Alfred Molina, best known in Lovelydayland as the Mayor from Chocolat, is currently playing the brilliant Mark Rothko in Red on Broadway. It is the story of an artist and his assistant and the mind behind the paint we love.
As far as theater goes, it was a bit superfluous. And as far as art goes, it was a lot superfluous. (I stole that word directly from the mouth of Alfred Molina, now didn't I?) But superfluous or not, I enjoyed this play immensely. I enjoyed it because it was ninety minutes of art talk and because the girl next to me couldn't stop smiling. Ya know, there could be an entire short film of Annie watching Red. It would star Pepé Le Pew, and the play would be made of flowers. ANYWAY...
Yes, it was all a bit superfluous. It's difficult to explain how to talk about paintings to people who don't understand how to talk about paintings. And the point of Red was, basically, 'how to talk about paintings' but it never quite got there. Conversations and soliloquies bounced around the topic, but basically hit all the cliches we learn in art school-- colors shifting, lines vibrating, paint glowing-- plus a few hidden cracks at the art world that made certain audience members laugh LOUDLY to let everyone else know that WE GET IT! BECAUSE WE ARE IMPORTANT PEOPLE IN THE ART WORLD! Oh, art world. You're so full of yourself.***
But what this play did hit was the sentiment of an aging artist. This part gave me pause. It made us bow to an artist past his prime who was watching the world grow around him. A sharp irony was held in the references Rothko made to artists who he considered to be past their prime-- Picasso, Matisse, the entire fleet of plein air painters, as well as references made to artists who he didn't think would have lasting quality-- Warhol, Lichtenstein, and pop as a whole. Rothko referred to Picasso as a 'mantle painter,' superfluous in his old age (there it is) knowing full well that his own current commission for the Four Seasons was a fancy way of selling out as well.
I just read an article in The New Yorker about artist Julie Mehretu that spoke of this very concept, and to be honest, made me somewhat angry. Mehretu is the artist recently commissioned to paint that huge mural in the new Goldman Sachs building. When asked to do the commission, she allegedly took six months to decide whether or not she wanted to do it. "What would be the reason to make a painting for a financial institution, you know? Why would that be interesting?" she relayed to the author, as if she was trying to consider artistic reasons for painting something that big other than the massive paycheck behind it. YAWN. I just didn't feel like she meant it. I didn't feel like she actually cared about her work's 'purity' but instead felt pressured to address it because that's the sort of thing 'a real artist' would suffer over.
Of course Mehretu took the commission. The mural is hanging in the Goldman Sachs lobby, and you can go downtown and see it for yourself. (Actually, I really want to do this. Anyone up for a field trip to GS? The mural looks gorgeous, and I adore Mehretu's work, despite me calling her a fake a few moments ago. She is an important painter!)
But Rothko-- the great Mark Rothko-- gave his commission back. He didn't hang his paintings in the Four Seasons. In the end, he chose 'purity' over money (I have to put that word in quotes-- my cynical mind just can't type it without an eye roll) and placed that late, morbid, red series in a chapel in Texas, I kid you not. And this, we came to find out, was the point of the play. In the end, it was an exercise in semantics, a philosophical discussion on what makes art real, on what makes art good.
I'd be interested to hear opinions of this play from those of you who don't spend all day every day talking about art. Did the conversations make sense to you? Did it crack open the mind of an abstract painter? Did it help you understand those big red blocks of color? Go see it, then call me, and then lets sit downtown in front of Julie Mehretu's mural and talk about art.
***yes, I was one of them last night. Am one of them, maybe. I saw this show with clients (and Annie!) for work and was very aware of the super important art dealer sitting next to me. In addition to watching the show, I was constantly trying to determine what one of the greatest minds in art today thought about one of the greatest artists of all time. HE liked it, if that tells you anything.