I’m driving to Melbourne on Wednesday. The usual grooves of PBS FM is displaced by Radio National’s Books and Arts Daily talking about John Logan’s play Red currently at the MTC.
Before I can switch back to PBS’ Roots of Rhythm, my usual Wednesday driving companion, I realise that Red is about Rothko and my all time favourite restaurant, in a design sense, the Four Seasons in New York.
I’m certain that the vision, extravagance, drama and conceit that made up the gestation of this Madmen extravaganza will, even in these post Bulli times, be hard to Trump.
Bit of background..Put Yankee post war binge in the late 1950’s, a prime piece of Park Avenue real estate, the Seagram Corporation, Mies Van der Rohe, Philip Johnson, Joe Baum. George Lang, Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock into a skyscraper of a cocktail and what you got was a deadly mix of an operatic scale played out in the opening of the most extravagant modern restaurant dining room of the most extravagant city at a time when extravagance new no bounds.
I was really looking forward to the play especially to see how the serendipitous Australian connection will be revealed. I ring the Hyphen, make a booking and slide breathlessly 8 hours later into Script dining room for a pre dinner meal.
Without giving anything away [its been reviewed in all the media quite closely] the play centres around Rothko’s moral soul search in taking a big commission from a large corporation for work that he sees as transcending all previous attempts at abstract expressionism. It’s a two-hander between the new assistant and the master confronting his own demons while monstering the young up and coming artist with questions of Pollocks suicide, the trivia of Pop Art, the nature of colour, the interplay of light, Nietzsche, Apollo- Dionysus and the eternal questions of generational change.
Colin Friels gives a good but predictable performance with a very stilted accent [why do we need to copy accents?] the assistants role is restrained and he brings the drama to a head by confronting the Artist with the essence of his moral dilemma. After visiting the Four Seasons [its already open] Rothko reneges and brings on the climax and return of the substantial commission.
As the lights dim and applause begins I realise that the full story with the equally dramatic Australian connection is not going to be revealed.
What happened next.........
When Jerry Brody of Restaurant Associates one of the consultants working on the restaurant realises that they will not have the Rothko paintings they turn to art collector Ben Heller to ask if he had something appropriate to fill nearly 20 meter space. Heller suggested a painting in his garage that his kids were in danger of destroying. Of course it was Blue Poles. The painting goes into the private room of the Four Seasons before Rothko’s visit but strangely this is not mentioned in the play.
Fast forward to 1973 Rothko has committed suicide three years earlier. The Four Seasons has fallen on hard times and James Mollison from the Australian National Gallery convinces Whitlam and the acquisition committee to pay the highest price [A$2 million] to that date for a modern American painting. Resulting in a scandal that rocked the art world at the time.
Post Script: Blue Poles whatever you may think of it, is, today valued at between $50M and $150M
The opera continues to be played out still every day in the restaurant that now desperately needs a new American vision to feed the desires of today’s madmen. If you get a chance to go the bar snacks at the 5 pm happy time are brilliant and the interior is totally intact.