so many paintings, so little time

Rothkowitz, Red, and Ken

In Uncategorized on March 27, 2010 at 6:50 am

Mark Rothko, Seagram commission paintings on view at Tate Modern, London

Saw the new play, Red, on Broadway last weekend. Tragic, unnerving, brilliant, it’s a portrait of a terrifying bully, Mark Rothko, unbearably trapped by the impossible demands he places on his work. If you care about what Art does, how artists work, and the ways that changes over time, see this play. Not to mention the dazzling performances of Alfred Molina (Rothko–used to be Rothkowitz) and Eddie Redmayne (Ken (!), his assistant). Ninety minutes without intermission disappear in a red flash as Rothko hurls, in addition to red paint, insults at Ken, whose youth, intelligence, and emotional endurance allow him finally to break loose and fly.

Alfred Molina and Eddie Redmayne in John Logan’s new play, Red, now on Broadway

We’re in Rothko’s Bowery studio. He’s working on a series commissioned for the then massive sum of $35,000 for the Four Seasons restaurant in Philip Johnson’s Seagram’s Building. He’s poured a Red Sea’s worth of artistic intention into the paintings, all red and black. He bludgeons Ken with the symbolism of the palette he’s chosen for the commission: red for life, black for death. Though that’s not the whole story, there’s something to it. (I saw them last year in a recent and brilliant show curated by Achim Borchardt-Hume.) At one point Rothko talks about the moment he first saw Matisse’s Red Studio at MoMA. It took me right back to 1973 when I first arrived in NY for graduate school and saw the painting. I don’t think I had ever seen so much red.

Henri Matisse, Red Studio, 1911, Museum of Modern Art, NY

I had no idea then that Matisse’s “re-paintings” in this image would later suggest the path I took. In 1979 I grabbed Matisse’s Red Studio for my own. It was one of the first paintings I sold in a gallery (Barbara Flynn’s and Ed Rath’s Art Galaxy in Little Italy). The many monochromatic red paintings I’ve made over the years–even a suite of prints titled “Red Read”–is some indication of just how much that Matisse got under my skin too.

Ken Aptekar, Red Studio, 1979 Collection David Savran

For Rothko, black won when he ended his own life in 1970. Much as I respect Rothko’s work, its moral weightiness, universal aspirations, and aesthetic purification amounted to a black hole for him. He couldn’t find his way out of the dark loneliness of the Great Artist. I thought that bringing others along with me in my work through their responses to paintings might make my work more fun. I need their lives. I was the youngest of four kids and the love I got from my older siblings I expect.

When I was a boy, people noticed the color of my hair. I’ve always been “Red.”

Portrait of Ken Aptekar, 1952, Edward Skinner

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