This article was originally written for ArtPlus Magazine.
Winner of the Drama Desk Award and Tony Award for Best Play, John Logan’s play “Red”, which debuted in London and featured in Broadway, depicts the inner workings of the mind of Mark Rothko (played by Alfred Molina) through his dialogue with his apprentice, Ken (played by Eddie Redmayne). It was later remade in the Philippines in 2013 by director Bart Guingona who also played Rothko, and Joaquin Valdes as Ken.
Though there are only two characters and the whole play only takes place in the art studio, the conversation between contrasting personalities is gripping, with line after line, a quotable commentary on the art of Rothko’s time.
“Your paintings aren’t weapons. You would never do that to them, never reduce them like that.” — Ken
Mark Rothko, an immigrant turned world-renowned abstract expressionist painter, is at the right place at the right time. In the late 1950’s, New York, the capital of art in the United States, he is offered a great commission. The only problem is, the commission, as well as the rest of the art world, forces him to confront his anti-commercialist ideals and his own art, which inevitably involves reevaluating himself.
Rothko is loud, outspoken, and didactic. Enter Ken, an undergraduate apprentice, who starts out meekly, but catches up to Rothko’s monologues. “What do you see?” Rothko asks. In fact, the play begins and ends with the same question. What starts as a debate about art — the artist’s interpretation versus the viewers’, the art market dictating the trends of the art world, art as mere objects versus emotional triggers — paves way to a conversation about art as the expression of a generation.
“‘The child must banish the father. Respect him, but kill him.’ Isn’t that what you said?” Ken, growing impatient, challenges his master. By now it has become apparent that while Rothko claims not to be Ken’s mentor, they create a dialogue akin to that of one generation to another.Like any child must go through, in time, Ken is able to think critically and develop his mental autonomy, whereas Rothko is compelled to acknowledge his greatest fear and desire. The great painter fears that despair would overtake him; the great painter simply wants to be understood, and so gives voice to anyone simply trying to cling to hope. Ken must remind Rothko of what has always been before him, though he has to have faith to see what he believes.
“You say you spend your life in search of real ‘human beings/ people who can look at your pictures with compassion. But in your heart you no longer believe those people exist… So you lose faith… So you lose hope… So black swallows red. My friend, I don’t think you’d recognize a real human being if he were standing right in front of you”. — Ken’s monologue, “Bores You”
Red flares in the diatribe that fills the studio. Red pulsates in Ken’s veins, because despite Rothko’s criticisms of the art world, his vision tells him that he doesn’t have to look at all of the art world as a cynic. All along, Rothko’s gravitas is matched only by the towering red mural, his creation. The disturbed master artist claims he does not even know what red means.
We know what red is, at least what it looks like. But what is red when placed beside Rothko’s black, Ken’s white, or even Van Gogh’s blues and yellows? In Alex Bryant’s rendition of Ken’s monologue entitled, “Bores You”, He changed a word from the script that makes all the difference: the original script says, “I don’t think you’d recognize a real human being if he were standing right in front of you”;. Here Ken says, “I don’t think you’d recognize a real human being if he were standing right ‘beside you”
Who do we think of when referring to a person in front of us? It’s likely a competitor or adversary. Yet the person beside us is our companion and ally. However, perhaps where the writer John Logan is coming from by using the words “in front” is to imply Rothko’s equals, because a competition is ideally for equals. Yet by using the word “beside”, it doesn’t matter where Ken, who may represent Everyman, comes from. They may never be equals, but what counts is that they’re both human and Ken is still there for him.
More than the way we look at art, Red is a humbling reminder for us to reflect on the way we look at ourselves in relation to the way we look at others, and the way we look at the world. No matter how long we’ve been looking at the same picture, we must not underestimate or prejudge who can or cannot give us a fresh set of eyes. Ultimately, Red invites us to look closer, with the promise that our lives can be much more rich, much more red, if we simply refrain from being passive observers.
ROTHKO: What do you see?