The Dallas Museum of Art and its Arts District neighbor, Dallas Theater Center, are collaborating in an unprecedented way on the upcoming production of John Logan’s Tony Award-winning play Red, a bio-drama about iconic 20th-century artist Mark Rothko. Rothko once said, “I think of my pictures as dramas; the shapes in the pictures are the performers.”
Months ago, Joel Ferrell (DTC’s Associate Artistic Director and Director of Red) and Bob Lavallee (set designer) came to the DMA for a sneak peek at our Rothko painting currently in art storage so that they could examine the stretcher and the back of the canvas.
Bob discussed his preliminary plans to turn the 9th floor of the Wyly Theatre into Rothko’s Bowery Studio. Joel mentioned that the actors portraying Rothko (Kieran Connolly) and his assistant Ken (Jordan Brodess) in Red will be priming and painting a canvas on stage to music in a “muscular dance,” and that “they wanted to get it right.” Joel and Bob peppered Mark Leonard (the DMA’s Chief Conservator) and Gabriel Ritter (the DMA’s Nancy and Tim Hanley Assistant Curator of Contemporary Art) with questions about Rothko’s use of materials, and great dialogue followed about the seriousness with which Rothko approached his art and creative process. On another visit, I helped production staff browse through books in the DMA’s Mayer Library to find the best photos of Rothko inside his studio in an effort to re-create it faithfully.
On January 16, the entire DTC staff, ranging from actors to production staff and administrators, joined DMA staff in an afternoon-long workshop. We immersed ourselves in the art of Mark Rothko through lively conversations with Carol Mancusi-Ungaro, who has written on Rothko’s techniques and directed the conservation of his Rothko Chapel paintings; by exploring works of art in the galleries with DMA staff by artists who came before and after Rothko; and through a sustained look and written reflection on Rothko’s painting Orange, Red and Red, which currently hangs in the South Concourse. We finished the afternoon by sharing our responses with each other, seeking to make meaning of what can seem to be an enigmatic painting.
Many staff agreed that the longer you looked closely at Orange, Red and Red, the more it reveals to you and rewards you. DTC Brierley Resident Acting Company member and Master Teacher Christina Vela said, “The great masters don’t offer answers, they keep asking you questions; you’re forced to continue to struggle with them.” Bob Lavallee remarked that you have to be physically in the room with the work of art in order to really understand it (as opposed to looking at an image on a screen)–much like theater. Antay Bilgutay, Interim Director of Development, said, “Having the space and opportunity to take my time with a Rothko painting changed my perception of his work.”
We invite you to get your tickets soon to see Red, and then come to the DMA to spend time in front of this mesmerizing work of art. Imagine you are inside the world of this painting. You might ask yourself these questions:
What do you see around you?
What do you smell, hear, and taste?
What do you feel?
How might you describe this place to someone who isn’t here?
One opportunity to do just that is to attend Red In-Depth on Saturday, February 23, a program that includes a matinee performance of Red, followed by time with staff in the galleries exploring the art of Rothko and his contemporaries. Two similar in-depth experiences will take place on February 19 and 27 with middle school and high school students.
Carolyn Bess is Director of Programming and Arts & Letters Live at the Dallas Museum of Art.