Sunday, December 4, 2011

Red-Mark Rothko and Hotel Art

Thoughts of Stones #5   ©Janice Mason Steeves 2011   
Yesterday I went with my friend Jane Lind to see the award-winning play, Red, at the Bluma Appel Theatre in Toronto.  What an experience!

Director Kim Collier describes Red, as 'a play about faith versus doubt-in the artistic process, in ourselves, in our work, and in our place in the world.  I think we all are confronted with the sturggles that faced Mark Rothko: what does my life's work add up to?  How will I be remembered?  Have I been true to myself? These are all questions that eventually demand an answer from us."

 Red is set in Rothko's studio in 1958 in New York City where he was working on his mural commission for the Four Season's Hotel.  The play documents a fictionalized account of Rothko's conversations with his assistant, Ken.  We get a look into Rothko's intense artistic vision- to create art that expressed archetypal human emotions and communicated with the viewer at the deepest level. His assistant, Ken, challenged Rothko's thinking and accused him of not being in touch with the world, of living in an ivory tower, of becoming a has-been, while the world moved on to Andy Warhol and Pop Art.  Rothko held to his beliefs that art can change the world but felt he was betraying himself and his own ideals by 'selling out' to the Four Season's with this lucrative commission.  Finally, he went for dinner there.  Horrified to see only very wealthy patrons, overcome by the clinking of glasses and forks, the inane conversation and artificiality, Rothko impulsively withdrew from the mural commission, believing he was protecting his paintings and his own ideals.  In the end, Ken was fired from Rothko's studio, soon after he declared, "It's only a painting.", betraying Rothko's deep-seated belief that these were much more than paintings.  They were like living beings.
I am reminded of Sean Scully's comment, that in his work, he is trying to show, "Everything, all at once".

On the drive home, Jane and I found ourselves wanting to discuss all of the topics that came up for us in the play, besides the gorgeous set and production.  The actor who played Rothko, Jim Mezon was fabulous in his intensity, and looked amazingly like Rothko.  Ken (David Coomber) was the perfect foil for that intensity.

We wanted to discuss that intensity of Rothko's and what the situation is in art now, is there any of that sort of passion left in painting?  Do artist's want to communicate emotions, or the absence of emotions?  What's the future of painting? What makes a good abstract painting?  Jane will be writing a blog post on her experience of the play and our conversation that would be interesting to check out.

And then as conversation does, ours shifted and flowed along to other related things. I remembered this week, an artist friend, who was at a workshop a few years ago, where the insensitive instructor told her that her painting was 'Hotel Art'. My friend said her feelings were hurt, her ego was bruised and she just wanted to hide.

I can understand that there are artists who paint Hotel Art, but those are not the ones who usually take classes or have their work critiqued.  On that same thought, another friend, who is not an artist, suggested I look up the work of an artist she likes.  I did so and was simply horrified.  This was an example of Hotel Art.  It's painted for decoration. Very slick.  She has a formula: texture the background with moulding paste, then add drippy washes of transparent colours with a dab of dark here and there. Passionless, poorly painted.  It sells well.

Rothko knew his paintings weren't Hotel Art. These paintings, originally intended for the Four Seasons, eventually went to the Tate Gallery.

“Art to me is an anecdote of the spirit, and the only means of making concrete the purpose of its varied quickness and stillness.”-Mark Rothko

“Pictures must be miraculous.”-Mark Rothko 


  1. Wish I could see that play! Rothko's passion is an inspiration...I love it that he turned down the hotel commission on principle. Most of us would never do that..but, to add to the discussion --and maybe in our theoretical defense (just supposing we had such a commission!)-- don't good paintings exert a presence that uplifts the space around them? (even in a commercial setting like a hotel or restaurant.)

    I guess it gets down to the art itself...good painting is good painting no matter where it hangs, and there are always some people who will take a moment to appreciate that. When hotels, restaurants, hospitals, airports etc. display sincere, passionate art as opposed to schlock it seems like a good thing to me...but of course, Rothko is not around to argue this point with!

    For those of us who regard painting as a spiritual quest, art produced mainly as decor--formulaic and without soul--does indeed seem awfully pointless. Good post about thought-provoking topics--thanks!

  2. Wonderful, thought-provoking post. Thank you!

    Wish I still lived in Toronto just so that I could have seen that play.

    I was lucky enough to see an exhibit in Hamburg in 2008 of Rothko's paintings and was blown away. Certainly not hotel art. The best were far too emotionally extreme for that - even to the point of disturbing.

    It is such a dilemma. As artists, we want our work to speak to people, to connect and create dialogue, and to mean something; and we have to stay true to our own particular artistic voice and journey; and unfortunately we also want (need) to earn a bit of cash doing it.

    I agree with Rebecca that "a good painting is a good painting no matter where it hangs." It's just unfortunate that all too often the stuff hanging in public places is soulless dross. I wish this would change - as I think it's important for good art to get out there.

    It's so obvious when a painting has soul, yet can be so difficult to quantify or analyze. That's part of what is so magical about art - it's a beautiful mystery, not a formula. And unless an artist is working with integrity (yet another hard-to-define term) there's no chance of their producing work with soul.

    Your piece at the top is stunning. Serious soul happening there.

  3. HI Lynn and Rebecca,

    Thanks for such thoughtful responses.
    I agree Rebecca that good paintings send off good energy that is uplifting. Besides which, I think I'd be pretty happy to have a commission for the Four Seasons!
    Yes Lynn, very difficult to quantify soul or integrity and yet it can be seen. Maybe not everyone sees that though...after all, my non-artist friend actually bought one of the 'hotel art' pieces.
    Makes for some good conversation though.

  4. What a gorgeous painting and interesting post--thank you.

  5. HI Don,
    Thanks for your kind words. Much appreciated.