TPAC’s Johnson Theater, February 15 to March 1

By Jim Reyland | Photography by Rob Lindsay

In mid stroke and fully engaged, abstract expressionist painter Mark Rothko asks his young assistant, Ken, a series of loaded questions. “What do you see? What’s art? And who gets to decide?”

In John Logan’s RED, winner of six 2010 Tony Awards including Best Play, Mark Rothko and Ken are working feverishly in his New York Bowery studio on what would soon be known as the Seagram Murals (see page 100). It’s 1958 and Rothko has been offered the biggest commission in the history of modern art.

Chip Arnold and Benjamin Reed as Mark Rothko and his assistant Ken in RED

Chip Arnold and Benjamin Reed as Mark Rothko and his assistant Ken in RED

In RED, a raw, provocative, and searing portrait of an artist’s ambition and vulnerability, Rothko gives orders to his assistant as he mixes the paints, makes the frames, and paints the canvases. Undaunted by Rothko’s status, Ken questions his theories of art and his acceding to work on such a high-profile, commercial project. As the discussion continues, Ken begins to realize his answers to fundamental questions about art are very different from his mentor’s. As Ken advances to challenge him, Rothko faces the agonizing possibility that his crowning achievement could also become his undoing.

RED is the first play from Tennessee Rep’s popular REPaloud staged reading series to make it to the main stage. Performed in the staged reading format in 2011 at the Frist Center for the Visual Arts, RED was so well received that it became an obvious selection for the main stage.

Certainly one of Nashville’s finest actors, Chip Arnold, on playing the man, says,  “Playing Rothko is a daunting responsibility . . . indeed, a frightening one. But like the proverbial moth drawn to the flame, I am drawn to what frightens me, what I don’t understand, and what could potentially harm or enlighten me.”

Mark Rothko, a contemporary of Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning, was generally thought of as an abstract expressionist, although he rejected this and resisted the classification as an “abstract painter.”

“A picture lives by companionship,” explained Rothko, “expanding and quickening in the eyes of the sensitive observer. It dies by the same token. It is therefore a risky and unfeeling act to send it out into the world. How often it must be permanently impaired by the eyes of the vulgar and the cruelty of the impotent who would extend the affliction universally!” He even recommended that viewers position themselves as little as eighteen inches away from the canvas so that they might experience a sense of intimacy, a transcendence of the individual, and a sense of the unknown.

Benjamin Reed and Chip Arnold perform in RED

Benjamin Reed and Chip Arnold perform in RED

Chip Arnold: “For Rothko, I believe his main struggle was to envision and create art that brought the viewer into a transcendent state connecting their humanity with his own. Rothko sought ‘to capture the miraculous and put it onto canvas, stopping time’. Every creative act is an attempt to capture the miraculous, and when that is impossible to achieve, it can have a destructive effect on body and soul.”

In the spring of 1968, Rothko was diagnosed with a mild aortic aneurysm. He continued to drink and smoke heavily, avoided exercise, and maintained an unhealthy diet. After a lifetime of depression, Rothko died by his own hand on February 25, 1970. He was sixty-six years old.

Tennessee Repertory Theatre presents RED by John Logan, a rich and intellectually riveting play featuring Benjamin Reed, directed by René D. Copeland, and starring Chip Arnold as Mark Rothko.

The Tennessee Repertory Theatre presents RED at TPAC’s Johnson Theater from February 15 to March 1 with previews February 13 and 14. For tickets, call 615-782-4040 or visit

The film version of Jim Reyland’s new play, STAND, performed across Middle Tennessee in 2012 as part of The Stand Project, is now available to stream at Watch The STAND Film starring Barry Scott and Chip Arnold and directed by David Compton. And please consider a donation to support Room In The Inn.


Mark Rothko’s Controversial Seagram Murals Set the Stage for the Rep’s RED

by Sara Lee Burd

Mark Rothko’s Seagram Murals series provides a somber glimpse into the tension between dark nostalgia and a sense of impending doom. The 600-square-foot mural was commissioned to adorn the walls of the fashionable Four Seasons dining room located in the stylish new building on Park Avenue in New York City. The Seagram Building was designed by the then-popular, now-iconic modernist architects Philip Johnson and Mies van der Rohe. It represented the height of mid-century-modern ideals—truth in architecture, transparency of form—made in glass and steel. Therefore, it was a disappointing surprise that Rothko suddenly broke his contract and pulled his series from the building in 1959.

At the time, the commission was considered the most prestigious public space granted to an abstract expressionist painter. Rothko painted in an abstract expressionist style, although he rejected any classification of his art. Abstract expressionist art is often credited with putting Manhattan on the map as a powerhouse in the art market. He had developed a particular niche within the broader expressionist vocabulary developed by Jackson Pollock, Barnett Newman, and Franz Kline, among others. He was considered a Colorist; he chose to communicate with viewers through the selection and application of color. He was appreciated during his time as an artist who wanted people to have a deep psychological, emotional, and spiritual connection by contemplating the process of creating shapes and the interaction of colors. A proper viewing of Rothko’s large-scale paintings involves meditation, reflection, and release.

The path to create the Seagram series works had been overwrought with the artist’s bouts of insecurity, indecision, and anxiety. Even with discipline, the process was dark, and the resulting work revealed the struggle the creator faced. With help from his assistant Rothko made over thirty murals for a space that could fit only seven. Each canvas was covered in dark browns, dramatic maroons, and deep ochres that were intended to consume and imprison the rich patrons Rothko resented. He found fault in their taste for commercial art and feared their acceptance of his work would diminish his intentions.

Perhaps the inherent prestige of the commission sealed its doom. The shock has never really worn off, as his reasons for reneging have not been satisfactorily explained. Whether out of concern that his work’s commercial success nulled the experience of his art or not, his suicide eleven years later suggests that the truth shines from a place of pain.

See the Seagram Murals online at or

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