Latest TJ Commission Begins Tonight (SOLD OUT) Just like Arena Stage’s RED

So it’s the season for commissions — we’ve just launched 5 in Locally Grown and our 6th of the season begins previews tonight. We’ll be eager to hear many a reaction to The Kinsey Sicks’ ELECTILE DYSFUNCTION: THE KINSEY SICKS FOR PRESIDENT! But today’s posting is for those of us who’ve just seen a play about commissions; John Logan’s Tony-Award winning RED at Arena Stage starring the indomitable Edward Gero. In it, Gero plays Mark Rothko who’s received a lucrative commission and is endeavoring to complete it. Let’s ask the same questions of RED’s Rothko, that we asked of our Locally Grown playwright in this posting.

How’s the Seagrams Building/Four Seasons commission an albatross hanging around the artist’s neck? And why’s it critical for the artist?

How does this commission work? And how might it be counter-productive!

There’s certainly drama in this commission… So let’s hear your reactions to that drama — and to the production. All invited to respond!


17 thoughts on “Latest TJ Commission Begins Tonight (SOLD OUT) Just like Arena Stage’s RED

  1. My initial thoughts on RED were that of frustration. The first twenty minuets or so, I struggled with a feeling of not being able to understand the significance of what I saw on stage, more or less what I thought the show was even about. The language used was esoteric and foreign to me personally. The best way to describe the feeling was, as Mark expressed his feelings towards the fancy French restaurant and how they titles of the foods were so snotty they were above his head, later in the show. How he described it all to be above his head.

    The point where all of this changed however was when Rothko expressed emotion; when he yelled at his assistant Ken for the first time. I believe it was over the issue of what the painting reminded him of——“RED”——and this is when the play really came alive for me. After this breaking point, the emotions kept coming and stayed fluid until its end. Apparently the true story about Rothko ended when he slits his wrist on the floor of his studio, but in the show that wasn’t the case as is with most productions. Maybe they wanted to end on a more positive note, and keep the audience inspired. Otherwise, this the first of many attempts perhaps?

    In many ways I sensed allot of parallels between this show and the other ones we’ve watched in the semester; I think it had the internal struggles from our first visit to THE RELIGION THING. The hardships and dramatization from TIME STANDS STILL, not to mention a similar set construction. The show also encompassed the comedic sense of humor from NECESSARY SACRIFICES, although much different.

    I have watched Hugo in theaters and can see the types of screenplays the writer likes to pursue. They are very artsy and usually laced with some long background synopsis of inner struggles to them. Nevertheless, even though the show reminds me of all these other plays, it was still something that stood on its own, as was enjoyable to watch.

  2. I walked into Arena Theater with high expectations for “Red”; after all, the production had won multiple Tonys, and Kat purchased tickets months in advance to ensure we had seats.

    I was not disappointed when the show began. I’m not sure why, but this play was the first we’ve seen that brought me along on its emotional roller coaster. I felt Ken’s frustration with Rothko’s mood swings and pretention; I related when Rothko described his awful experience at the Four Seasons. My heartstrings tugged when Rothko told Ken to quit his job and make an impact on the world, to create something new. Tears welled in my eyes, much like they do when I watch “P.S. I Love You.”

    I think part of the reason for my emotional engagement was the acting and timing. Both actors played their role phenomenally. The way Rothko, the actor described Rothko, the person, at the talk back did not surprise me whatsoever, because the Real Rothko was exactly as the Actor Rothko portrayed him. What the actors did with their time, too, made a difference. The heavy silences that frequently filled the theater had me on the edge of my seat; what was Ken going to say? what did he see in the painting? when will they start talking again? The words left unspoken had as much, if not more, of an impact as the words the actors said, and, because such prolonged silences are not as common in plays, they kept me paying attention.

    “Red” reminded me, in some way, of “Time Stands Still.” I think a theme in both works is, how do you know your art will make a difference? Sarah grapples with the possibility that her photographs may not help solve the world’s problems; similarly, Ken asks Rothko how he knows his art is making people think or act.

    “Red” definitely proved to be a play to remember. Every theatrical element came together to create a true work of art with an inspiring message: never let black encroach on red.

    • I found it very interesting that you compared “Red” to “Time Stands Still.” While the basic, surface-level comparison of somebody wondering whether his or her work will impact the world in some way does stand true, there exists a world of difference between the ways each of these works impact the world. The very most that Rothko’s modern art impacts the world may be in some strange, emotional way. These works of modern art are not going to move any mountains or topple any dictators. The only harm Rothko will endure is inflicted on himself in a self-absorbed emotional sense or in a physical sense against himself (i.e. taking his own life, which actually occurred.)

      However, Sarah’s work as a photojournalist reaps real, tangible benefits. Without these photojournalists, little is known about real conditions happening to real people in horrific situations. As an example, news stations like the BBC currently have to sneak journalists into Syria to report on and provide evidence against Bashar al-Assad’s oppressive regime. Without brave individuals like these who venture into the real world (as opposed to cooping oneself in a dimly lit art studio) to bring other peoples’ plight to policy makers who can enact real change, these horrific situations may never receive proper coverage.

      • Will R.- i think you’ve really identified the struggle of an artist; trying to decide if your work contributes to humankind or not. However it seemed to me that in “Time Stands Still” Sarah came to the conclusion that her photos would not, in fact, lead to he “toppling of any dictators.” That is why she struggled to justify her photographic work, because she was haunted by this feeling that her efforts to improve the world were not actually helping. I was left with the impression that she wanted to continue photographing in war zones because she loved it and she was good at it. In this way Rothko and Sarah were actually quite similar, to the extent that they were both self-absorbed artists doing what they loved mostly for their own benefit.

      • This is a very interesting discussion. I would have never thought to compare the two artists and how their work contributes to human kind. When comparing the work of Sarah and Rothko, I believe I would have had the same ideas as Will R. Will S. also makes great points on this topic. Sarah’s works does seem like it would contribute more to the world yet she questions whether or not they actually hold significance. Rothko on the other hand does not seem to hold any doubt about the power of his work and his work is so abstract – not sending any obvious message. Aside from the type of work Rothko and Sarah produce, they have many similar qualities.

  3. Much like the other students, I went into RED with very high expectations. From reading about the play online, I had a pretty good idea of what it was going to be like, (plot, characters, structure) and was excited by all the hype surrounding it. After viewing the play, I left with bitter-sweet feelings and mixed emotions about the play. Three days later I have yet to decide whether or not I like the RED as a story. Firstly, many aspects of the production were astounding. The set, the acting, and the characters, were all fantastic. However, the script all but ruined the play for me. The first question that popped into my head after the ending was: “Is the audience supposed to hate the characters’ pretentiousness or love it?” Both Rothko and the assistant were, in my mind, on cloud nine. I understand that this dialogue was probably true to life, as Rothko was infatuated with philosophy and art, and how those subjects affected one’s life. However, all the talking -and yelling- about the snobbish upper-class, the “feelings” that the paintings have, the ignorant social climbers, the enlightened work of previous artists that we can “never understand,” created a fog of pure conceitedness that was so thick it could have been cut by a knife. I felt myself battling back these feelings in an attempt to like the characters; but to no avail. In the beginning I found myself “rooting” for the assistant as he tried to break down Rothko and force him to step out of his studio into the real world. However, in the middle of the play we found out that the assistant was just as much living in his own world as Rothko. When the assistant persuaded Rothko to cancel the Four Seasons commission, that sealed the deal; from thereon in I loathed both of the characters. HOWEVER, as previously mentioned, I enjoyed nearly every aspect of the production besides the dialogue. The moments of silence, the music, and the scene where they madly prepped the canvas, were all brilliant. The ending of the play -however probably not characteristic of Rothko himself- was extremely inspirational and left me with hopes that the assistant would go out and create “new” art. In that way, RED was a great play as it truly made me think; just as if I was analyzing a painting in the MOMA. In sum, I know in my mind that it was worth seeing, I just can’t bring myself to say that I would go see it again.

    • This question is interesting, because I think it’s a fundamental component to understanding him as an individual and his art. Is he pretentious because of some intrinsic advantage he believe he has over others or to cover up some other insecurity? To extend this question to his art, is he attempting to create something lofty to which no one can relate, or is there real vulnerability in his work that speaks to individuals?

      I think his behavior comes from a combination of his personal talent as an artist as well as his intense fear of rejection. While he believes in his art and understands its cultural significance, his arrogance is as much that as his personal method of covering up his insecurities. I think he expressed his disconnect from society after his dinner at the hotel. He doesn’t connect with people, but still clearly desires inclusion in the way that he fears rejection of his art as a personal extension of himself.

      In that way, I would answer your question by saying that I loved it. It was a gateway to understanding an individual who, through the medium of art, struggled personally to find a way to meaningfully contribute to and feel a part of society.

  4. Entering into Thursday’s showing of “Red” by John Logan, I was hesitant as to how much I would enjoy the subject matter of this play because of my preconceived notions regarding modern art. Looking at the set before the play, I remarked to my fellow play-goers that anybody who created these pieces of “art” had to be some of the most self-absorbed, pretentious human beings on the planet. Though the dialogue between Mark Rothko and Ken seemed to solidify my notions regarding the self-absorption of the creators of modern art, I did gain an appreciation to some of the work and thought behind the creation. The way the light played off of the paintings and showed different dimensions of the layers of paint involved in the process was entertaining. However, it seems as if these pieces of modern art are far too personal to render any value for the general public. The fact that Rothko would sit alone in his studio staring at his pieces of modern art for days at a time without adding to the creation, mulling over the emotions and philosophy involved in each brush stroke of a red cube on a black and brown canvas means that somebody taking in this same piece of art has absolutely no way of understanding the full meaning and depth the creator intended to put into the painting.
    Regarding commissions, I felt that this play brought to light some of the negatives and positives involved with the whole commission process. Rothko seemed to think that the Seagrams Building/Four Seasons commission was a way to solidify his place among the elite echelon of artists, which was probably incorrect motivation for Rothko given the level of integrity he took in his artwork. Additionally, the Seagrams company seemed to have the wrong intentions in commissioning Rothko to this work. A positive drawn out of this process was how Rothko cancelled the commission. Though this occurred at the last minute in the process, he sent the money back to the company and recognized that he liked his works too much to have them displayed in a place he did not see fit for his paintings.

    • Your comment provoked an interesting thought for me about commissioned works. Could commissioned art function in the same was as commissioned theater? Under what conditions does a commissioned play increase the status of the writer? I think that for Rothko, a big part of why he couldn’t go through with the commission is because he needed to have full control over how his paintings were presented, that is why he would spend hours agonizing over his brushstrokes, and that is why he was so frustrated with the process. In the end, the love of his artwork overruled his desire for status and prestige and ironically guaranteed it. He loved his artwork to much to allow it to be open to the possibility of being mishandled or not properly presented to his viewers. I think that his artwork, especially, requires that kind of attention, because as the character Ken pointed out, how it is presented (the lighting) is almost integral to what you get out of the painting…

  5. Two components brought understanding both to Rothko and his art in the play-the two other characters, the audience and Ken.
    The interaction of the audience with Ken and Rothko’s dialogue struck me because the audience found humor not just in the clearly lighthearted components, but also in the darker, more heated dialogues. The latter times often involved uneasy laughter interspersed throughout various sections of the audience. I personally found many of these moments to be humorous as well, and, after the performance in a talk with Edward Gero, we learned that the audience “got it”-that is, we were in tune with Ken and Rothko. We were “right” to laugh in these darker moments, and this suggested significant interaction between those things that are happy and sad. This mirrors Rothko’s art because, even though black and red were clearly different, there existed significant interplay between the two colors on the canvas in addition to varying shades of red. This interaction suggested a thesis for Rothko’s art-that we live so close to both evil and good, that those forces are constantly in contact with each other, even though we want to believe in only the good in our lives.
    I disagreed with Ken’s assessment of why Rothko spent so much time pondering his art before painting and releasing it. Ken approached Rothko from the perspective that he was arrogant and took his art too seriously. I deconstructed his behavior much differently- rather, Gero expressed his behavior as an extension of his intense anxiety. When he ate dinner at the Four Seasons Hotel where his art was to be featured, he conveyed his disenchantment with people and community in general. Yet, that struck me as a defense mechanism, hiding his underlying fear of his art being rejected or taken in a way that he did not intend. More significantly, because he saw his art as a part of himself, he worried about personal rejection. His pondering and intense thought allowed him to avoid, for even a short time longer, exposing himself to the possibility of hurt and rejection. Maybe Ken was right to a certain extent, but Rothko’s fear of rejection seemed to influence his behavior much more heavily than anything else.
    Realizing that I disagreed with Ken forced me to delve deeper into my personal view of Rothko, and looking to the audience’s reaction to various moments taught me as much about Rothko and his art as the words of the artist himself.

    • Anne I like your thoughts looking into the deeper aspects of the relationship between Ken and Rothko. Personally, I found the relationship to be fascinating in the sense that they spent so much time together but neither really knew who each other was. One cared to know more about the other but the feeling as Rothko made clear throughout the play was not mutual. One interesting dynamic to this relationship was although they lacked a deep understanding of one another, Ken shared with Rothko the most personal and life changing moment of his life. Judging by the inflection and caution with which Ken told the story I have to imagine that he has not shared this story in such vivid detail with very many people if anyone for that matter. An interesting layer to their relationship, although Rothko knew very little about Ken he still knew more than most.

  6. Edward Gero, who played Rothco, remarked after the show that this play’s character is affected by the temperament of its audience each night. This audience, he continued, was clearly captivated. I certainly was! From the first lines of Red to the last, I sat absolutely enthralled by this work. The dialogue was rich and eloquent, charged with the same kind of pulsing energy that Rothco and Ken attribute to the color red. To respond to Demitri’s earlier post, the dialogue did not strike me as especially pretentious. Yes, Rothco declares that certain Masters cannot be fully comprehended by a pithy label or an inexperienced mind. Yes, Rothco made many similar pronouncements about the incongruence between the attitude toward art held by the public, particularly by the corporate elite, and that held by the artist his or her self.

    But these lines reveal not arrogance, but fear. An outgrowth of Rothco’s passion for his work is a fear that the world will never understand it.

    Yet what human being has not experienced the constant dance between chaos and order, life and death, warmth and cold? Ken’s observation that these relationships, represented at least in part by the red and black of Rothco’s art, are “symbioses” rather than independent entities. Red, and all that it represents, cannot exist without black.

    But similarly, I would challenge Rothco’s assertion that “artists must starve.” Like Ken asks, is there something so wrong with art expressing joy, too? Rothco is clearly aware of the dynamism of red and black, but he remains so obsessed with producing gritty, difficult, even anguished art that clearly the conflict in his own life has not reached any sort of equilibrium.

    Certain scenes that took my breath away: the two actors painting the canvas the color of blood, Ken’s challenge to Rotcho that conceiving of black as death is simplistic, Rothco’s phone call to the commissioner of his paintings, and the closing moments in which the stage fades to black but for the red ember that is Rotcho’s painting.

  7. As someone who absolutely loves art, art history and reading about artists, I found “RED” to be wonderful. I wasn’t sure what to expect coming into the play, I had heard very good things about the play—like the fact that it had been on Broadway, and had excellent reviews— but was unsure how the subject matter would be handled. “RED” was a moving portrait that was beautifully acted and produced. I think that the production attempted to move past simply showcasing the neurosis of the genius-artist; it offered a lens into the theatricality of Mark Rothko’s work in order to focus on the similarities between his art and theater. The lines that stayed with me the most from the beginning of the play were uttered by the artist himself about his paintings, but in fact could also apply to theater, that his paintings “quicken only if the empathetic viewer will let them.”

    So much of abstract expressionism, and often, theater, relies on audience-interaction. It relies on the audience’s ability to put part of themselves into the production, if not to interact with the play, at the very least to react— to laugh, smile, cry— to be provoked. A preoccupation of Rothko’s throughout “RED” was to find those “real human beings” who would put themselves into the art, who would contribute to the art, interact with it, in order to allow it to live. In many ways, audiences work the same way as art viewers, if they do not interact with the play, find some way to be empathetic viewers, then the play will not succeed.

    In regards to the conversation on commissions, I think that the play itself was self-conscious about the dangers of working on a piece of art for someone else, rather than for one’s self. Part of this danger, for Rothko, was that so much of what made his artwork come alive, and what would allow audiences to interact with it, would be destroyed in the Four Seasons setting. That makes me wonder if perhaps presenting a play in the wrong setting, at the wrong time, to the wrong audience can have the same effect. As Edward Gero noted during the talk back after the play, there were some audiences that just didn’t get the humor of the play, and that, strangely enough, affected the dynamic of the play. I think an interesting question that is raised by Rothko’s last minute cancellation of premiering his commissioned work in the Four Seasons because of a lack of control over the viewing of the final product raises questions about how writers give up control over their scripts, and the relationship of trust that must be built around doing so.

  8. Due to the critical acclaim that Red received from its Broadway stint, I was very excited to view the play in at the Arena Stage. I can happily say that I was not disappointed. The dialogue was crisp and rich, the acting was profound and felt real, and the implementation of artwork as a sort of character was profound. One particular aspect that I thought was especially effective was the use of silences. In most situations, silence represents a void of some kind, or an emptiness that needs to be filled. Not so in Red. The extended silences throughout the play were expertly placed, creating both a chance for the audience to mull over the complex dialogue and a tautness that added to the intrigue of the work. The silences, in a somewhat strange but effective way, also complemented the abstractness of the art and the ideas discussed by the two characters; it provided a little order to the messiness– while it can be difficult to grasp abstract ideas, everyone is familiar with the power of silence.

    The role that the Seagram commission play is crucial to the understanding of Rothko, and to abstract artists in general. To put it bluntly, there is little abstract art that is appreciated, at least in a broad sense. While I may enjoy a certain piece of abstract art that appeals to some part of me, ten of my friends may get nothing out of it, as this type of art tends to have little universal appeal. Only a great abstract artist such as Rothko can create a piece that is both abstract and can appeal to a vast audience. That is what makes his work so valuable, and that is why putting such art in a place where it loses much of its value is such a tough decision to make. Ultimately, I believe that Rothko (with the invaluable prodding from Ken) probably makes the right choice from an artistic point of view; when great abstract art is created, it should be cherished and appreciated in the best possible setting. While I’m sure it would be tough to turn down 35,000 dollars that could, it did keep the full integrity of the art.

  9. (Sorry for coming into this conversation so late. Being sick and losing internet for a few days really delayed me making this post. But Red was one of the more interesting plays I saw and I would like to share my experience.)

    I’ve never understood “modern art.” When I was younger, I had the common, unappreciative outlook as many other do, often thinking to myself, “I could paint that!” Because of what I was taught about art, It boggled my mind as to how “modern art” was worth paying exorbitant amounts of money for. Over time, I came to understand that the process behind the art is what made it so amazing, but even so, it was hard to appreciate modern art. I felt like I was missing out on the story behind the work.

    I went into Stage Arena not knowing what the play “Red” was. When I saw the modern art canvases spread across the stage, I was looking forward to a play that looks into the mind of a modern artist. I wasn’t disappointed. Rothko was complex beyond adequate description. Infuriating, inspiring, and mesmerizing are only a few of the words I can use to describe the quality acting by the man who played Rothko. Every question he asked or statement he made seemed to addressing the crowd rather than his assistant or himself. I felt like I was more than just your average audience viewer. It truly was a performance to remember.

    The story “Red” follows Rothko as he works on a commission for the Four Seasons. Throughout the play, it’s very apparent that Rothko has a different goal in mind than those who asked him to paint for their restaurant. In the beginning, I appreciated Rothko’s insight into his artwork. But as the play continued and the story developed, His insight turned more into excuses, and anger more into fear. In a sense, his assistant, who remained unnamed throughout the play, seemed to represent his growing distaste with the commission. As his anger and frustration grew, the voice of the assistant grew stronger His distaste was not with his art. In fact, he felt the art was his; that his paintings had emotions and feelings. Rather, it was more with the location of where they would be viewed. But he knew this would be the case from the start, but chose to ignore it. Rather than realizing the commission for the Four Seasons would not be a good fit to him, he continued to pursue the project for the reasons of remaining relevant, afraid to be overshadowed and forgotten by other famous artists. Ultimately, it takes the pain of seeing his art underappreciated and ignored in the Four Seasons to finally fully realize and accept the mistake he made.

  10. (Apologies for posting this late, I have had it done but had a hard time finding the blog for “Red”)
    I would not by any means consider myself to be an art enthusiast, although I have always held a healthy appreciation for artwork. I’ve been to Rome and seen some of most famous renaissance art in world and it is awe inspiring. However, I have always struggled to formulate an opinion on modern artwork; in this case the work of Rothko serves as a prime example. The paintings in themselves do not stir the emotions of a Rembrandt or a Michelangelo. Due to some of misgivings about modern artwork I remember trying to go into the play with an open mind. Through this play I may now finally understand that to appreciate the artwork like that of Rothko’s, one has to think deeper. The paintings in themselves are more subjective to each person that looks at them, whereas when someone sees Rembrandt portrayal of the “The Prodigal Son”, the overall takeaway I think is much more objective.
    The character of Rothko was deep, mysterious, and compelling. I felt an overarching theme of “Red” was one man’s struggle for acceptance and the need to be appreciated. These emotions were often covered up by Rothko thick façade but a few times during the play the audience was exposed to insecurities of Rothko. I was captivated by Rothko and his work as an artist. I was particularly fascinated by a very simple aspect of Rothko’s either brilliance or insanity, depending upon your perspective and that was the fact that he spent so much time contemplating his work and figuring out what he should do next. On the surface of his painting one only sees simple shapes and bold colors but he took so much care and effort into creating them, perhaps his genius was his ability to give depth to simplicity.

  11. I walked away from the play, RED, uncertain of what I should have taken from the play. What should I have been looking for throughout this play and what was the main purpose of this production, were questions I had. Just looking at the play as an avenue to illustrate the story of a painter was not enough for me to appreciate this play. After reading the Goodman’s Neena Arndt interview with John Logan I understood the purpose of Red. This play was not provoked by Logan’s desire to simply tell about an artist who had extreme convictions on what the interpretation, appreciation, and respect of art should be. Rather it was to fulfill his desire to write about relationships. He stated, “I wanted to write a play about teacher and students, mentors and protégés, fathers and sons.” With knowing his purpose in writing this play I could better understand the relevance of the statement made early on in the play that related to sons having to eventually kill the father. I do not find father and son the most appropriate title for Ken and Rothko relationship. During the play Rothko was presented as a callous man who was driven by the power he felt his art held. He felt disconnected from society. For most of the play he was detached from Ken. Ken worked with him for two years and Rothko seems to have known nothing about him, nor was he interested in Ken’s opinions. The transformation seen in both characters, I would say, resulted from internal growth. Ken found a voice from being a part of a situation that gave him two options, to be suppressed by the overly exerted opinions of Rothko or counter Rothko. If Ken and Rothko’s relationship served as a representation of a father and son relationship, it was a very strained relationship.

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