Rothko’s Red over Black or Black over Red?

The Phillips Collection has an intimate Rothko Room which
creates a meditative space to view his color field paintings. The
museum’s founder designed the room specifically for this purpose.

Mark Rothko’s last years are chronicled in a play currently showing at the Arena Stage in Washington,DC. Washington holds a special place for this artist, with the National Gallery holding the largest collection of his work in the world and the Phillips Collection having a special Rothko Room designed for his work by the museum’s founder.

“Red,” an award-winning Broadway play by John Logan, will continue its run until March 9. The entire play takes place in Rothko’s studio with a dialogue between Rothko and a young assistant named Ken. In 100 minutes without interruption, there are no lulls in this play.

Of Rothko, Duncan Phillips described “mysterious layers of paint…suggest depth in spite of their flat mat quality.” Orange and Red on Red, 1957, is part of
the Phillips Collection.

The discussion of color illuminates meaning in Rothko’s paintings. Rothko refers to Matisse’s The Red Studio of 1911, a seminal work of 20th century art. Red is a life force, a vibrancy and the fire of creativity. But the color black diminishes that life force. Rothko explains in the play: “The only thing I fear in life is that one day the black will swallow the red.”

Through the dialogue, a strong, artistic character emerges. Rothko is both very moralistic and egotistical. He is an artist who wants success but has doubts about selling out to commercialism. He is kind and generous, but selfish and critical of his assistant. We can compare these diverging qualities of his character to his paintings, where he portrays shifting emotions felt in life and in nature, perhaps attempting to mend the divisions within himself.

The National Gallery of Art is having a special showing in the East Wing of some of the paintings
for the Seagram Mura
l project during the run of “Red” on Arena Stage. Gift of The Mark Rothko Foundation, Inc. Copyright © 1997 Christopher Rothko and Kate Rothko Prizel
Edward Gero gives a credible interpretation of this giant of the 20th century, a color field painter. Patrick Andrews is the artist’s assistant. The play’s action takes place when the painter was working on a series of murals for the new Four Seasons restaurant in New York’s Seagram Building, a major monument of modern architecture designed by Mies van der Rohe and Philip Johnson. It is not necessary to know Rothko or understand art to enjoy the play!


Mark Rothko, no 12, 1960, is an oil in Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles

Dialogue in the play gives insight into the thought process of this enigmatic artist and the ebb and flow of 20th century art movements. The artist discusses Jackson Pollock and explains his drunk-driving death as a suicide. Rothko describes his fellow Abstract Expressions as the children of Cubism, with these artists admiring the father (Picasso) but killing off their father. Rothko, a philosophical thinker of considerable spiritual depth, disparages the flash of Andy Warhol. He acknowledges that Pop Art is eclipsing the Abstract Expressionists, which also means that, at that time, the children are killing off their fathers.

In the end, the black swallowed red, unfortunately.

Copyright Julie Schauer 2010-2016

Painterly Pleasures

Frans Hals, Young Man and Woman at Inn, 1623 Metropolitan Museum of Art


Willem de Kooning, Merritt Parkway, 1959, from the Detroit Institute of Art, Bequest of Hawkins Ferry, is in an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art (called MoMA), New York
At first glance, Frans Hals and Willem de Kooning have nothing in common, other than being artists who originally came from the Netherlands. More than three hundred years separate their art and two very different New York Museums, the Met and MoMA, have exhibitions of their work. Hals was vividly realistic and de Kooning was a founder of Abstract Expressionism, but their common grounds are looseness of brushwork, luscious paint and bold energies going in all directions. In short, it is their painterly techniques.

Women, II, in MoMA, part of the Blanchette Hooker Rockefeller Collection, is one of many paintings of women that de Kooning did in the 50s

Analyzing the radiating diagonals of Hals’ compositions and paint quality, we might wonder if de Kooning ‘s thick, diagonal brushstrokes, sometimes overlapping and transparent, were inspired by Frans Hals’ compositions. Both artists give the viewer a texture we would want to touch.

Frans Hals, detail of woman, from Young Man and Woman in an Inn
And then there is color; in Hals, it’s the beautiful blue sleeve and feathers of the man leaving a bar and the flushed cheeks of a woman grabbing his arm. Hals soaked her cheeks with redness from too much drink, but at a time when artists did not exaggerate color. Perhaps a coincidence, but de Kooning, particularly in paintings of women, dared to make the reds quite strong. Women, II, shown above, also has a tactile quality to its blues, greens, red and white.

The soft and furry dog is typical of Hals’ ability to paint wonderful, tactile effects

In Young Man and Woman at the Inn, we witness Hals’ desire was to create a snapshot of time, a vivid realism that looks fresh and unplanned. He used a close-up view, a foreshortened upper arm and a jump into deeper space. The arm holding a glass pokes out of the picture frame. This view looks spontaneous, as if the couple did not know they’re being caught by the artist. A dog in the lower right hand corner completes Hals’ soft, painterly picture. This Dutch master is known mainly for his portraits.

De Kooning, on the other hand, immigrated to the United States and made his fame with the New York School, the Abstract Expressionists of the mid-20th century. The Met’s show of Frans Hals will end soon, but MoMA’s very large exhibition of de Kooning will continue until January 9.

Copyright Julie Schauer 2010-2016