festival. Set in Rothko’s studio in Manhattan’s low-rent Bowery neighborhood, “Red” focuses on an ongoing conversation between the artist (played by Los Angeles actor Preston Maybank) and his assistant and protege Ken (Mark Christine, also an L.A. actor) about artistic integrity. Ken, young and ambitious, takes the position that an artist can cater to the audience. “Not everything has to be so goddamn important all the time. Not every painting has to rip out your heart and expose your soul. Not everyone wants art that actually hurts,” he says at one point.
Rothko, who constantly fretted that his art – especially his color-field works, paintings that focused entirely on color rather than figures – was misunderstood, and who committed suicide at the age of 66, saw things differently. “I am here to step on your head. I am not here to paint pretty pictures,” he says in “Red.” Rothko argued that Cubism has seen its day, and that in light of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, new artistic forms needed to be born. Rothko spoke of his generation “stomping Cubism to death.”
“Red,” which opened on Broadway in 2010 and earned a Tony for Best Play, revolves around a well-known incident from Rothko’s career. In 1957 he received a commission to paint a series of murals for the Four Seasons, the posh restaurant in midtown Manhattan’s Seagrams building. The paycheck of $35,000 was said to be the biggest ever given an artist at the time, but Rothko was uneasy with the project. Ken points out the hypocrisy of the principled artist making work for one of the most exclusive audiences on the planet. Rothko responds that part of his goal is to “spoil the appetite of every son of a bitch who eats in that room.”
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The play also examines another aspect of artistic life – the nuts and bolts of making art. “Red” attempts to erase the idea that the bulk of an artist’s time is spent sitting back waiting for inspiration to strike.
“Logan describes ‘Red’ as a ‘work play,'” said Ledingham, who is also the artistic director of the four-year-old Aspen Fringe Festival. “There are a lot of ideas, and Rothko thought a lot about theories. But those Seagrams murals are these big canvases and to get to the point where we see them in museums, that’s a grind. Your shoulders will hurt after it. Rothko says, ‘We work hard here. This isn’t an Old World salon with teacakes and lemonade.’ There’s a lot of pounding that goes into making any artistic enterprise happen. And that’s a wonderful revelation that John Logan understands in this play.”
“Art has this veneer – it’s perceived to be this rarefied, intellectual pursuit,” Maybank said. “But theater, making movies – it’s a very blue-collar occupation. It’s a lot of nuts and bolts, sweating through it to make it have this ease. A lot of these artists struggle with alcohol – that’s about trying to have a respite from the grind.”
To Ledingham, Logan displays an understanding of the artist as a working man not only in his writing, but in his own practice. Logan has become the rare screenwriting superstar, creating the screenplays for “Hugo,” “Rango,” “Gladiator” and “The Aviator,” picking up three Oscar nominations in the process.
“It’s great that he cares about writing a play. After doing Hollywood, so many writers say, ‘OK, I’m done with that stuff,'” Ledingham said. But Logan saw Rothko’s Seagrams murals at the Tate Modern in London about a decade ago, and knew he had to write a stage play. “He started poking around and said, ‘This is not an opera, it’s not a movie, it’s not a musical. It’s a play, and specifically a play about artists working and everything that entails.”