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Dramaturg's Notes

"When I was a younger man, art was a lonely thing: no galleries, no collectors, no critics, no money." So said Mark Rothko, the mid-20th century painter and subject of John Logan's Red. Nowadays, Rothko is a name quite closely associated with galleries, collectors, critics, and, yes, money. In the past year, Rothko's name has peppered headlines for astonishing prices taken at auction. In November, a record-setting sale at Sotheby's was led by No. 1 (Royal Red and Blue), which sold for $75,122,500. (Given Rothko's distaste for pop artists emerging in his time, he likely would be pleased to know that Andy Warhol's Suicide sold for a mere $16.3 million.) Earlier in 2012, Orange, Red, Yellow fetched $87 million. In October, after entering the Tate Modern and defacing Black on Maroon, Russian artist Valdimir Umanets claimed the act of "Yellowist" graffiti actually increased the painting's value. The value of Rothko's work is apparent. Even the fictional Bert Cooper of AMC's Mad Men admires a Rothko appropriated for his office in terms of its value: "That thing should double in value by next Christmas."

Born Marcus Rothkowitz in 1903 in Dvinsk, Russia, Rothko migrated with his mother and sister to the United States in 1913. His father, Jacob, had preceded the family to Oregon and died not long after his son's arrival. Arguably, this early brush with mortality informed Rothko's artistic sensibilities. In a 1958 lecture at the Pratt Institute, he claimed that a primary ingredient in his art is "a clear preoccupation with death--intimations of mortality."

Frequently classified as an Abstract Expressionist, Rothko rejected the label. "I am not an abstractionist. I'm interested only in expressing basic human emotions--tragedy, ecstasy, doom." By 1949, the Rothko style had emerged. When it came time to decorate the new Four Seasons restaurant in the posh Park Avenue Seagram Building, he was offered $35,000 and carte blanche to outfit the space. Of the resulting murals, Rothko said, "I have made a place."

In Red, we see Rothko during the two years spent on the Seagram commission. The fictional assistant Ken provides the catalyst by which Rothko battles the cyclical nature of life and art. As Rothko says to Ken, "The child must banish the father."

The murals never hung in the Four Seasons. Over a decade passed before Rothko made a gift of eight of them to the Tate Gallery in London. The murals arrived the morning of February 25, 1970. That same morning, Rothko's body was discovered in his studio. He had committed suicide, perhaps fulfilling his greatest fear: "One day the black will swallow the red."

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