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