White on Red
Director Richard E.T. White on Looking Through the Layers

“I do a lot of layers, one after another, like a glaze, slowly building the image, like a pentimento, letting the luminescence emerge, till it’s done.” —Mark Rothko in John Logan’s 'Red'

“Time just stopped,” remembers director Richard E.T. White of his first encounter with a painting by Mark Rothko.

It was over thirty years ago, and White was in the Museum of Modern Art in New York on the hunt for Warhol and Pollock, when a Rothko painting in the corner drew him in. “I felt myself fall into the painting. From a distance it looked like a single opaque surface, and then as soon as I was standing in the right relationship to it, in the right light, I started to see and experience the effect of layers and layers and layers of paint. There was a kind of internal luminescence that drew me in, to a mystery inside the painting.”

“If people want sacred experiences, they will find them here. If they want profane experiences, they’ll find them too. I take no sides.” —Mark Rothko

In John Logan’s play Red, abstract expressionist painter Mark Rothko (Denis Arndt) and his young assistant Ken (Connor Toms) feverishly prepare paintings for what is reputed to be the biggest commission to that point in the history of modern art—to adorn the Four Seasons Restaurant in the highly touted Seagram Building—all the while passionately debating the nature of art and why it matters.

“In theatre one of the things that we try mightily to do is make it all seem like it’s happening for the first time, so our goal is to hide the work that goes into making a performance,” says White. “However, Red is a play that’s about revealing the visceral, tangible work that goes into making art—as well as the watching and waiting, and the fierce debate about ideas, which are also essential aspects. There’s an innate sensuality about the textures of the play: building the frame, stretching the canvas, choosing the balance of pigments and other ingredients that go into making something as apparently simple as the color red.”

“Maybe you have noticed two characteristics exist in my paintings; either their surfaces are expansive and push outward in all directions, or their surfaces contract and rush inward in all directions. Between these two poles you can find everything I want to say.” —Mark Rothko

Rothko was a towering figure in abstract expressionism—the American art movement that began after World War II with a focus on non-figurative painting—and he had a reputation for being rebellious, anarchic, and highly idiosyncratic. (In fact, he and his fellow abstract impressionists, including Clyfford Still, Barnett Newman, Willem DeKooning, and Pollock, were once branded “The Irascibles.”)

Born in Russia in 1903, Rothko emigrated with his family in 1913, eventually settling in Portland, Oregon. He studied briefly at Yale, then moved to New York in the mid 1920s and lived there until his death in 1970.

“It’s been said that the color field paintings for which he became famous combine the mists of the Pacific Northwest with the urban geometry of New York,” notes White.

Never truly at home except in the studios he built for himself inside rented buildings, he called for total freedom of expression, a stance that sometimes put him at odds with members of the established art world.

“I have never thought that painting a picture has anything to do with self-expression. It is a communication about the world to someone else. After the world is convinced about this communication it changes. The world was never the same after Picasso and Miro. Theirs was a view of the world which transformed our vision of things.” —Mark Rothko

That didn’t extend to his work ethic, however. “Rothko didn’t conform to the romantic ideal of the rebel painter, the Jackson Pollock vision of the drunken, driven artist who would paint all night,” says White. “Rothko worked from 9 to 5. He viewed painting as his job. But at the same time he was trying to do something utterly magnificent with his work, to communicate something powerful and moving.”

Of course, Red is a fictionalized take on Mark Rothko. Just as the paintings on stage are allusions to Rothko’s work and not actual Rothkos, John Logan’s play is an invention, made up of fragments of truth and amalgamations of experience. The character of Ken, for example, is based on the experiences of a number of Rothko’s assistants. “What was most interesting to me,” Logan told PBS’s Charlie Rose about the story he was drawn to write, “was an artist and a mentor, a father and a son… the compelling relationship to me is what does a mentor give a protégé, and how does a father teach a son, and how does that power relationship shift.”

The playwright uses Rothko and the Seagram commission “as a metaphor to examine how we strive to invest our lives with meaning, just as, say, Shakespeare used his historical kings of England as springboards to explore themes of leadership and authority. The would-be transformational figure of vaulting ambition has always been a central motif in John Logan’s work,” says White, who first met the playwright in Chicago in the 1980s. And indeed, Logan is best known for his screenplays for films like Gladiator, The Aviator (about Howard Hughes), and the current Hugo, which revolves around the pioneer filmmaker George Méliès.

At the center of Red, White suggests, lies a question that we ask ourselves throughout our lives: How do we engage in our life work with integrity? Even as Mark Rothko applies more and more layers of paint to what he hopes will be his masterworks, the inner light of that question only burns brighter.

“The recipe of a work of art—its ingredients—how to make it—the formula.
1. There must be a clear preoccupation with death—intimations of mortality... Tragic art, romantic art, etc., deals with the knowledge of death.
2. Sensuality. Our basis of being concrete about the world. It is a lustful relationship to things that exist.
3. Tension. Either conflict or curbed desire.
4. Irony. This is a modern ingredient—the self-effacement and examination by which a man for an instant can go on to something else.
5. Wit and play...for the human element.
6. The ephemeral and chance...for the human element.
7. Hope. 10% to make the tragic concept more endurable.
I measure these ingredients very carefully when I paint a picture. It is always the form that follows these elements and the picture results from the proportions of these elements.”
—Mark Rothko