Saturday, August 11, 2012

An abundance of thoughts

A photo from Red starring Alfred Molina & Jon Groff.
One of the hardest things when coming away from a learning experience is categorizing your thoughts and reflections. If you're like me, you're the kind of person who writes everything down - making sure each of the valuable memories are stored verbatim in a notebook that you slip out of your purse every time a profound quote is said in a stage play or even in real life (but more often in a stage play).

Watching Red reminded me that plays need not be necessarily categorized within a certain subgenre of drama. That even though it is fun to write about everything and connect it to an overarching plot, that it can also be great to just listen and absorb knowledge - especially when said knowledge is all-over-the-place and involves so very many different aspects of humanity.

This is a show about Mark Rothko (played by Alfred Molina). It is highly fictional, yet very poignant and moving - especially if you, like me, went in without knowing whether it had occurred in reality or not (though I guess I've spoiled the fact that it's fictional for anyone who's reading this blog at the moment). The only two characters in the play are Rothko and his assistant (portrayed by Jonathan Groff)(who is responsible for mounting canvas and applying bottom coat primer to the paintings, as well as doing odd jobs for Rothko around the city like grabbing coffee or food).

But the play showed the complexities of the relationship between these two minds, two men who call themselves "artists," and are in a constant battle over issues like culture, evolution/modernism, philosophy, social class, etc.

The whole play involves the two characters arguing with long pregnant pauses. If it can be known for anything though, it's not for the raised voices. It's for the incredibly impassioned speeches.

One of my favorites occurred when the Rothko character talks about why he perceives the color black as something ominous and mysterious. Though his assistant says it is a bland perception considering the widely accepted notion that black represents death and emptiness, Rothko confronts this describing the painting "Belshazzar's Feast" by Rembrandt that hangs in London at the National Gallery.

There's an inscription in the painting which translates from Hebrew to English as "You have been weighed int he balance and found wanting." The words have been inscribed by some deity and are enshrouded by darkness - black.

As Rothko describes it in the play, this is what he considers when he sees the color black. The possibility of failure and the desire to not be "found wanting," but to prove one's destiny before death. It's still a bleak color, but there's more to it than the cliché interpretation of the color black.

The issue of color significance is a topic I've explored in my own writing, including a short story where I began the narrative with the protagonist/narrator explaining how she sees experiences (nouns, adjectives, verbs, etc.) with different colors.

But color and personal meaning behind it wasn't the only interesting topic explored. Another was the infinite question of zeitgeist versus traditionalism.

In Rothko's world, pop art (like that of Lichtenstein or Warhol) is considered a travesty to the field of art. The work, according to Rothko, seemed contrived and commercial. It strove for money. Unlike Rothko, who despite being incredibly successful during his lifetime, was allegedly not in it for the monetary success.

Yet Rothko cited some older artists for his success as a painter, because he claimed himself instrumental in the overthrow of the previous generation of artists to make way for his bunch.

The consideration of time's passing and the effect of that on artwork and artists is one that we don't think of often. Because artwork seems so static and artists so beyond our comprehension (since so many of them are dead), we have to open our minds to different ways of thinking - as if we read science fiction books, but then double the weird.

In Rothko's case, opening up his thought meant letting go of the feelings of confinement in his generation, and rather opening his mind to new types of art that essentially mock the period they came from. (It's not like Warhol was advertising Campbell's Soup, obviously.)

Beyond this, other topics explored included the conflict between heart and head (emotion and intellect) in art, and how the battle is what keeps art alive. Only when the conflict no longer exists does art die, in Rothko's opinion.

The issue of aging is also brought up, as Rothko realizes his years have made it all the more difficult to remain current and not be washed away like the previous generation of artists.

As the assistant states, "Pop art has banished abstract expressionism."

And so the process continues - of dethroning artistic masters and making way for new ones

The wonderful thing about a play like this is that even though it can be hard to find a central point, there are incredible immensities in the text - in the dialogue - that come together like a good painting. With the emotional and the intellectual in conflict, we make our best observations.

Watching Red was like getting insight into reality. Sometimes when I'm cooped up at home I don't feel like I'm part of real life anymore. I lose sight of how things are away from my own dungeon. But then I go to the theater and all these philosophical contemplations on life make me want to reference Nietzsche in every day conversation, or quote Shakespeare to my peers. It's weird to learn so much from watching others learn (and yell at each other). But it made for a great play. That's all that matters anyway.

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