Saturday, March 17, 2012

Art Happens

Red by John Logan, directed by Richard E.T.White, through March 24, 2012.

This is a lot more engaging than two guys talking about art has any right being.

One of the Seagram Murals, Mark Rothko, Tate Galley
And that is what it is - two guys talking about (and creating) modern art. Denis Arndt, last seen at the Rep in God of Carnage, is modern abstract artist Mark Rothko. Connor Toms is Ken, his new assistant, who is supposed to mix the paints, clean the brushes, do the undercoats, and provide an audience for Rothko's rants against art, the world, and the art world.

The action of the play, such at it is, is an artist's dream assignment. The time is the late 50s. Rothko has been hired to paint a series of murals that will be installed in the Four Seasons restaurant in the Seagram's Building in NYC. This is a real event in the life of the real Mark Rothko. And a number of questions swirl around this - whether this is selling out, what is the purpose of art, or of modern art and what the purpose of the art in a public space should be.

It feels weird to be looking back from a half-century in the future at "modern" art - the non-representation sort of art that has garnered praise and brickbats through the decades. Jasper Johns, the emotional dipper of paints, the platonic ideal of the "modern artist" lies at one end of the spectrum. Rothko is at the other, carefully laying down layers and pulling the colors forward, until they vibrate on the canvas. Rothko is a careful worker, struggling on a set schedule, to create his art. Yet both styles of modern art remain outside the comfort zone of the average art viewer. So the question ends up, what is the purpose of this art?

There has been a theme of reality and versions of reality through the current play season. Humor Abuse is a memoir. How to Write a New Book for the Bible has the playwright working from his own diaries. The recent I Am My Own Wife deals with a real individual and the playwright's relationship with her. Yet the question of how much truth makes it to the stage is present in all of them. Rothko is real. The events are real. A lot of the statements about art he makes on stage are real. "Ken" is a composite character, made up of three different unnamed assistants. Is this a biographical piece? Is it accurate? Is it an excuse for an art lecture?

And yeah, it is a very good art lecture. The writing is taunt and the action contained to art and the artist's studio. In that way it feels timeless (I had to dig out from the Wikipedia when the events happen - there are few clues). Attempts to divert the action away from the job at hand go nowhere, and the foundations of the play push back. We know little of Rothko's personal life, and less of "Ken's". Nothing penetrates the purity of the art.

I talked about the "dictionary speech" in the last review -  the sprawling avalanche of knowledge delivered to establish expertise in the speaker. They do it here, but with enough passion and emotion to make you grok that the person speaking knows what he is talking about, as opposed to just filling air. Arndt embodies Rothko in a basic form and remains true to the artist all the way through. It was amazing to see an actor just fill up a role.

The staging, by the way is like the man - almost totally grounded until the very end. The setting is a former gym turned art studio, dominated by huge Rothko/Rothkoesque paintings. The paintings drop, spin, are turned, are created, and are docked in their containers in a continual ballet of activity. You feel it is a working shop.

The play bustles for 90 minutes without interruption, for any intermission would break the flow of the work. Yet at the end, you feel fed and pleased that you've been subjected to modern art for an hour and half without having to make a SAN check.

This one has a mixed review on Grubbstreet. I, who care little for modern art, got it and felt it was wonderful and made me actually care about modern art, or at least Rothko's embodiment of it. I don't have answers to many of the questions raised, but I have to admit they are wonderful questions. The Lovely Bride, who also doesn't care for modern art, didn't care for it as much, and further commented "Of course the painting seems to vibrate if you start drinking at 9:30 in the morning!"

And I will leave it at that. I think it makes the case for non-representational art better than most essays I've read on the subject.

More later,