Arlington — On an autumn day in London in 2012, a young Russian artist named Wlodzimierz Umaniec was sitting quietly at the Tate Modern in front of abstract expressionist Mark Rothko’s “Black on Maroon,” part of the so-called Seagram Murals painted between 1958 and 1959. Witnesses later reported that they didn’t notice anything strange in his behavior, at least until they heard the sound of a marker pen being uncapped. Umaniec stood, stepped over the barrier separating Rothko’s piece from the public, and began scribbling furiously on its bottom right corner.
“Vladimir Umanets, a potential piece of yellowism,” he wrote in black, black ink — signing the name he blogged under and referring to an obscure artistic movement he founded — and, satisfied, capped his marker and quickly left the museum (he was later identified and arrested, eventually being sentenced to two years in prison for his actions). It would be nine months of meticulous study, planning, and experimentation by the Tate conservation team before they figured out how to correct the damage, and another nine months of painstaking work to actually remove it. Per The Guardian, the vandal left “a deep wound, not a superficial graze” on Rothko’s work; even after all visible traces of the damage were removed from the front of the painting, blackness had still seeped into the back of the canvas, invisible to the public but present.
One can almost hear the Mark Rothko of celebrated playwright John Logan’s Red bellowing in outrage across the decades at the knowledge of such desecration. After all, one of his central preoccupations in the play is creating a safe place for his pieces, a space where the art could hang together, protected and, with luck, understood. It’s one of the primary motivations for Rothko to have taken on the artistic commission that’s the subject of the play: painting a series of murals for the Four Seasons Restaurant in New York City in the newly-designed Seagram Building, a “temple” to house his works for all eternity. Red, fantastically staged by Theatre Arlington as a part of its 45th anniversary season and directed by Adam Adolfo, follows Rothko and his newly hired studio assistant Ken (an invented character of Logan’s, presumably created to give Rothko someone to shout at) over the two years from 1958 to 1959 that Rothko struggled to complete his commission.
Mark Rothko, born Markus Rothkowitz in Latvia in 1903 before emigrating to the U.S. in 1913, was one of the leading figures of abstract expressionism, a sprawling artistic movement that developed in New York in the 1940s which focused on communicating ideas through a seemingly spontaneous, non-representational style. In the latter years of his career, Rothko focused on painting what were later termed “multiforms” — blurred rectangular boxes of complementary color that created an optical illusion of movement for viewers. The drama of the pieces was in the contrast, then — the colors bouncing and radiating off one another.
Similarly, the drama in Red is two figures juxtaposed, bouncing off one another in constant conflict—indeed, the dominant painting we see Rothko and Ken create in the play is two vertical black rectangles on a red background, counterpoised against one another. Ken (Matt Holmes in a strong, nuanced performance), hired as Rothko’s new assistant on the Seagram commission and himself an aspiring painter, is initially cowed by the force of Rothko’s personality. Rothko (a wonderfully acerbic Robert W. L. Krecklow) strides and fumes across the stage, badgering and interrogating Ken about his views on art; “What do you see?” he demands of Ken in the first line of the play, which is also his last. The show creates the early impression that Rothko hired the young man primarily to have someone to monologue at. But the show spirals inward, gradually exploring Rothko’s artistic philosophies and the fears and insecurities that drive him, as well as Ken’s increasingly confident views not just on art but on Rothko himself, and the young man’s own tragic backstory.
The two actors collide and rebound, over and over again, in a pseudo-Socratic dialogue at times funny, at other moments fiercely combative; increased intimacy leads to increasingly violent confrontations between them. Rothko’s increasing preoccupation with artistic irrelevancy and his own mortality — represented by the color black in his paintings, which Rothko fears will eventually “swallow the red” in his work, and his life (red representing a wide range of things in the play, but hope perhaps above all) — is juxtaposed with Ken’s burgeoning sense of artistic self, and increasing frustration with Rothko. The color red, naturally, is the connecting tissue of the piece. It’s both the first and last word Ken speaks, and more than once the actors are literally covered with it (a semi-serious warning to playgoers: the first four rows of the house might well be considered a sort of splash zone for red paint; best to avoid wearing white). A scene where the actors collaborate on actually painting a canvas onstage — red, as if there was a question — to the tempo of a frenzied piece of classical music is a standout; in an almost subconscious message for the audience, Ken stands framed in front of the red canvas, his black suspenders foreshadowing the black figures that eventually dominate the piece.
Lighting designer Kyle Harris deserves special mention, light being a central element of the play — his design moves fluidly from scene to scene and reinforces how vital it can be in expressing mood and controlling message in any artistic endeavor. And the scenic design team (Kate Myers, Kat Merriman, and Maggie Bergener) should be commended for creating convincing faux-Rothkos — not an easy feat.
The real Rothko’s career flourished in the years that followed this failed commission; he even managed to build the “temple” for his work he always dreamed of, the Rothko Chapel in Houston, Texas. But he never lived to see it. On Feb. 25, 1970, the black finally swallowed the red. Rothko’s studio assistant found the artist dead in his studio, his right wrist slashed — a deep wound, not a superficial graze. Logan’s Rothko, speaking of the ambiguity around rival artist Jackson Pollock’s death, declaims, “Believe me, when I commit suicide there won’t be any doubt about it.” He was right. Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, on the same day Rothko ended his life, the Seagram Murals (donated by Rothko a year prior) arrived at their new home at the Tate Modern, to be housed together in the “Rothko Room.” What meaning should we draw from the coincidence? Up to the viewer. What do you see?