Lessons from art: ‘A creative adult is a child who survived’
Aspen Art Museum
If you go
Feb. 22-24, March 2-3, 7 p.m.; Feb. 25 and March 4, 2 p.m. “Red” is based on the true story of abstract expressionist Mark Rothko. In 1958, Rothko – known for his large canvases of colored blocks – accepted a commission to paint a series of murals for the upscale new Four Seasons restaurant in New York City. In “Red,” as seen through the eyes of Rothko’s young and somewhat idealistic assistant Ken, the artist spends the next two years struggling with the idea of creating art for such a commercialized setting. Michelle Dezember will lead a discussion with audience members following the Feb. 22 opening night performance.
Sopris Theatre Company at Colorado Mountain College, Spring Valley | $18, $13 students, seniors and CMC employees | 947-8177 | eventbrite.com
“What do you see?”
In my conversations with visitors to the Aspen Art Museum seeking explanations about artworks, I pose this question — not only to break the ice and empower viewers, but also because I believe that art is incredibly personal. This question is also is the first line of the play “Red,” written by John Logan and currently being directed by Kelly Ketzenbarger for the Sopris Theatre Company at Colorado Mountain College. Spoken by the protagonist, Mark Rothko, the question reflects the artist’s deep commitment to creating an intimate relationship between viewer and artwork.
The first time I saw one of Rothko’s paintings, I was a student at Santa Clara University visiting the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art with my art history class. The piece, “No. 14, 1960” (1960), is a large canvas, almost 10 feet tall, which fills the viewing field with orange and blue blocks of color that actively (and magically) hover over a warm brown background.
To this day, the painting hangs alongside works by Clyfford Still, Rothko’s friend and collaborator. Together, they founded the Subjects of the Artists School, an experimental educational project that ran between 1947–48 as an open platform for artists at any stage of their career to work with members of the group that was emerging as the New York School. Rothko had a deep commitment to education, having worked as an art teacher for more than 20 years at the Brooklyn Jewish Center. His practice as an artist was undoubtedly influenced by his practice as an educator; both demand attentiveness, empathy, and curiosity.
Rothko wrote on the subject of students and teachers of art, most notably in the 1934 essay “New Training for Future Artists and Art Lovers.” He declared that art is a pure form of human expression, “a method of making a visible record of our experience, visual or imaginative, colored by our own feelings and reactions.” Children, he observed, find communicating through art quite natural, but many will lose these skills as they mature.
This reminded me of something told to me recently, that a creative adult is a child who survived. Rothko’s paintings are evidence of an artist who never lost the ability to stay in tune with deep experiences and emotions. His works give form to the intangible contradictions found in human experience: proud and fragile, simple and enigmatic, familiar and mystical.
Any time we are invited to view art, including Rothko’s, we are invited to be students. “Red” is an opportunity to witness an artist and his assistant go between roles of teacher and student with one another during a pivotal and vulnerable moment in Rothko’s career.
The play might be appealing because it offers insight into the artist’s studio, and maybe some explanation of the artist’s process. But what is perhaps even more valuable about the play is the personal invitation to sit in the seat of the learner, savoring the opportunity to respond to the question, “What do you see?”
Michelle Dezember is the learning director at the Aspen Art Museum, where she oversees the museum’s education and public programs and interpretive projects. She has worked at museums in Qatar, Barcelona, New York and California and is committed to the role that art plays in shaping personal and collective possibilities.