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Red on Maroon, Mark Rothko, 1959, Tate


 

       

Really
Seeing Red

 
 

The story behind Rothko and the Seagram Murals

   

 

Red has been getting so much attention, and so we thought that the story of the paintings would be rather interesting to delve into.  John Logan's Red, starring Alfred Molina as Mark Rothko, is a work-play where paintings are recreated onstage while exploring the very nature of creativity, the relationship between art and commerce, and the master/apprentice dynamic.  Red hinges on the story of the series of paintings called The Seagram Murals, which were commissioned to hang in the Four Seasons restaurant in the Mies van der Rohe-designed Seagram building, but were never delivered when Rothko (perhaps balking at the idea of his paintings hanging in such an obviously commercial space) canceled the agreement, and later donated some of the paintings to the Tate Museum in London.

 

John Fischer of Harpers Magazine, who wrote a memoir about Rothko, and first met him in 1959, relates that Rothko said to him about the series: "After I had been at work for some time, I realized that I was much influenced subconsciously by Michelangelo's walls in the staircase of the Medicean Library in Florence.  He achieved just the kind of feeling I'm after - he makes the viewers feel that they are trapped in a room where all the doors and windows are bricked up...."

 

The Laurentian Library in Florence, or the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, is really a reading room and a vestibule and is considered Michelangelo’s architectural Mannerist masterpiece.  The vestibule, with its lovely and magnificent staircase leading up to the library, is disorienting and dark with its strange blind windows and the sophisticated and strong reinterpretation of the classical vocabulary of orders and proportion--the idea of darkness and confusion, the columned inward-looking somber windows, the sweep of stairs, leading upward into the reading room which is a place of meditation and learning, of light.  Vasari said of the Library: “...in this stairway, he made such strange breaks in the design of the steps and he departed in so many details and so widely from normal practice, that everyone was astonished.”  Michelangelo himself wrote to Vasari that he had seen the design for the staircase “as if in a dream.” 

 


The Red Studio, Henri Matisse, 1911, Oil on canvas, MoMA

 

Rothko’s paintings recall Michelangelo’s blind windows, passionate in their intensity of color and simplicity, the window-like shapes of color-on-color, blacks and reds that perhaps recall the reds of the houses of Pompeii and the color scheme he is said to have noted at the Villa of the Mysteries.  Rothko is also known to have been fascinated by Matisse’s The Red Studio.  Whatever the source of the color red, it is the color we see when our eyes are closed in the sun (eyelids shut like blind windows), and is also the color of love and passion and fire. 

 

See: Red

 

See the paintings online: The Seagram Murals

 

The Charlie Rose interview: A Look at John Logan's play Red

 

Tags: art  architecture theatre  museums  london   broadway

 

 

Untitled, Mark Rothko, 1958, Kawamura Memorial Museum of Art

 

 

 

 

 

 


The Vestibule of the Laurentian Library with its blind windows

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