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Friday, 28 February 2014


Albert Molina and Eddie Redmayne as abstract expressionist painter Mark Rothko and his assistant, Ken.
2010 Broadway production of John Logan's play, Red.

Red: A New Play by John Logan

Okay, I think we can all agree that the Peace Country is off-off-OFF-Broadway. Which means most of us won’t get the opportunity to see John Logan’s play Red, a drama about abstract expressionist painter Mark Rothko any time soon. Happily, we can read the script of the play. Even more happily, we can see clips of the Broadway production on youtube.

If I could, I would go see this play ten evenings in a row just to watch the scene in which Rothko and his young assistant, Ken, together prime a large canvas in a deep maroon; the older man covering the top of the canvas, the younger the bottom. The sheer physicality of painting is rendered as a dance, as a struggle. Both men emerge from it covered with red paint. They look like they’ve just come newborn into the world, or from a battlefield.

Red depicts Rothko at the height of his success but staring down the spectre of his own irrelevance. He is in love with, and at the same time tortured by his own ideas. Even as he creates the canvases that are arguably the culmination of his life’s work -- all in pulsating, throbbing, swelling, breathing reds -- he contemplates his own end.

This is clearly a dark work. It’s also a seriously intelligent work. It presumes the audience has a good general knowledge of art history from Michelangelo through to Warhol. But, at the same time it reminds us that painting isn’t just a cognitive activity; it is something to be grappled with bodily. It is hand-to-hand combat. It is, and always has been, a struggle to the end.

This article was first published in Art of the Peace magazine, Issue #15, Fall 2010. See it in its original context here.

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