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Playing Rothko: The Seagram Murals on Arena Stage by New American Paintings

Edward Gero as Mark Rothko and Patrick Andrews as Ken in the 2011 Goodman Theatre production of Red. Directed by Robert Falls. Photo by Liz Lauren.

If abstract painting is an inward journey seeking truth in the human condition, then perhaps Mark Rothko’s Seagram Murals are heralds for what we’ll find. Commissioned in 1958 for the dinning room of the Four Seasons in Manhattan’s Seagram building, the murals were a bit of a formal departure for the artist, who had already settled into his classic style of soft rectangular shapes floating on vertical canvases. The paintings also marked the beginning of Rothko’s journey into darkness, as he left behind a brighter palette for progressively darkened hues and a somber affect that would yield his late-career black paintings. Increasingly apprehensive of the posh Four Seasons restaurant as an appropriate setting for the meditative pictorial environment he sought, Rothko withdrew from the Seagram project in 1959, though he would later complete multiple such environments — at the Philips Collection in D.C., in Harvard University, and with the Rothko Chapel in Houston.

This landmark moment — Rothko’s struggles in the studio and his germinating ambition for a pure physical environment for his paintings — is the subject of Red, a screenplay by John Logan, produced by D.C.’s Arena Stage in conjunction with Chicago’s Goodman Theater (at Arena Stage through March 11, 2012). Concurrently with Red the National Gallery of Art is exhibiting the three Seagram paintings from its permanent collection, through August 15.

More after the jump. — Matthew Smith, Washington, D.C. contributor


Mark Rothko | American, born Russia, 1903–1970, Untitled (Seagram Mural), 1959, oil and mixed media on canvas, overall: 265.4 x 288.3 cm (104 1/2 x 113 1/2 in.) Gift of The Mark Rothko Foundation, Inc. Copyright © 1997 Christopher Rothko and Kate Rothko Prizel

Patrick Andrews as Ken and Edward Gero as Mark Rothko in the 2011 Goodman Theatre production of Red. Directed by Robert Falls. Photo by Liz Lauren.

Patrick Andrews as Ken and Edward Gero as Mark Rothko in the 2011 Goodman Theatre production of Red. Directed by Robert Falls. Photo by Liz Lauren.

As Roberta Smith noted regarding the Broadway incarnation of Red — which won the 2010 Tony Award for best play — there are some cringe-inducing moments resulting from dialogue that’s not quite in sync with the realities of studio practice. And the testy relationship between one of America’s foremost abstract painters and his fictitious confrontational assistant, who’s more interested in antagonizing Rothko than in making himself helpful around the studio, doesn’t jibe. Obviously, Red is aiming for folklore and entertainment over nuanced veracity. And awkward inaccuracies aside — the Washington Post’s Phillip Kennicott pointsout a few rather significant ones — it’s fun to see Rothko contemplating his work on stage, realistic reproductions of his murals strewn about.

As with his prior work, Rothko was more interested in producing unsettled color combinations than in harmonizing. And with regard to the Seagram Murals — landmark paintings that demarcated Rothko’s spiritual quest — his intention was to “ruin the appetite of every son of a bitch who ever eats in that room.”


Mark Rothko: Seagram Murals
. All works National Gallery of Art, Washington, Gift of The Mark Rothko Foundation, Inc., Photo by Rob Shelley. Rothko paintings © Christopher Rothko and Kate Rothko Prizel

Mark Rothko | Untitled (Seagram Mural sketch), 1959, oil and acrylic on canvas, overall: 183.5 x 152.7 cm (72 1/4 x 60 1/8 in.), Gift of The Mark Rothko Foundation, Inc., Copyright © 1997 Christopher Rothko and Kate Rothko Prizel

Mark Rothko | Untitled (Seagram Mural sketch), 1959 oil and acrylic on canvas overall: 182.8 x 152.6 cm (71 15/16 x 60 1/16 in.) National Gallery of Art, Washington, Gift of The Mark Rothko Foundation, Inc. Copyright © 1997 Christopher Rothko and Kate Rothko Prizel

Matthew Smith is a writer and artist based in Washington, D.C.

 

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