I recently saw Red, just awarded the Tony for best play, about the abstract-expressionist artist Mark Rothko. In the play, set in 1959, Rothko is flooded with memories about art and life –and change.
The play sparked my own memories of my life in-and-around New York City. These connections cascaded in a six-degrees-of-Kevin-Bacon kind of way back to the play.
Life bounces around, connecting and changing, and if you live long enough in a great city you can eventually look back on fascinating people and interesting connections, sometimes inspired by one work of art, such as a play. Here goes:
My son Cary teaches art, and Rothko is his favorite artist. My new husband and I invited him and his significant other with us to see Red. Cary was a teaching assistant to our own OS artist Gary Justis, at Northwestern, a surprise connection I am delighted about.
My mother was an artist too. That connection is more genetic than coincidental. (She won a scholarship to Cooper Union, and had more talent than taste – her wise-cracking wit always seemed to dominate her work.)
In the play, Rothko competes with the younger artist, Jackson Pollock. Ten years ago I was on a press trip to Pollock’s house on Long Island. The group was late and the curator let me stay alone in Pollock’s studio while she answered the phone. The floor was a swirl of drips. It was silent, like being in a cathedral. I was thrilled that the play set off that forgotten moment.
In the play Rothko speaks of the young artist Andy Warhol. Warhol was a guest at a party I attended in the 1970s at a restaurant called Maxwell’s Plum, accompanied by an actress named Sylvia Miles.
The party was in honor of the playwright, Mark Medoff, who had gone to my high school and whom I had interviewed for The Miami Herald. Mark’s most famous play is Children of a Lesser God.
At another party for Mark I met Anthony Perkins, the actor who played the psycho in the classic Hitchock thriller of that name. He sat at a small table and seemed shy. His wife at the time was a photographer named Berri Berenson, who would later die in one of the planes flying into the World Trade Center. I hadn't thought of that in many years, and remember her pretty face and blond hair.
Do you see how a play, or any work of art, can set off memory cascades? And how past and present connect? Here are some more remembrances set off by Red:
Rothko paintings are displayed at the Museum of Modern Art along with Pollocks and Warhols. The great architect Louis Kahn, was once honored with an exhibit of his models and drawings there.
At that exhibit I briefly talked with Ann Richards, the former governor of Texas, who was standing next to me, admiring Kahn’s work. Years later, after her death, I would attend an event in Austin and meet her daughter, who looked like her. As I am not a Texan, what are the odds of meeting both the mother and daughter?
Louis Kahn designed the temple in Chappaqua where my late husband, Chaim Stern was rabbi. Chaim in fact suggested some changes in the design to make the area around the pulpit (bema) less austere, and Kahn agreed to a few.
Chaim performed a wedding at the temple for a local girl and Dustin Hoffman, who had been in the movie Midnight Cowboy. Sylvia Miles, the actress accompanying Warhol at the party for Mark Medoff was in that movie too.
So you see how things go around? We’re back to remembering a little known actress from the past named Sylvia Miles. And all because I saw a play.
In Red, Rothko speaks of change. Pollock and Warhol were the next generation of artists, and he found them cutting edge. But I just was at MOMA, where a performance artist sat for seven hours a day staring at people who sat across from her, one at a time, and that is now considered art. I wonder what Mark Rothko would have thought of that.
When you let yourself think a bit about your life, whether it is about artists in New York or friends in a small town, the memories and connections are sometimes amazing. And so is the inevitability of change, a major theme of Red.