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One day the black will swallow the red

There is only one thing I fear in life, my friend… One day the black will swallow the red.

I see a lot of plays. I get paid for it now, for one thing. But I don’t just see plays I get paid for. I’m more than a little addicted. I see as many as I feasibly can. We’ve discussed this, at length; as a child, I always dreamed of living the kind of life where I could go to the theater whenever I wanted. I am lucky enough to live that kind of life now, and I honor that wide-eyed teenager every time I buy my ticket (or am blessed enough to get a reviewer’s comp) and sit in a seat in a darkened theater and let the actors spin their web around me.

They’re not always good. That’s the thing about any art form, really; some will be very, very good, some will be so, so terrible, and some will be just middle-of-the-road. This can be because of any number of things: the actors, the direction, the set, the costumes, the writing. It’s also sometimes because of the baggage you bring to the table, which is something that’s often overlooked; the play could be wonderful, but you might hate it because one of the characters reminds you too much of your abusive ex or your unstable mother-in-law or the set is just too reminiscient of the unhappy home you grew up in. It’s very seldom that everything comes together perfectly. It’s (and I know this is going to surprise you, since, as the Irish say, my bladder is close to my eyes) seldom I cry in the theater; all of these elements coming together perfectly doesn’t happen very often, and in order for me to cry IN FRONT OF PEOPLE (a thing I don’t often do, as weepy as I am – my crying is almost always a very personal and very private affair) the stars really have to align.

Today I saw a play that made all the stars line up perfectly. Better than that: it made me think. It’s still making me think, hours later.

I’ll be the first to admit I’m not a huge art person. I mean, I love art. I respect art, and appreciate art, and love going to see art. But I couldn’t tell you what makes good art, not really. Or how it makes me feel.

What really impresses me, more so than the art itself, are artists. The creativity behind making a work of art. The thought process. The type of mind that can come up with something like that. And the demons that live in a mind like that. I lump all artists into this category, by the way, not just traditional sculptors and painters. Writers, musicians, actors, dancers, anyone who creates something new that wasn’t there before. I believe that all artists have something in common, whether or not it’s obvious; that creation holds a madness in it. Whether it holds it at bay or it brings it to the forefront depends on the artist. Anyone who is creative, especially one who is good at what they do, walks a fine line with the darkness in their mind.

Red is about Mark Rothko. I knew very little about Rothko going into the show. I knew he was a painter; I knew he was an impressionist. I knew his paintings were blocks of color, almost painful to look at in their intensity.

Other than that, very little. My artistic education was lacking. I’ll be the first to admit it. We didn’t discuss art in high school, and in college, as long as you were taking some sort of art classes, you were covered, and my art was the billions of theater classes I was taking.

I like that he doesn't look like a fancy artist. He kind of looks like an accountant.

I like that he doesn’t look like a fancy artist. He kind of looks like an accountant.

The Four Seasons restaurant in New York City had just been built in the late 50s by the beverage company Seagram and Sons. (I think of Seagrams now, I think of wine coolers. I don’t know that they’d be proud of that legacy; apparently they used to be the fanciest.) They commissioned Rothko to paint a mural for the restaurant for a lot of money. He worked on them for at least a year or two, then visited the restaurant and decided, for a reason that’s never been completely explained, his paintings couldn’t hang there. He called Seagram up, gave him what is thought to have been a monumental tongue-lashing (Rothko was a firebrand, you guys) and sent him back the money. In the play, which I assume was researched, the amount was $35,000. In the late 50s/early 60s. He RETURNED it. The paintings were done, but he didn’t want them hanging in that restaurant.

The play (which won a number of Tonys in 2010) is about the years he spent working on the mural. In order for him to have someone to talk to (because it would be extremely strange for him to talk to himself for 90 minutes) he hires a young artist as an assistant at the top of the show, and the two of them spar. It’s a complicated relationship; a little father/son, a little teacher/student, a little peer to peer, a little antagonistic.

Let’s get the little things out of the way first: the acting was stellar. The set design was amazing – it couldn’t have been more of an art studio without you actually being in an art studio. They painted on stage, with paint flying. The passion was so palpable. The direction was tight and crisp. I had nothing at all to complain about.

It was the writing, though. The writing. Oh, my. John Logan’s script – such a brilliant work of art in itself.

The play was about the relationship between the two men, but it was also about art. Art on a lot of levels. First, the relationship between the artist and his or her work, but also the relationship between the viewer and the art. How the viewer should come to the work; how the viewer should view the work. How the work should make the viewer feel. How much the artist should art-design the viewing process – the lighting, the venue.

Even closer to my heart, it was about the internal struggle. The quote at the top of the post is from the show; Rothko compared death to the black and life to the red. When the black came for him, life was over. Everything he did was to keep the black at bay. He talked about how artists have to kill their muses (his being the Cubists, killing them with Expressionism); but when the up-and-coming artists came along (Warhol, Lichtenstein) and began to “kill” their muses, (i.e. him) he was furious – at them, for daring to challenge him, at the audience, for what he considered the dumbing-down of art.

“‘Pretty.’ ‘Beautiful.’ ‘Nice.’ ‘Fine.’ That’s our life now! Everything’s ‘fine’. We put on the funny nose and glasses and slip on the banana peel and the TV makes everything happy and everyone’s laughing all the time, it’s all so goddamn funny, it’s our constitutional right to be amused all the time, isn’t it? We’re a smirking nation, living under the tyranny of ‘fine.’ How are you? Fine.. How was your day? Fine. How are you feeling? Fine. How did you like the painting? Fine. What some dinner? Fine… Well, let me tell you, everything is not fine!!
HOW ARE YOU?!… HOW WAS YOUR DAY?!… HOW ARE YOU FEELING? Conflicted. Nuanced. Troubled. Diseased. Doomed. I am not fine. We are not fine. We are anything but fine.”

The passion in this. The fight against anything middle-of-the-road. Always straining for whatever is ultimate. Keeping the black at bay. The overwhelming need to create something beautiful, something that will last. Yes. Yes, I found a lot to relate to in this play.

Rothko, ultimately, was not able to fight the black. In 1970, he was found dead, having not only slit his wrists, but having overdosed on pills as well. The black won. He ran out of red.

He made something lasting, though. 836 paintings. Can you even imagine a legacy like this?

I left the theater filled with so many emotions. Hope and loss and pride and a deep feeling of being understood, somehow, by someone I’d never known, by someone who’d died before I was even born, by someone tied to me by something as tangential as a shared love for the creation of beautiful things and a brain that runs at a different frequency than the people buzzing around us.

I had a good day. The red kept the black most definitely at bay.

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About lucysfootball

I'm not the girl with the most cake. Someday. SOMEDAY. View all posts by lucysfootball

31 responses to “One day the black will swallow the red

  • Anonymous

    We are anything but fine!

    …even if we have such glorious works to enjoy in our misery. It’s a comfort.

    Like

  • sj

    Oh, I wish I could’ve seen this one with you.

    Like

  • Charleen

    Music is my art of choice; I dream of living a life where I can go to the symphony whenever I want. And honestly, I could go a lot more often than I do (especially since the Dubuque Symphony is more affordable than, say, the Chicago Symphony). I really need to make more of an effort in that regard.

    Also of note, when I was in college, all of my music classes did NOT, in fact, count for my arts requirement. We had to take at least one class outside of our specialty. I chose an art history lecture solely because it fit my schedule. I remember nothing, other than that my roommate and I would always stop off and get coffees before class. I probably should have come away with a little more than that.

    Like

    • lucysfootball

      You must go to the symphony. Must must must. Your reaction to classical music is mine to theater and you need to have that in your life.

      The only artsy class I took outside of theater (well, other than my English classes) was some music class that ended up being more math than music and I struggled SO MUCH with it. The only thing I remember from it is 2/4, 3/4, and 4/4 time. Not a single other thing.

      Like

      • Charleen

        Yeah, that’s music theory. I was lucky that it came easily to me; I knew a lot of really talented musicians who switched majors because they couldn’t get the theory and aural skills (that’s aural, not oral… not a euphemism).

        Unfortunately along with my local symphony being much more affordable than the big ones, they also play only one weekend for each performance, every couple of months. So it’s hard to fit into my schedule, especially since I go out of town so much. But I do need to make more of an effort. I know I do. Look out, ’13-’14 season, I’m coming for you!

        Like

        • lucysfootball

          I had to work with the TA a couple times a week (not a euphemism! tutoring! really!) just to pass the damn thing. Thank goodness he was so patient with me. I just don’t have that kind of brain.

          Yay! 2013-2014 will be your year!

          Like

  • becomingcliche

    Wow! This play sounds incredible! I’m so happy for you. I love art that makes me think, whether it be painting, writing, actiing.

    Like

    • lucysfootball

      I love that, too. I understand that there’s a place for lighthearted things in life, and sometimes need that myself – that silly little escape. But most of the time I want something that both entertains and educates and when I leave, I can’t stop thinking about it. That’s what I want in my entertainment.

      Like

  • elaine4queen

    He left the paintings to the Tate Gallery in London, where they still hang, and I have seen them many times.
    He waited until he knew they had been received and then cut his wrists, killing himself.

    Like

  • DogsDontPurr

    Wow….this was such a great post! I studied art/art history in college and went on to take many years of independent study….and not *one* of my teachers spoke about Rothko as eloquently and to the point as you. You found and touched on little nuances that I think even he would have been impressed with.

    Just like the play did for you, your writing about it moved me. And moved me to think some more. Now I want to go back and revisit his work, seeing it through your eyes.

    Thank you for this!

    The way you write makes it come alive. Probably because of your theatre background. You know how to express things that are visual yet cerebral…because that’s what theatre is all about. You would be a great professor….seriously!

    Like

    • lucysfootball

      Aw, thank you so much! I get very passionate about things. Probably more than most people. Just another function of my weird brain, I suppose – but not one I’d give up, not for anything. I can’t imagine not feeling things deeply. Life lived halfway is no life at all.

      If the play ever comes your way, definitely try to catch it. With an art background, I’d imagine it would be even more moving!

      Like

      • the diarist

        I’m that way too, a huge depth of feeling. I think it’s part of the poet’s toolkit. Poetry is emotive and so are poets.

        (BTW, I was re-reading your book. Soooo good.)

        Like

        • lucysfootball

          Agreed. I don’t know if we could be poets if we didn’t feel things deeply. Not good poets, at least. We need to feel things for everyone in order to write them.

          Thank you so much! Aw, that makes me so happy.

          Like

  • the diarist

    Oh, Amy. This:
    The passion in this. The fight against anything middle-of-the-road. Always straining for whatever is ultimate. Keeping the black at bay. The overwhelming need to create something beautiful, something that will last.

    I found a lot to relate to in this post, my friend.

    Like

    • lucysfootball

      I’m so glad. I hoped people could relate to it. It was not only a brilliant play about art and artists, it was a love letter TO art and artists. I can’t imagine anyone who creates things not walking away feeling richer having seen it.

      Like

  • franhunne4u

    How can you say you are not an artist yourself, when you can move your blog-readers like that? You are a writer. Not creative? Well, a lot of writers start, like you did, with what they find.
    Your description not only of the theatre but of the artist described in the play is a fine piece of observance and background check.
    Creativity is overrated. Just take the process you observe and think it to a logical consequence.
    Is there a fight black against red going on? Is death fighting life – and life just on a permanent retreat? To pose questions is half the way to writing.

    Just make black the omnipresent mainstream of a society – and red a group that fights back for the right of life. And see you have got a vision of society, which you can then fill with characters who stand for the one or the other.
    Put in some details – is black a society which allows and encourages murder? (Like the Pietcong says we are by allowing abortion). Including indirect murder like pollution and poisoning of environment – for what reason – MONEY?
    Is Red motivated by religion? By quasi religious oecological thinking? Is Red the good – or the bad part?
    There you have questions. Answer those, and you get nearer to a plot.
    But OBSERVATION is the first step any artist has to take.

    Even a musician – he uses his ears. That is the difference. He would turn RED into a vibrant, hot, vivid rhythm and black in a slow, “dark”, minor melody – and in the end, which would win? You can have melodies battle – Mozart and Beethoven did that already.

    Creativity is overrated, trust me – it is something you can teach your brain. Mind maps, Clusters, regular practice (writing practice, improvised melodies, sketches and droodling), you can force your brain to come up with something “new” – though it is a philosophical debate if there are any new things at all …

    Artists are the ones that put enough effort and commitment into that, the ones who know or feel the difference between the “shitty first draft” (Hemingways words) – and the final. They work on what OBSERVATION and CREATIVITY feeds them with, sculpt it, modulate it, finetune it. Word and reword it as writers.

    You can become an artist, Amy. You know how to use your words. You observe. You think. It does not take anything more to be a writer. And who writes can draw, said an art teacher of mine.
    To be a painter you need to observe even closer, reduce the world to the paint patches again we saw when we were babies, before we learnt that those colours mean mommy. Observance is the main quality of a photographer.

    The artist needs more commitment, more practice. And he /or she needs more courage. To dare to see what some things lead to.
    TALENT is highly overrated. The most talented child will not succeed if he/she does not practice, does not observe where he/she falls short and corrects the mistakes. The least talented child will take a lot more practice to achieve the level the not praciticing talented has naturally. and it will not be much fun.

    Even singing needs practice. Yes, with talent it is easier, you can go further. But that is the topping. You can become a singer – jut put in time, practice and a patient teacher. You might not become a singer who can live by his/her singing – but a singer who needs not feel ashamed to join a choir.

    Why are there so few artists then? Are there? Aren’t they just invisible, cos they are discouraged? Cos the time needed for practicing is spent else? Or because we do not realise that the woman next to us writes the most moving stories about an evening at the theatre?

    Like

    • lucysfootball

      I think you misunderstood. I do consider myself an artist. I don’t consider myself a painter, because I don’t paint, and that’s what I meant when I replied to Elaine that I wished I could see the show with an artist (Elaine is a painter, and a very good one, and since the show was about a painter, I thought she’d get added meaning from it.)

      The show hit me as hard as it did because I DO consider myself an artist, and therefore it spoke to me.

      Like

      • franhunne4u

        Good that is cleared up now. I really misunderstood you then.

        Like

        • franhunne4u

          Here is, what mislead me:
          What really impresses me, more so than the art itself, are artists. The creativity behind making a work of art. The thought process. The type of mind that can come up with something like that. And the demons that live in a mind like that. I lump all artists into this category, by the way, not just traditional sculptors and painters. Writers, musicians, actors, dancers, anyone who creates something new that wasn’t there before.

          Like

  • Heather

    My phone is being stoopid and won’t “like” your posts at the moment. Weird.

    BUT, great post. I want to see this play now. Too bad I live in the cultural armpit of the world…and have kids so I can’t afford to go see plays even if there were good ones here. SOMEDAY.

    Like

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