Rothko: The Real Thing

By Jean Gordon Ryon, dramaturg
If only I could show you a Rothko. In conversation with audience members during this preview week for Red, I’ve discovered some people don’t think they know about Rothko; some are not sure he’s a real person. His signature painting style is very recognizable: rectangles of intense color floating on top of other rectangles of intense color, usually in a vertical orientation. If you saw one of his paintings, you would immediate say, “Oh, THAT guy.” But strict rules dictated by the Rothko estate severely limit the number of Rothko images we are allowed to display, and the way in which we display them. So I can’t show you a Rothko here. I can direct you to some websites ( is a good one, as is But even better, I can direct you to the Memorial Art Gallery. We are in luck at this moment in Rochester because MAG is exhibiting a Rothko from 1961 on loan from the Albright-Knox Museum in Buffalo. I recommend a visit. Seeing a painting online is one thing, but seeing one in person —well, that’s a lot of what the play Red is about.
The actors and the artistic team of Red had the privilege of a private visit to MAG to see the Rothko, in the first week of rehearsal. We were hosted by MAG Director Jonathan Binstock, expert in Abstract Expressionism, who has been an advisor to us during Red’s production.
The painting is in a small room along with works by Rothko’s contemporaries from the 50s and 60s. We stood outside the room for a few minutes while Jonathan Binstock greeted us. He spoke for a few minutes about how a painting, unlike a play or a book or a piece of music, was actually in physical contact with the artist — and how, no matter how much time passes, when we look at it, we are seeing something the artist also saw, sharing the artist’s experience without any middleman. I could see the painting in the distance as I listened: I saw a large rectangle of black floating over a block of brown, divided up by blurry reddish lines.
We went into the little room. Our scene shop painters and our prop shop artisans were the first to reach the painting, intently studying the canvas and the brushstrokes in preparation for creating the replicas needed on stage. We had the privilege of getting as close to the painting as we wanted, for as long as we wanted. I stood at a distance at first, but finally moved up close. I wanted to test out Rothko’s admonition that the paintings should be viewed at about 18 inches! We lingered a long time in front of the painting, pointing out discoveries to one another. A strange thing happened the longer we looked: it was almost as though details of the work emerged over time. I suppose they were there the whole time, but to me it seemed as though they gradually revealed themselves. I was reminded of the words of the play: “[these paintings] move through space if you let them; this movement takes time, so they’re temporal. They require time.”
We had the gift of time that afternoon at the MAG. We could see the layers underneath the layers of paint, the places where a brushstroke emerged as if rising to the surface through a veil of very thinned-down paint. We could see the drip marks around the bottom edge of the canvas, so random-seeming and yet probably expected and planned for. We could study the feathering of one color into another, the blurring of the edges of the darker red lines into the color blocks above and below. We had been standing there for I don’t know how long when I suddenly realized I was no longer looking at a black and brown picture: the brown had turned unmistakably red. I don’t know when that happened, and I know it had something to do with optics, but it was magical for me. It confirmed for me Rothko’s contention that his paintings have movement, have life.
In other museums I have visited, a Rothko painting has always been able to stop me in my tracks. This day I got to explore why that’s true, what gives the work its power. If you want to expand your experience of Red, before or after seeing it, go see the Rothko (Untitled,1961) at the MAG. It’s worth the trip.


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