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Red Rothko, September 2020
Kaitlyn Barrett on Mark Rothko and "the tyranny of fine."
Pantone designated Classic Blue as the color of 2020.
2020 is Red.
Wildfires and revolutions? Red.
Blood in hospital rooms. Red.
Blood on the streets. Red.
Red MAGA hats.
Red wine hangovers.
Red carpets rolled up for award shows that never happened.
In John Logan’s play Red, the abstract expressionist painter Mark Rothko speaks for all of us in 2020 when he rants about “the tyranny of fine.”
“How are you? Fine. How was your day? Fine. How are you feeling? Fine. You like the painting? Fine. How about some dinner? Fine. Well, let me tell you, everything is not fine. How are you feeling? Conflicted? Nuanced? Troubled? Diseased? Doomed? I’m telling you, I am not fine. We are not fine. We are anything but fine.”
In 2020, none of us is fine. We are conflicted, troubled, and feeling doomed. We are terrified and possibly diseased. We have no idea if we’ll ever be fine again.
When I watch this play, I empathize with the way Rothko rages against his assistant, the critics, the vanguard of new artists and change. I understand his fear of becoming irrelevant, a fear that all artists feel right now as we struggle to make sense of this new world.
I pray that we find the courage to create as fiercely as Rothko who says, “I’m not here to make pretty pictures, I’m here to stop your heart.” We must follow his example and make art through the madness, the disease, and the darkness and not quit until we reach the other side.
Red is primal passion and rage but also courage. Red is hope.
Red is my stopped heart, wrenched open and ready for change.
Kaitlyn Barrett is a freelance writer and photographer who currently lives in Washington state.
Mark Rothko (1903-1970) was an American abstract painter best known for his color field paintings. His style developed in eras including impressionism, mythological abstractionism, and “multiforms.”