Thirteen years ago, when Nellie and I moved into our first Toronto apartment together, we needed some art to stick on the walls. We did what a lot of people do when they’re only a year out of university and don’t have much money: they buy prints from a generic art store. We perused the offerings at Alternative Arts, near the University of Toronto campus, and I became particularly enamored with one print by a gentleman named Mark Rothko. I knew nothing about art and so didn’t recognize his name, but I loved the simplicity and starkness and richness of the image. We walked out with it.
I learned a little more about Rothko later, about his importance in the mid-20th-century abstract expressionist movement. Over the next several years I’d make a point of seeing his work in museums like MoMA, the Guggenheim and The Met in New York, the Art Institute of Chicago and most especially at the Tate Modern during my visit to London in 2002. The series of “Seagram Murals” on display there, in a very dark room, moved me more than any other paintings I’d seen before or have seen since. I spent a long time sitting on a bench, letting my eyes adjust to the darkness, feeling choked up by paintings. Rothko’s earlier, brighter paintings don’t really do much for me, but I’m intensely drawn to his later, darker works.
So, when I heard a play had been made about Rothko — specifically about the period during which he was painting the Seagram murals — and that, after winning several Tony awards last year it was coming to Toronto, I jumped at the chance to buy tickets for Nellie, myself and our friends CBJ+M, to see it last night.
It would be silly for me to try to say much about the play beyond that it was fantastic, that Jim Mezon was incredible as Rothko and that it left me with a whole new dread and appreciation for those paintings which became increasingly dark, even black, as Rothko’s suicide loomed. The play was interesting, animated, physical, philosophical, enlightening and magnifying. I believe there are still tickets left for the Toronto run; I cannot recommend it strongly enough.
We still have that first print, by the way. All of our other cheap starter art has been given to goodwill and replaced with more original work, but I could just never part with the Rothko. I still walk past it every morning on my way out the door, and every night when I get home. But this morning, twelve hours after seeing the play, it seemed to have new life. Or I do. I’m not sure.