Sunday, May 06, 2012

The rest is waiting

Hanging's too good for him

Larrikin's End Trading Post is my favourite source of bits and pieces from which to build artworks that reflect my increasingly eccentric take on the world. But look here, some clever clogs has beaten me to it. Above is a photograph of one of a trio of framed prints I bought as a job lot for $20. It was the frames I wanted. They are quality timber frames. The prints were expertly and, I think it's fair to say, lovingly, framed by our very own Larrikin's End Art Gallery and Bait Shop. It seems a shame to pull them apart but, needs must as they say. On enquiring as to their provenance, I discovered that my good fortune in quality frame acquisition had come about because the Larrikin's End Motor Inn was upgrading its decor and, presumably, popping in some back-to-front Picassos or upside-down Rembrandts for the greater edification of the journeying public.

For yes, dear intellectual equal, we recognise this thing in a frame as Mark Rothko's Light Red Over Black (1957) - or it would be if it wasn't reclining somewhat inappropriately. The other two frames contain prints of Untitled 1950-2, both of which have been similarly horizontalised, leached of colour, imprisoned in reflective glass and diminutised so that they can occupy a blank space over a queen-sized bed in a 3-and-that's-pushing-it-star motel in rural Australia. As a cascade of ironies, this would take some beating.

I know both of these paintings well as they are in the Tate Modern in London. Light Red Over Black was the first Rothko acquired by the Tate. It was bought in 1959, establishing a long relationship between the New York artist and the London gallery which eventually led to the gift of the Seagram paintings, which is the subject of the play Red by John Logan - which, incidentally, is the real point of this post. And I'll get there in a minute. And, with any luck, I'll be able to tie it all together. Untitled 1950-2, (the one with two yellows and a violet for those of us get our untitleds a bit muddled), was gifted to the Tate in 1986 by the artist's heirs and there's a story there too, more of which a little later.

So, to the play. Yesterday, I saw the Melbourne Theatre Company's production of Red starring veteran Australian stage and screen actor Colin Friels, ably assisted by stage new-comer André de Vanny. This is not going to be a review, well it is a bit, but not a full-on review as the play's only on for a few days and it's been everywhere else already. Red deals with one of the great moments in art history. Rothko, having spent years painting a series of huge canvases for the swanky new Four Seasons restaurant, pops in shortly after it opens, is horrified by the actual din of dinner, promptly gives back the money, sends some of the paintings off to the Tate and tops himself. The paintings arrive in London on the day of Rothko's death, 25th February, 1970 where they remain today, hung to Rothko's precise specifications in the famed Rothko Room. For once, this troubled man made a good decision. It was all downhill after that. And in making that decision, he undoubtedly altered the trajectory of many lives, including mine.

Red is a two-hander with Friels as Rothko and de Vanny as a fictional assistant called Ken, although the name is never stated. The business of the play is to set up the fateful decision by having Ken pose a series of ethical questions to Rothko in the form of a Socratic dialogue and, ultimately, provide the argument that triggers the decision. If Rothko hates the evil capitalists so much, how come he's prepared to take their dirty dollar, huh?

'I hope to paint something that will ruin the appetite of every son of a bitch who ever eats in that room?' is the unconvincing reply.

Rothko apparently did say that. Logan quotes extensively from actual Rothko statements and does it skillfully. Ken as Rothko's conscience works well too. The young apprentice is bright and in awe but holds his ground in the mad lion's den. He withstands the bullying and haranguing. Logan manages to channel a lot of important information about Rothko's views on art through this Oedipal device without spilling over into pure didacticism, resulting in an entertaining contest that recalls Edward Albee. And it's very physical. There's a great scene where they prime a vast canvas using a fast-drying, blood-red concoction they've cooked up in a huge pot. They race each other and the liquid's restrictions combatively until the thing is saturated and then collapse on the floor, spattered and spent.

 After the play, as I queue for the toilets, I hear a woman behind tell someone, 'My sister's an artist. She paints like Rothko.' I immediately think, 'no, that's just not possible.' And then I have to think about why that is. The first clue is in the play. 'There is tragedy in every brushstroke,' Rothko says. If you have ever sat in a roomful of Rothkos, you will know this to be absolutely true.

Every ambition he ever had for his paintings is fulfilled, and then some. I think it's partly because he was Jewish and knew the meaning of tragedy through exile. It's partly because he lived in New York in the postwar period and American Abstract Expressionism soaked up all the blood and gore from German Expression and threw in the Civil War for good measure. The Americans upped the angst on even the wasteland that was Berlin. But it's mostly because he was a big, American male. There was a time when a particular kind of American man felt it his duty to answer the big questions of  life. Some of them made a decent stab at it - like Hemingway for e.g. It was a big call with a big price and they both paid it in the end.

I know I'm on shaky ground here and I don't quite understand it myself but there is an appeal in this kind of masculinity that does not exist in the gross males that sit either side of me in the theatre. I spend far more time than I should elbow-wrestling for an equitable share of the arm-rests. And what are these men thinking, taking the more central seat anyway? If I'd have been sitting next to their female companions, I very much doubt that I'd have had my toes trodden on quite so often. I know, I know. Hemingway was beastly to all of his partners. Rothko wasn't much better by all accounts. I suppose I'm thinking the unthinkable - that in the old days, at least the sexists were gentlemen. Logan has the good sense not to include any female characters in Red. He would have had to demean them and that wouldn't have been good. Rothko's art came via obsession rather than muse.

It's not that women don't do tragedy. Women depict tragedy as personal and local and even instructive. There is no greater painter of tragedy than Frida Kahlo, but her route was via narrative. Her magnificent achievement as a painter was to diarise her life in small, beautiful works that are dignified and profound, drawing on material that could so easily have read as pitiable and sentimental. I have stood in a roomful of Kahlos and, although they unquestionably carry the tragedy of a nation and infuse you with an essence of Kahlo's personal experience of it, the overwhelming sensation is one of life going on. And, I think that's exactly what Kahlo intended them to do. Whereas, Rothko wanted us to feel the full impact of what he called the 'basic human emotions — tragedy, ecstasy, doom and so on' right along with him. There's a case for seeing that sort of thing as an indulgence few, if any, women have ever been allowed. I'd agree with that, but I wouldn't be without Rothko for all the tears in China. Both points of view are essential. It's not the size of the painting that counts - it's the depth.

In the play, Rothko rages against the vulgar, arriviste market for his paintings as 'over-mantle pieces'. Something to go with the sofa. Something in orange. Made-to-measure for chrissakes! Well, what would he have made of being ousted from the Larrikin's End Motor Inn in favour of an upside-down Rembrandt, one wonders. Rothko had made arrangements prior to his dramatic death - he slit his wrists in his studio and was discovered by his real assistant - for a foundation to be established to fund education and research. He'd previously gifted some important works to his two children to ensure their financial futures but hadn't checked the fine print on his gallery contract. The foundation's trustees and his gallery ripped everyone off and his daughter Kate initiated a prolonged and ugly court case. The result was a victory for the Rothko children but, quite possibly a defeat for a father who apparently cared more for the welfare of his paintings than his actual children. These days the Rothko images are seemingly licensed without discrimination. The laughs in this saga just keep resonating.

In the grand scheme of things, it's not important that a cheap print of a Rothko painting is hung incorrectly. A print of a Rothko is as far removed from an actual Rothko as it's possible to be. It matters that a door is located in the right spot and it matters that the door opens into a place worth going to. It mattered to Rothko that his paintings be a place that people would want to go and that they would find something of themselves there.

Red begins with Rothko advancing to the fourth wall, apparently studying a painting by leaning into it. He asks his newly arrived assistant, 'what do you see?' Ken answers, 'red'. Rothko is infuriated. He always protested that his paintings were not about the relationship between colour and form. And then they start brainstorming. Red means roses, lipstick, Santa Claus, blood... and you know that, really, it is all about the form and the colour because we humans reduce to that. Humanity as we know it is a construct. 'Most of painting is thinking,' Rothko tells Ken, 'Ten per cent is putting paint onto canvas. The rest is waiting.'