Collaborative play and art exhibit chronicle decisive time in artist’s life
By Paige Buffington
The most famous works of artist Mark Rothko are not easy for the casual viewer to understand. With their abstract forms, they challenge the intellect of even those who are familiar with the New York School, which sums up artistic approaches of Abstract Expressionism, Gesturalism and Color Field. But a recent collaboration between the Arkansas Arts Center and the Arkansas Repertory Theater has helped paint a fuller picture of both the artist and his work for the Little Rock community.
The partnership has created a one-two punch that Rothko himself might appreciate: while the Arts Center has mounted an exhibit of Rothko’s work called “1940s: The Decisive Decade,” which focuses on pieces produced in the 1940’s, (the “decisive decade” for Rothko, according to the curator), a few miles away the Arkansas Rep has just concluded a run of “Red,” the Tony award-winning Broadway show which depicts a time in the artist’s life when he was commissioned to produce a series of murals for Manhattan’s then brand-new Four Seasons Restaurant.
While serving as the chief curator and curator of European art at the Columbia Museum of Art in Columbia, S.C., Todd Herman, Arkansas Arts Center executive director, developed the Rothko exhibition. Herman approached the National Gallery of Art in Washington about presenting the paintings “to bring to the forefront a thought-provoking look into Rothko’s paintings of the 1940s, a period often overlooked.”
The exhibit at the Arts Center is aptly named. The “decisive” and methodical presentation of the exhibit is clearly reflected both in the selection of works chosen to support this theme and the chronological order in which the pieces are displayed in the gallery. One sees the evolution of Rothko’s visual journey that begins in the 1940s with a cacophony of objects: a Greek column, a human figure, architectural or organic elements.
Beginning the walk through the show, one sees pieces of Rothko’s work that is representational and unlike his later non-representational work that emerges at the end of the decade. The objects in the paintings can still be recognized by the viewer. In “Cat 4,” an oil on canvas painting dated 1941-42, two opaque gray-white mythical forms with human heads and animal legs and feet, lay vertically on the picture plane. Their arms are entwined. Diagonal lines of red, white and bits of black and muted blues project the image into the foreground. The background colors of dark reds, black, darker greens and burnt sienna give the image depth and dimension and create an uncomplicated composition. In the exhibition catalogue, Christopher Rothko, the artist’s son, states, “Rothko enters the decade (the 1940s) a figurative painter and leaves it one of the most strikingly abstract.”
“Automatic” drawings, driven by the unconscious mind and informed by the psychological treatises of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung appear as expressions of Surrealism. Other examples of artistic approaches used by the New York School are seen here in the works collected in this exhibit: Milton Avery, de Kooning, Clyfford Still, Max Weber, Jackson Pollock and Mark Tobey
Another display text in the gallery says, “By 1947, Rothko eliminated all elements of Surrealism and the mystic. In new works, he achieved multiple effects by a variety of painting techniques that included … [thinning] his paint so that is soaked into the canvas and at times dripped.”
By 1947 and through 1950, as represented in the “The Decisive Decade,” his canvases are reduced to a whisper of color and a single or dual form. By now, the subject matter is completely abstract; the color is applied in a thin layer, hugging the canvas so closely as to appear to having not been applied at all.
Like its collaborative twin, “Red” is a tightly-focused revelation of Rothko’s character and mind. A two-man drama written by John Logan and directed by Robert Hupp, focuses on Rothko’s two year struggle to produce the wall murals for the Four Seasons Restaurant, located at 99 E. 52nd St., in the Seagram Building in midtown Manhattan.
The strength of this production resides in its minimalist two-person cast which features interaction with Rothko (played by Joseph Graves) and his young, fresh out of art school studio assistant, Ken (played by Chris Wendelken). These techniques function as a vehicle to successfully convey Rothko’s artistic process and his passion and principles about his color theory and expressions.
Both the play and the exhibit, particularly the period of the artist’s life from 1947 to 1950, are articulated best by the text displayed on the wall of the gallery that hangs near these last pieces; “Rothko largely abandoned conventional titles in 1947. The artist also resisted explaining the meaning of his work.”
By 1970, Rothko himself had the last word, saying, “Silence is so accurate.” On Feb. 25, 1970 he committed suicide.