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A Passion for the Abstract: Rothko and “Red” at the Mark Taper Forum

Alfred Molina, as Mark Rothko, absorbs his work in the Tony-winning “Red” at the Mark Taper Forum

The other day my 21-year-old daughter posted one of a seemingly endless string of memes, this one comparing a work of modern, abstract art to one of the more elaborate works of graffiti. Underscoring the rather banal title of the thing was a more essential question: “What makes something a work of art?” This has, of course, been debated hotly for many lifetimes, but in the modern and post-modern art world the very debate becomes part of the fascination.

Which brings me to John Logan’s “Red,” now at the Mark Taper Forum. In it, Mark Rothko, one of the icons of abstract art (though he hated being labeled) wrestles with that very question, with his fame, and with the potentially daunting advance of the new. What becomes essential is the emotional impact of abstract painting such as Rothko’s, its purpose, and that age-old balance between artistic integrity and commercial success.

Alfred Molina is Rothko, and Jonathan Groff is the young artist Rothko hires as his assistant and go-fer. What starts out as a treatise to the young on what makes art great gradually morphs into a much larger frame. These two men see the work, do the work, but take from it different things. Take, for example, Rothko’s initial question to the younger man: “What do you see?” When the reply is “Red,” that at first seems myopic or simplistic. Yet, in the end, once all have had their say, it is an acknowledgement of vitality and richness one would never have expected.

Molina captures the stage as Rothko, making the man as large as the enormous paintings he created. His Rothko seethes with a kind of battle fervor, drinking in his own works’ energy and proclaiming victory over the past. Groff keeps up with him by being the perfect counter-balance: a man with great depth of feeling and an increasing lack of fear, yet underplaying for effect in comparison to his effusive and dramatic employer.

To avoid this becoming a completely esoteric discussion of art trends in the 1950s, Logan’s play revolves around the opening of the famed Four Seasons restaurant, and the anti-establishment Rothko’s commission to paint what are now known as The Seagram Murals to adorn this expensive setting. The sheer disconnect of that commission, and the simultaneous incursion into the art world of Roy Lichtenstein and the op-art movement, creates an inner tension for which these conversations become the outward manifestation.

Central also are the deep red panels of The Seagram Mural themselves, becoming characters one after another as Rothko fights his own darknesses and reaches for their richness. Christopher Oram’s creation of an artist’s utilitarian, industrial-space studio, and his subtly period costuming welcome us into the era of this discussion even as the discussion expands beyond it. Director Michael Grandage has taken all of this and made “Red” somehow expansive and intimate at the same moment.

The result is a play of considerable power which will leave anyone at all interested in artistic mediums with much to think about, particularly in relation to what constitutes originality and progress, what is to be gleaned from abstraction, and the never-ending battle between the esoteric and the popular. For those who care about such things, and I am one of those, missing this would be sad indeed. Not a big surprise that it won a fistful of Tonys.

What: “Red” When: Through September 9, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2:30 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sundays Where: The Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave. in Los Angeles How Much: $20 – $100 Info: (213) 628-2772 or

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