Lowcountry art lovers get a double-dose of Mark Rothko - and love it

nancy.wellard@cancer.orgNovember 17, 2012 

Every now and then, a series of cultural events comes together and the outcome is simply spectacular, exceeding the sum of its parts.

Such events took place on Hilton Head Island last weekend.

Karen Brosius, executive director at the Columbia Museum of Art, gave a lecture about one of the best known and highly regarded artists of the 20th century, Mark Rothko. (Rothko's "Red and Blue" just brought in close to $75 million at Sotheby's.) Brosius presented a series of slides on the exhibit that is now in place at the museum, "Mark Rothko, The Decisive Decade, 1940-1950," and extended an invitation to area residents to come see the paintings in person.

Coincidentally, "RED," the 2010 award-winning play by John Logan about Mark Rothko and his fictional assistant, was wrapping up an impressive run at our own South Carolina Repertory Co. Theatre.

Does it get any better?

In a small meeting room at the Arts Center of Coastal Carolina, Brosius offered intimate glimpses of Rothko's earliest beginnings, then moved on to the format of his paintings, the transitions he was making, his expectations, his personal feelings about his work and the way it should be viewed.

The 37 paintings, watercolors and works on paper in the exhibit were primarily drawn from the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. They explore Rothko's work in the 1940s, when he was focused on things magical, mystical, dreamy and powerful. We were surprised at the figurative pieces that gave way to his more familiar illuminating bands of color, which began to surface in the late '40s. Though he used the entire spectrum of color, in the mid 1950s he began to prefer bright reds and yellows.

Seeing these paintings in relation to each other and to the time frame helped us to understand Rothko more fully. Brosius pointed out his relationship with color through his life, and that particular feeling about reds.

Reds, as we learned, carried a particular impact in his work, which surfaced later in in his career. That said, Brosius explained that reds and umbers were added to the installation paint applied to the walls of the gallery in Columbia, in preparation for the best possible setting for his work.

We all left the presentation thoroughly consumed with a new love of Rothko. Make plans to visit the Columbia Museum of Art to see the collection firsthand. The exhibit runs through Jan. 6.

At South Carolina Repertory Co. Theatre, the fragrance of paint and solvents, drying canvases and aging drop cloths filled the air of the intimate theater. We had the feeling we were positioned in Rothko's New York City studio sometime between 1958 and 1960. Almost voyeurs, we absorbed the passion as it was delivered. There was intellect, respect, torment, rage, even something feral, as we experienced the interplay of the abstract expressionist, played by New York actor David Sitler, and his young assistant, Ken, played by Matt Mundy, also a New Yorker with impressive credentials at SCRC. "RED" was directed superbly by Chip Egan.

During the 90-minute play, the two characters dealt with issues as broad as the philosophy of life and as specific as the challenge of separating art for art's sake and art as a commercial enterprise. Rothko was exploring the consequence of painting a series of "secret murals" to be installed in Phillip Johnson's Seagrams Building's Four Seasons restaurant. It was a pivotal time for him, made more so by his concern about a new generation of contemporary artists on the New York scene. They talked, shouted, painted, moved, drank and washed -- and through it all we were fully engaged.

The play was intelligent and visceral. "RED" oozed with inescapable physical and emotional labor. It never, never let up.

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