When Mark Rothko accepted the commission to paint a series of murals for the elegant Four Seasons restaurant in Manhattan, his aim, he famously said, was to “ruin the appetite of every son-of-a-bitch who ever eats in that room.”
Those murals — and the conflicts they represented for the famous abstract expressionist artist — provide the backdrop for “Red,” a play by John Logan, which opens at the Pittsburgh Public Theater, Thursday, Nov. 10.
Set in 1958, “Red,” which won the 2010 Tony Award for Best Play, portrays Rothko and a fictional young assistant, Ken, laboring on the murals in his Bowery studio, as Rothko struggles with his place in the art world — having “crushed” the cubists, such as Picasso, yet suffering the pop artists, such as Andy Warhol, nipping at his heals.
Rothko’s acceptance of the Four Seasons commission may help satisfy his hunger for recognition, and his fear of oblivion, but he remains conflicted by the truth of the intended use of his paintings: decoration of a posh restaurant where he himself feels “too goddamn Jewish.”
Born Marcus Rothkowitz in Cossack-occupied Latvia in 1903, Rothko immigrated to Portland, Ore., with his family when he was 10 years old. His Orthodox Jewish upbringing, which he rejected at a young age, left him acutely ethnically Jewish, in some ways shaping the way in which he saw the world.
“He was a real yeshiva bocher,” said Pamela Berlin, the show’s director. “He was clearly extraordinarily bright. He studied [in a yeshiva] in Latvia, and in Portland, until he announced he was not going to do it anymore. But he was a secular Jew, and many of his closest artist friends were Jewish.”
The set at the Public recreates the studio where Rothko worked on the commissioned paintings: the gymnasium in a former YMCA building at 222 Bowery.
“It was a big barn of a place down in Greenwich Village,” recalled Rothko’s cousin, Patricia Rothko Walther, speaking to the Chronicle from her home in Wheeling, W.Va. “I only met Mark twice. The first time I was 21, and I came to New York on my way to Europe in 1958. He was lovely to me, and spent time with me at his studio.”
Walther does not remember the specifics of what she saw that day at Rothko’s studio, but the timing indicates he may well have been working then on what came to be known as the Seagram murals (named for the Manhattan high rise where the Four Seasons was located).
The Seagram murals, however, never actually made it to the Seagram. After dining with his wife at the Four Seasons where his paintings were to be hung, Rothko returned the $35,000 commission — a mammoth sum in 1958 — refusing to showcase his work to “anyone who eats that kind of food for that kind of money in that kind of joint.”
“It gnawed at him from the beginning that he was selling out to commercialism,” Berlin said. “And many of his fellow artists really went after him and accused him of selling out by taking the commission. He must have been tortured the entire time.
“The coup de grace was when he went to dine there,” Berlin continued. “The next day, he made the call [to return the commission]. I think he avoided going to the restaurant. I think he put blinders on. He was in deep denial until he had to face it.”
In reality, Rothko’s own life was at odds with that of the clientele of the Four Seasons.
“He was sort of a slob,” Berlin said. “His clothes were old, and he ate like a slob. He once made a statement that you should never have to pay more than $5 for a meal.”
The Seagram murals are large, abstract, irregular blocks of color — maroon, dark red, and black. Like most of Rothko’s later work, they evoke raw and visceral emotions.
But Rothko did not begin his painting career as an abstract expressionist — a label he never embraced. Rather, he began with figurative works, including landscapes, still lifes and portraits.
It was only over time that his paintings evolved into abstract, pulsating clouds of color. Berlin believes that Rothko’s identity as a Jew contributed to the evolution of his work.
“I don’t know how his Judaism could not have informed what he finally arrived at,” Berlin said. “He was prone to hyperbole, and at one point he said to someone, ‘I remember the Cossacks throwing pieces of people into pits.’ Then he wasn’t sure if he actually remembered seeing it, or if he had just heard about it. But then he said that the shapes in his paintings were reminiscent of the holes in the ground that he saw — the graves.”
Rothko feared that the pop art that was supplanting him was superficial, Berlin said. Following World War II and the Holocaust, he and fellow abstract expressionists such as Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning needed their art to speak from their deep subconscious. Anything less was petty and irrelevant.
“Looking at tomato soup cans and cartoons was incomprehensible to him,” Berlin said, referring to the pop art works of artists such as Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein.
The Rothko in “Red” is at once egotistical and insecure, funny and morose. The artist battled depression for most of his life.
“Several people have said about him, ‘I think he was the loneliest man I ever met.’ ” Berlin said.
Rothko eventually sent most of his Seagram paintings to the Tate Modern national gallery of international modern art in London. They arrived at the Tate Feb. 25, 1970 — the same day the artist killed himself in his studio.
The Public Theater’s production of “Red” will run through Dec. 11.
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)