Go See - Alfred Molina as Mark Rothko in RED, now @ The Mark Taper Forum through September 9, 2012

What happens when the artist/rebel who has spent his life assailing the spiritual emptiness of the establishment suddenly finds himself employed by the very people he despises, his paintings fetching top dollar, even judged “a good investment” by no less a capitalist forum than Fortune Magazine?
That is the crisis of conscience that faced the great Russian-American painter Mark Rothko in 1958 when he accepted a commission to create a series of mural-size paintings in his signature “multiform” style (large canvases accentuated by blurred blocks of contrasting colors) as decoration for the new Seagram Building’s luxury restaurant, The Four Seasons.
The creation of the Seagram Murals ignited an emotional firestorm in Rothko, since it put all his anti-establishment beliefs on the line. it also provides the emotional flash point for John Logan’s dramatic portrait of Rothko, Red, which after opening in London in 2009, then Broadway in 2010, garnered the Tony award for Best Play on Broadway.
How had Rothko, who was born Marcus Yakovlevich Rotkovitch, September 25, 1903, in the small Russian community of Dvinsk, Latvia, come to this emotional Rubicon in his career? how had the artist, who began his life as a young Talmudic scholar in Russia, worked as a go-fer in new York’s garment district, and emerged as an intellectual lion of the artistic avant-garde, found himself “working for the Man?” Or was he?
reportedly while cruising back from Europe aboard the SS independence, Rothko confided to John Fischer (publisher of Harper’s) that his real plan was to create a series of paintings, as he explained it, “that will ruin the appetite of every son-of-a-bitch who ever eats in that room. if the restaurant would refuse to put up my murals, that would be the ultimate compliment. But they won’t,” he told Fischer. “People can stand anything these days.”
Marcus Rotkovitch (the artist didn’t change his name to Mark Rothko until 1940) was part of an artistic generation born out of German expressionism, dadaism, cubism, surrealism and the modernist movement. They lived through the giddy high of the roaring 20s, suffered over the social despair of the Great depression, and rejoiced in the promise of Roosevelt’s new deal. They worked for the WPa and fervently believed that art could change the world and bring about a new level of social awareness and spiritual consciousness. 
Their aspirations were so high. Which is why, in the case of Mark Rothko, the fall, when it came, was so low. on February 25, 1970, in a state of deep depression and poor health resulting from excessive drinking and smoking, along with the emotional carnage of three failed marriages, the artist slashed his arms with a razor and bled to death on the floor of his studio. he was 66. 

Mark Rothko’s artistic career began almost by chance in 1923. he was working in new York city’s garment district when he went to visit a friend who was studying at the art Students League. The League was a Mecca for artistic expression and heated debate and Rothko found the heady world of art and artists intoxicating. he later said that was the moment he decided to become an artist.
already a budding intellectual (who spoke Russian, Hebrew, Yiddish and English) Rothko began taking classes at the art Students League and also enrolled at the Grand central School of art. and it was at this point that Rothko met the first two teachers that would exert a powerful influence over his work: arshile Gorky and the still life painter Max Weber, who like Rothko was a Russian-Born Jew. at the same time Rothko spent hours exploring new York’s museums and galleries, absorbing everything he saw, from Caravaggio to Paul Klee. 

His earliest paintings tended toward dark, moody interiors and social landscapes that reflected his taste for expressionism. he became part of a circle of artists that included Milton Avery, Barnett Newman, Louis Schanker and Adolph Gottlieb. after days in the studio they would spend hours debating art, philosophy and politics over rounds of drinks and packs of cigarettes. it was during one of the group’s summer retreats to Lake George (in 1932) that Rothko met a young jewelry designer named Edith Sachar. They were married on November 12. Two more marriages would follow.Like the early impressionists of Paris, Rothko and his avant-garde new York colleagues found themselves on the outs with the major exhibitors of modern art, most notably the Whitney. In response they formed a group of “Whitney dissenters,” known as The 10. 

And just as the impressionists had in 1938, they organized their own alternative exhibition as an act of protest.Rothko’s early phase of development was heavily influenced by the stylization of African art and the naïve paintings of children. But it was Carl Jung’s theories of a collective consciousness and the power of mythic archetypes that provided Rothko with new fertile ground for his paintings. it was also at this time that he encountered the writing of Friedrich Nietzsche, most notably his essay, The Birth of Tragedy. Rothko had found a new vocabulary for his paintings, surreal in nature with their roots embedded in ancient mythology. This fascination with myths would continue to permeate Rothko’s work even as his paintings became more and more abstract.  

Today when people think of Mark Rothko’s work they inevitably equate the artist with his “multiforms”— those bold, confrontational canvases with their radiantly glowing blocks on fields of color. But it is important to understand that these signature paintings were part of a long process of change as rothko moved from the dream states of surrealism toward abstraction. What is often misunderstood is that while Rothko’s paintings gradually became devoid of subject — no figures, no landscapes — he saw them as an ultimate distillation of the same themes he had been struggling to express for years.in the “multiforms” Rothko perfected a complex technique
of applying a thin layer of binder mixed with pigment (sometimes employing raw egg) directly onto an uncoated and untreated canvas. Then using quick, rapid brush strokes and significantly thinned oils he would create a dense mixture of subtly overlapping color fields and contrasting shapes. The size of the canvases, up to 11 feet in height, was meant to be overwhelming. he even urged viewers to stand as close as 18 inches from the canvas in order to be totally enveloped. 

The “surfaces,” he wrote, “are expansive and push outward in all directions, or their surfaces contract and rush inward in all directions. Between these two poles you can find everything i want to say.” 

His titles became equally abstract: “Magenta, Black, Green on orange” (1949), “rust and Blue” (1953), “Four darks in red” (1958) or simply “untitled.” The success that came with the “multiforms” proved a mixed blessing for Rothko. he enjoyed the monetary benefits, but felt the real message
and power of the paintings was misunderstood. Then came the Seagram commission, which as the play explores, shook Rothko’s world to its core.

After that the colors in the paintings began to transition from the realm of vibrant reds and oranges to more somber hues of blue, purple and eventually to shades of gray and black.

The artist’s final, and greatest project was the Rothko Chapel, which was commissioned in 1964 by the Houston philanthropists, John and Dominique De Menil. The octagonal chapel’s white walls are hung with large vertical format paintings consisting of three triptychs and five panels in dark, somber tones. The effect surrounds the viewer with massive, imposing visions of darkness. 

Each viewer that visits the Rothko chapel perceives its meaning in a personal way. For me the paintings represent a deeply profound study of the veil between death and the world that may exist beyond. Mark Rothko did not live to see the chapel dedicated in 1971. He had already stepped through the veil of darkness that he had so eloquently portrayed. - Jim Farber 

Learn More Here 

Listen to the Alfred Molina Podcast interview  HERE...