Becoming Rothko: Edward Gero in the Rothko Room

Actor Edward Gero is blogging about his process of preparing for the role of Mark Rothko in John Logan’s Red, which opens at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre in September and then here in town at Arena Stage early next year. Here, Gero shares his experience of our Rothko Room and discussion with Rothko-expert and Curator at Large Klaus Ottmann. Follow the rest of his journey as it unfolds.  

(left) The Rothko Room at The Phillips Collection. Photo: Max Hirshfeld. (right) Actor Edward Gero. Photo: Scott Suchman

I still am not sure what happened today. I can tell you the narrative, but I am not sure what the effect of the event is yet. Today I went to meet the new Curator at Large of The Phillips Collection, Klaus Ottmann, who was gracious enough to spend a few hours with me in the Rothko Room and at lunch talking about the artist and his art.  I came early, not knowing what to expect, but very excited to spend my first time in the first of the “Rothko Rooms.” It was installed in The Phillips Collection in 1960. The room and the four paintings were the first room ever dedicated to a single artist, which has become commonplace now, but at the time was quite the acknowledgment of Rothko.  Rothko himself consulted with the museum about the space, chose the bench for the space, and saw it completed. It is the only room he did see, unlike the much larger Rothko Chapel. He committed suicide before that project’s completion.

I was too excited to wait in the cafè, so I went immediately upstairs to the room.  I entered a very small space with off-white walls, four large canvasses, dim lights, and a simple wooden bench in the center. It was very theatrical. The lighting made for a hushed environment, like entering a meditation room. The paintings were large and imposing, dominating the space.

Having read that Rothko hoped that one would spend time with the paintings, I sat down quietly and hoped that the room and the works would start acting on me. They did.  Seeing these large works in person is incredible. It sounds trite to say that bookplates cannot capture the power of the color, but it’s true. The two works on the short walls, particularly the one in the center of the photo above worked on my sense of space. It felt like an opening that seemed to move closer, then farther away. At times it reminded me of a proscenium, a puppet stage with a yellow opening that invited you inside. It had an odd and powerful calming affect.

It surprised me. And I began to be drawn to the painting on the opposite wall behind me and spent a long time with both of these.

These two paintings seem to echo each other. The darker color surrounding the lighter.  The other two seemed to be more upsetting, harsh, angry, clashing.  Equally powerful as the other two, but more troubled in some way.

Particularly the blue and red on the right below. This one had a very solemn sadness about it. The layers of the blue field felt like a deep sky on a moonless night. Melancholy and vast.

Rothko said, “I think of my pictures as dramas; the shapes in the pictures as performers.” Well, the theatricality of the size of the canvasses combined with the dim lighting certainly create a theatrical space in which these dramas take place. The light that emanates from these layers of colors, and perhaps the tricks the colors play on the eye over the half hour I was in their presence, certainly evoked a connection to something deep inside me that lives beyond my own ability to explain. Rothko was searching for some way to communicate beyond words to a place of  spirit, like a piece of music or a good performance or poem. Perhaps because I had already read that in the Breslin, I allowed my imagination to go there. But there is no denying the power that these large layers of colors in an intimate low light setting had on me.

Afterward, I rushed downstairs. It was close to the time to meet Mr. Ottmann, and I sat in the cafe with a cappuccino.  I waited for some time. It was twenty minutes after our appointment time.  I began to worry that because I ran up to the room beforehand, I had missed him.  That would have been hugely embarrassing. Then suddenly a very hip looking man, with a  bit of a grunge beard, sporting a light dark jacket and open collar shirt entered the cafe. This had to be Klaus Ottmann, and it was. He had been waiting for me in the lobby area.  He greeted me and wondered if I wanted to see the room before lunch.  I didn’t let on that I had already been there, so we went back to the room, and he shared the history of the room, Rothko’s involvement with it and its importance to the life of the museum. He talked of Rothko, reinforcing what I had been reading about him in the Breslin. His inner struggle, his desire to create a space to be with his work and to connect his struggle that goes beyond words and brings us in touch with something deep and of gravity. He brought me a copy of the small book he wrote himself on Rothko and presented it to me in the room. I asked him to sign it. He did, of course,  and I accepted it with gratitude.

We were interrupted by a patron who had come from Texas, an artist herself, specifically to see the room. She had overheard our exchange. I then saw Klaus as the gracious representative of the museum. He answered her questions about the works, how they were framed, lots of technical questions. It reminded me of the question one hears all the time at the theater, “How do you memorize all those lines?”  He was very generous of his time, offering his card and an open door to future contact. At the end of that conversation I told him that I had actually sneaked into the room before meeting him to have a quiet personal experience of the work and the room.  He quickly relieved my embarrassment by enthusiastically approving of that choice.

Besides being a gracious man, Klaus is quite the scholar. He has studied philosophy in Switzerland. He is an accomplished art historian and critic. Educated in both art history and philosophy with an M.A. from the Freie Universität Berlin and a Ph.D. in philosophy from the European Graduate School, Saas-Fee, Switzerland, Klaus has written extensively on contemporary art, art theory, and the philosophy of art. He confessed to me that Rothko is his favorite painter. In fact, it was the Rothko Room that drew him to Washington from New York City to work at the Phillips.

We spent the next hour at lunch, talking about art and theater and the philosophy of the creative act. He said the one thing that underpinned his own work was the notion that aesthetics and ethics were one; that both element must exist in an authentic work of art. The artist must strive to find some balance, he said, between the beautiful and the authentic. Authenticity is beauty.  The individual’s truth must imbue the work. He freely quoted Samuel Beckett and Nietzsche. When talking about the artist’s inability to be finally satisfied with one’s work, he mentioned his favorite quote from Beckett, “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.”

With regard to the Seagram Murals, I asked him why, in his opinion, did Rothko take so long to realize that The Four Seasons restaurant space in The Seagram Building was inappropriate for the sacred contemplative space he had imagined it becoming with the installation of the murals.  He speculated that Rothko was simply a bit naive. Perhaps he meant he was too absorbed in his own process to see the reality of the situation. When I asked about his suicide, Klaus replied that perhaps Rothko was afraid that the Rothko Chapel would be as disastrous a project as the Seagram Murals had been, and ended his life before it was complete to avoid further humiliation. Interesting.

I plan on returning there a few more times before going to Chicago in a few weeks. I will meet Klaus again. There will be a reading of a scene from the play in the museum in December before it opens at Arena. That will be special. And you can catch Klaus speaking at the Smithsonian about the theory of color and Rothko’s use of color on July 26. Unfortunately, I will miss it, being out of town.

As I said, I still don’t know how to explain what happened today in the Rothko Room, but I know it will feed me in the coming weeks,  as I presume it did my predecessor in the role.