In 1949, Mark Rothko wrote that a painter’s work progresses ‘towards the elimination of all obstacles between the painter and the idea, and between the idea and the observer.’ Rothko’s idea was a big one: no less than capturing the Sublime, a sense of the numinous, a transcendent awe, which he tried to reveal by stripping everything back until just colour and proportion remained, two elements of painting – perhaps the only two – for which he had a sure gift.
This stylistic arrival coincided with the explosion of the New York art market. Rothko found himself bundled with Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Barnett Newman, Clyfford Still, Robert Motherwell and Franz Kline as an Abstract Expressionist. He bridled against the categorisation (the last thing he was was expressionist), but accepted the recognition – up to a point. Fame for Rothko was both pleasure and irritation. The accolades vindicated his years of struggle and the escalating prices for his paintings confirmed his own estimation of them.
Yet fame meant acceptance; the outsider was in – and that unsettled him. As did the money. For decades his high-minded devotion to art implied a rejection of material success, and suddenly it was all falling into his lap. He tied himself in knots coping with his deep ambivalence to his new wealth and status. He feared selling out, yet cashed every cheque.
Cast members Colin Friels and Andre de Vanny, and director Alkinos Tsilimidos talk about the American art scene in the 1950’s in our new video interview, below.
The text above is an excerpt from the programme for Red, which can be purchased at the MTC Theatre, Sumner.
Red is now playing at the MTC Theatre, Sumner, until 5 May.