“I used to think Rothko’s work was about the emotive power of color and tone. I’m starting to think it’s about the paint.”– Petersen Thomas
The Bunbury-ShPIeL Identity Theatre is proud to present RED by John Logan. RED is the story of Mark Rothko, a Russian Jewish immigrant, who took the American modern art scene by storm in the 1950s. The play focuses on a period in which Rothko worked on the famous Seagram’s murals, commissioned by architect Philip Johnson for his prestigious new Seagram Building. When finished, he refused to deliver them, and the exact reasons are still a point of discussion. Some scholars believe that Rothko created the paintings with the understanding that they would be placed in the main lobby, and that once he was informed that the paintings would instead be installed in the adjoining Four Seasons Restaurant, he was offended. Others are of the opinion that he always knew of the location and had his own, enigmatic reasons for not delivering the pieces; reasons about which we can only now speculate. Nine of the paintings are now in residence at the Tate Gallery in London, delivered there on the morning of Rothko’s suicide in 1970.
Painter Petersen Thomas became involved in the production through Louisville Visual Art, providing technical assistance - the two actors, portraying Rothko and his assistant, must finish constructing and then begin painting an 8’ x 8” canvas onstage, and some degree of expertise on Mark Rothko. “I am by no means any kind of ‘expert on Rothko, but he has always fascinated me.”
The collaboration began with time in Thomas’ downtown studio, where he “schooled” actors J. Barrett Cooper and Brandon Meeks about the methods and studio practice they are required to emulate onstage.
Director Steve Woodring and Scenic Designer Tom Tutino also prevailed upon Thomas to execute mock Rothko paintings for the set, Rothko’s New York City studio in 1958 (the rights to produce the play allow for facsimile representations but not reproductions of Rothko’s work). Thomas actually painted these in the backstage area at the Henry Clay Theatre.
Thomas paints in different styles, but his heart is perhaps most in abstract expressionism, so his affinity for Rothko comes naturally. Red has been a dominant color in some of his work, such as “Clementine,” pictured here, which is typical of the larger-scale, color field work, although there are also cooler hues in his diminutive, “Lenith Series.”
It is this work that gave Thomas the foundation to jump into the deep end with his exploration of Rothko. “Rothko is a perfect touchstone for so many tropes in modern art,” explains Thomas. “For instance, someone might look at his work and say, ‘I could do that.’ - Wanna bet? There is so much happening on the canvas, but it looks and feels so simple. That is incredibly hard to do. He was a virtuoso.”
“For me, Rothko embodies self-doubt. When he landed the Seagram commission, he was as revered as a living artist could be. But in response, he makes this wild gesture about the integrity of art. It was the ultimate “fuck you” to the art world. But why? Did he truly believe that the paintings were sacred? Or was that a pose? Trying to figure out the difference between genius and fraud, self and persona, is the fastest way I know to bring you face to face with the abyss.”
So what did Thomas learn about Rothko that he didn’t already know? What insight did the experience of RED provide about one of the most famous artists of the 20th century? “I used to think Rothko’s work was about the emotive power of color and tone. I’m starting to think it’s
about the paint.”
Performance schedule for the Bunbury-ShPIeL Identity Theatre production of RED at the Henry Clay Theatre, 3rd & Chestnut:
February 16, 17, 22*, 23, 24,
March 1*, 2, & 3 at 7:30pm
February 18*, 25**, & March 4 at 2:00pm
*Denotes post-show talkback, **Panel discussion
Thomas was the artist in Residence at Roma Kungsgarn, Gotland Sweden and received the Governor’s Award for Excellence at the Governor’s Art Show in Columbus, Ohio. Exhibitions include: New Art on Newbury, Boston, MA, MiSh Gallery, Columbus, OH, Lemongrass Gallery, Columbus, OH, NorDys Gallery, Birmingham, AL, Karen Lynne Gallery, Boca Raton, FL, “The Nude 2002,” Loudoun House Gallery, Lexington, KY, Drawing from Perception IV, Wright State University Art Galleries, Dayton, OH, and Fidelity Investment Building, Boston, MA.
Hometown: Louisville, Kentucky
Education: BA, Denison University, Ohio; JD, University of Michigan.
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Written by Keith Waits. Entire contents copyright © 2017 Louisville Visual Art. All rights reserved.