On Looking - January Blog 2014
by Jake Penner

There is a question at the heart of RED. But it’s not the one you’ve been hearing about. By now you’ve likely seen the advertisements or any number of writeups and reviews about Forward Theater’s production of RED; and you’ve also probably noticed that they all draw attention to the only discernible refrain of the play:

What do you see?

Obviously an important question for a visual artist, especially to one so monumental to our national aesthetic as Mark Rothko. But I’d argue that it’s not the question most important in this play. Because What do you see? is, ultimately, subjective. Why do you keep looking? is a matter of human drama.

Right now, I’m involved in my own drama. I’m at the Chazen Museum of Art to see a painting by Rothko called Untitled, 1968. I hesitate to tell you to see it also for fear of guiding you into the predicament in which I find myself presently. For this is my fifth visit to see Untitled. Why am I back? Because I have absolutely no idea what I’m supposed to be seeing, and I, infuriatingly, feel compelled to keep looking.

The Russian-born Rothko rose to fame in the 1950’s and ‘60’s as part of the school of Abstract Expressionism (no resemblance to our world, yet emotional). But the style for which Rothko became known bears little resemblance to the works he’d created earlier. He did a series of paintings of subway platforms as part of a WPA project in the 1930’s. In the 1940’s, Rothko began drawing from ancient myth while incorporating elements of surrealism and his subjects are still very recognizable.

I don’t care much for these earlier works, and I suspect neither did Rothko, hence his resolve toward the style we know so well today. He didn’t see it yet, but he knew it was there, so he kept looking. In the play, you’ll see Rothko quietly considering the blank canvas alone for long periods of stage time; what you won’t see are the decades he likely spent performing this same act: staring at the canvas alone, awaiting the true point of view to reveal itself.

Why did he keep looking? Why do any of us keep looking? Money helps (RED begins with Rothko starting a mural for the Four Seasons in what was the most lucrative commission to date), as can the need to strengthen one’s legacy. You’ll see Rothko and assistant Ken wrestle with both of these possible motivations for continuing to pursue an art form.

But I don’t think our playwright, John Logan, believes that money or legacy are what drive either Teacher or Apprentice to keep looking: by the time we meet Rothko he’s already wealthy, and Ken endures a level of abuse that would quickly discourage a pursuant chasing anything as transient as fame or fortune.

No. These are characters that are so completely called to create that they continue to do so in spite of success or insurmountable frustration. They can’t help themselves. They are so taunted by what’s hidden in the canvas, that they have to keep searching for it, because what else is there for these two men? These characters represent that innate human stubbornness that forces us to keep looking, and that, every so often, allows a handful of us to create something revolutionary.

When you see RED, I’d challenge you to consider the forms you practice in your own life. Why did you begin? What have you achieved as a result? And, why do you continue despite those achievements? These are the questions I ponder while staring at Untitled, 1968, as the museum security guard checks again to see if I’ve finally just made off with the damn thing already.

I can’t resist. “Hey,” I say, pointing at Untitled. “What do you see?”

He steps casually beside me, his hands locked behind his back. He’s suddenly the art critic I imagine him to be when the museum is empty of ruffians like myself. He is silent for a full minute before he turns to me, finally to speak.

“A painting,” he says.

A preposterous answer! And yet the most insightful one I’ve had yet. He ambles toward another room, knowing full well he’ll see me again later. I turn back to the canvas to keep looking.

Because I just can’t help myself.

Remaining performances of Forward Theater Company’s production of RED are nearly sold out. Get your tickets online or call the ticket office at Overture Center at (608)-258-4141.