Thursday, April 5, 2012

Mark Rothko on art and oedipal struggle

John Logan's Red, a play set in the studio of the late painter Mark Rothko, is currently playing at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre. Les Waters directs; David Chandler and John Brummer are the two-man cast.

I saw Red last week, and recommend it: the Rep is staging a powerful production of a work that originated at London's Donmar Warehouse (a point in any play's favor) and won a Tony for Best Play in 2010.

Yes, there's a certain piling on of the 'anguished artist' trope, but for the most part David Chandler's Rothko is moving -- much more than convincing -- in his depiction of a "serious" painter who insists to his new-hired assistant and artist-in-the-making that art is more than slathering paint on canvas. From Logan's script:
You have a lot to learn, young man. Philosophy. Theology. Literature. Poetry. Drama. History. Archeology. Anthropology. Mythology. Music. These are your tools as much as brush and pigment. You cannot be an artist until you are civilized. You cannot be civilized until you learn. To be civilized is to know where you belong in the continuum of your art and your world. To surmount the past, you must know the past.
Over the top? Sure. And, in David Chandler's performance, not so much.

Surmounting the past is really what this play is about:
The child must banish the father. Respect him, but kill him. [...] Courage in painting isn't facing the blank canvas, it's facing Manet, it's facing Velasquez. All we can do is move beyond what was there, to what is here, and hope to get some intimation of what will be here. 'What is past and passing and to come.' That's Yeats, whom you haven't read.

The quasi-Oedipal struggle between generations of artists -- Cubism 'killed' by Rothko's generation of Abstract Expressionists; Rothko on the point of being deposed by the Pop Art likes of Jasper Johns, Robert Rauchenberg, and (Sauron himself!) Andy Warhol -- is as simultaneously gripping and ridiculous as any fiercely-fought contest between fathers and sons. Again, in BRT's production, it's Chandler's ability that carries the drama: his simultaneous portrayal of the artist's absolute commitment to his own work, and of Rothko's knowledge that his own demise is inevitable -- as inevitable as that of the forbearers he himself dispatched.

I've quoted Henry Kissinger before on the topic of academic politics -- "academic politics are so vicious precisely because the stakes are so small" -- and found myself remembering the aphorism as I watched Red unfold last weekend. Here's the thing, though. I wasn't thinking of Kissinger's sneer as a mode of dismissing the play. I was thinking of it in light of the truth that everything that matters only matters in a context.

Take all of the history of western art -- or all human history for that matter -- and stack it against the immensity and age of the universe.

Voilà! A flash in the pan!

But, year-by-year, we don't inhabit that universal scope. At humankind's best, our hearts and minds are committed to and moved by intellectual depth, cultural breadth, artistic integrity, and formal rigor of just the sort Logan, Waters, and Chandler give us in a bio-drama depicting a certain twentieth-century Russian immigrant to the United States, née Marcus Rothkowitz.

Red plays at the Berkeley Rep through 29 April 2012 12 May 2012 [extension announced a few hours after this post was originally published].

Related posts on One Finger Typing:
Jim Campbell's "Exploded Views" at SFMOMA
Art as long as history, time beyond memory
Matrixed higher education

Thanks to Matthew Felix Sun for his image of No. 14, Mark Rothko, 1960 taken at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in December of last year.

1 comment:

  1. I truly appreciate the "over-the-top" argument of Rothko's on the need to become civilized/cultured first, in order to become artist.

    Matthew Felix Sun