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A CurtainUp Feature
Mark Rothko's Red Canvases In the Spotlight on Broadway, Upstaged by A Lady in Red at MoMA
By Elyse Sommer
Addendum: Some Answers to CurtainUp Reader Questions about the Nude Performers in the Abramovic Show
New Yorkers who, after seeing John Logan's Red have a hankering to see some of the original versions of the stunningly replicated Mark Rothko canvases will have to hop a flight to London and the Tate Gallery. However, both the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Modern (MoMA) have a number of Rothko paintings they own on display.
I found a recent post-Red visit to the MoMA particularly interesting and would highly recommend anyone who sees the play extend the theater experience with such a visit (isn't that what good theater is all about-- to expand yourself not just for the time it takes to see a play?) Having more or less grown up visiting MoMA as often as I did a Broadway theater (MoMA, the old pre-renovation MoMA was a regular Sunday meeting place for my husband and me during our courtship days), I was familiar with the Rothkos that are part of the MoMA collection, most predating the Seagram Building murals, and a few post-dating it.
I was also familiar with the displayed works by all the other modernists who lent excitement to mid-twentieth Century art: Rothko's much admired colleague, Pollock, and Andy Warhol, the new kid on the block he distained and for whom he predicted a limited future in the art canon. However, with Rothko's words as spoken by the amazing Albert Molina still ringing in my ears, I spent more time looking at the melding of the tints in a large red-orange canvas from 1949 and the deeper hues in his "Red, Brown, and Black". A number of the sixteen Rothkos owned by MoMA are on display, but it's being able to sit on a bench in front of one of his works, much as audiences see Rothko sitting contemplating his work in progress, that will really establish the connection between the play's Rothko and his work in a museum — especially since he was so particular about where and how his work would be displayed. (Link to all 16 of the Rothko images: http://www.MoMA.org/collection/artist.php?artist_id=5047)
When you move on to the gallery next door to the one with the above mentioned canvases, you'll see that the Rothko-disdained Warhol has certainly passed the half-century mark. The number of his works on display outnumber Rothko's and, given the prices Warhol's work is fetching, it's not unlikely that his work will indeed hang around (literally) for a hundred years.
Not having been to MoMA for quite a while, I was also struck by how all the once cutting edge paintings in the museum's modern art gallery now look more like old friends, more comfortably familiar than daringly different. Part of this can be explained by the fact that, while the paintings are the same, their overall surroundings have changed. MoMA was always a big museum, teeming with the energy of New Yorkers and out-of-town visitors. For many of my friends and business acquaintances it was common a quick get together for coffee and conversation was a case of "Meet me at MoMA's cafeteria." This ended with the renovation that turned the place into a mega-museum, magnificent but much more of a tourist attraction.
Sound a bit like Broadway and its penchant for juke box musicals and the kind of glitz to warrant the costly tickets? Take MoMA's current box office draw, the something to talk about show "Marina Abramovic: The Artist Is Present." This four decade spanning retrospective of the flamboyant Yugoslav performance artist is pretty far out even for an institution that prides itself for being ahead of the curve.
While Abramovic is, as the show's title indicates, present, she's fully dressed— quite dramatically so in a red gown as bright as the red canvases for which John Logan's play currently on Broadway is named. Not so various trained "performers" who are part of the other exhibits that make up the retrospective. The most provocative of these are a man and woman facing each other in a narrow doorway, so that viewers using that entrance to the rest of the exhibition must squeeze by them. This is videotaped and watching how people deal with this situation is as much part of the performance as the naked man and woman.
Abramovic's own performance consists of her sitting in the atrium stock still in a straight-backed chair at a table, with visitors taking turns sitting opposite her. Like her they remain absolutely silent, for as long as they can stand it. These interchanges are again videotaped so that Abramovic's silent "partners" are part of the show. By museum estimates, if Abramovic sticks to her schedule through May 31st, she will have sat for 716 hours and 30 minutes, thus linking her art not just with Reality TV but the Guinness record sweeps.
Actually this sort of performance art in which usually has the artists use themselves as the image has been around for years (the Guggenheim recently had a performance art show but in this one the artists actually talked with viewers). Abramovic's has restaged the sit-at-the-table piece and others from her past as a performance artist in hopes of validating the power and durability of this genre. She is also launching a museum dedicated to performance art in Hudson, New York where she has a home and trains the performers for her work. (I wonder if there's an Actors' Equity for these performers?)
Whether this is truly an important, emotionally rich art form that need not be ephemeral as Abramovic seems to think is subject to debate. While I found it interesting it also struck me as a case of the emperor's clothes or, as New York Times art critic Holland Cotter put it, "part true grit, part diva hokum?" There's no arguing that Ms. Abramovic has a diva presence. However, the audience participation elements that are so much a part of what makes it interesting also make it all feel a bit like Reality TV at the museum. Again, sound a bit like Broadway?
And getting back to Mark Rothko and his thinking man's approach to art as so strikingly expressed in Red. . .what would he say about being not only outnumbered by Andy Warhol in the modern painting galleries and upstaged by Marina Abramovic in the atrium that can be seen from every floor. Actually, some of her comments about why she does what she does would be somewhat in synch with his intellectual approach to art. However, that said, all this playing to the the public might just make him embrace Warhol's soup cans.
For some interesting glimpses into the exhibition, and a video in which Abramovic, the show's curator and an actor discuss the difference between acting and performance art see: http://www.MoMA.org/interactives/exhibitions/2010/marinaabramovic/
Marina is a favorite at Facebook. Here's the "lady in red" in her face to face with a young man named Ektoras Binikos in a 3/09/10 video that you can watch at you tube: The Artist Is Present