When I arrive at Washington Square Park I ask around and find out the fair doesn’t start until May so I wander a little and take some pictures of the goings on today, so I will let the pictures do the talking for me and after a while I decide to walk up to Union Square. I know there is vendors there almost every week and even in April of last year some of the braver souls came out when I took Mark and Sharon on a cold day during their first day in New York, I’m praying luck will be with me.
When I get their the market and the art show is in full swing, loads of people come here on Wednesday , Saturday and Sunday to buy produce & plants, meats and cheeses, and everything in between. I find myself walking amidst the artists sitting with their work, hoping for a sale. It makes me feel very wretched that I can no longer claim to be one of them. I know that it’s my fault I stopped painting, I always blamed it on other people and circumstances. But as someone once said “A real artist needs only his bread and his art.” Yes in modern times you need much more than that, but the bare bones of that saying ring very true for me anyway, so while I can only use writing as a lame partial excuse for not painting, the fact is that the nights I don’t write I could paint but I don’t. I haven’t painted a thing since 2007. Why? you ask. Because I let the canvas beat me into submission. I grew more and more unhappy with a painting that still sits on my easel mocking me. It became an all or nothing game of Russian roulette between me and the painting and in the end I died. There was no smoking gun, just an unfinished canvas and ten years of work lying dormant…unseen like some hibernating bear it sleeps, waking years later like Rumplestiltskin to find an art world changed.
The artist Mark Rothko said that eventually black would swallow red, swallow all color until nothing was left. He believed that artists should starve, that fame is what kills them. When they become a commodity, a pastiche of themselves, they seek a way out. For Jackson Pollack it was whisky and a Oldsmobile convertible. For me it was Malibu Rum and Coke and an online video game called “World of Warcraft.” In the game I could fight and die but I came back to life and fought again to win. Every time my characters gained another level, another skill, an achievement of any kind, it was like I was winning at life. Soon it became more fun to play with others online than to face the canvas alone, and see who would blink first. So now I know …I did.
This is all revealed to me as I walk through the artists stalls practically reeling with the weight of the realization I’ve just made about myself and my art. Eventually I walk into the regular vendors space and as I come around a bend I see the exact T-shirts I wanted and the girl selling them from last year is back! This is a kind of salvation for me now as I had no idea they sold here and am overjoyed to find the shirts I want, but there is just one small problem. I’ve got no cash and they don’t take debit cards. But luckily the girl tells me that a permanent newspaper vendor set up here actually has a debit machine and he is on the other side of the fair. So I take a long walk back to the artists area and wait my turn to get some dough, and I noticed that there’s many signs up protesting something, so I stop at an artists booth to get the lowdown. It seems that our illustrious Mayor wants to start limiting the number of artists to eighteen who can show and that there will be a fee for the day and that it’s on a first come first serve basis, anyone else will be turned away! I walk back to the girl and pick out the shirts I want marvelling at the stupidity of the people in our local government. The very thing that makes New York special is the very thing they want to attack and destroy or alter in some way and make it less attractive to tourists and the local population, and then when the Union Square market closes down because they took all the good out of it they will sit and blame others for the loss, never admitting it was they who ruined it in the first place. I hope it doesn’t come to that but it’s an old story, around here on Long Island, local politics have made the suburbs a boring place. Where kids get into trouble because all the venues for fun were closed down leaving the kids nothing to do but invent their own fun on the street. I go down into the Union Square subway station and take it back uptown to the theater district.
It doesn’t take long to get back to the theater and needing a sit down and a drink of some kind I go searching for a local bar where I can sit and relax till the show, but this is a tourist section and there’s only loud sports bars and tourists traps, not what I need right now. So I wind up in another French restaurant calles Pergola des Artistes near the theater, it is crowded and I sit at the bar wishing for a drink and an appetizer but finding nothing small and “tapas-like” which I really would have preferred. I order Fillet of Sole Menuiere and French Onion soup to start with a glass of Cotes du Rhone and watch the action in front of me. The woman behind the counter is Marie Ponsolle, she and her husband Jacques opened the place in 1962 and struggled with all sorts of problems including a plumbing and electrical problems, water damage from a flood in the basement and from a fire on the floors above causing flooding to their restaurant below to put it out, and even a holdup the first week they opened! Now their son Christian runs the place but Marie runs the bar where I sit and with a watchful eye and a loud voice she makes sure the bills are tallied correctly and that the waiters are working hard. I find her a little off-putting and when my soup arrives I tell her it is good but I’ve had better actually. It was murky and greasy and seemed to me to include the sediment on the bottom of the pot. When my fish arrives it is indeed a huge portion the size of a dinner plate with some basic vegetables on the side that were undercooked and un-inspired, the fish was tasty enough but I have no point of reference so I don’t know this dish. I eat about half and ask for the rest to be wrapped up, the play starts in about twenty minutes and I pay the tab and walk briskly for the theater wishing I had gotten a hot dog of a cart instead. I mean why should you pay 50 bucks for heartburn when you could get it for around $5. I walk past others on their way to food and shows and arrive at the theater and take my seat.
The stage is set up just like Rothko’s studio, bare wood floors dirty and paint splattered, canvasses on the walls, stacked up some painted others stark white and waiting. There are tables and ladders, spot lights and a big wooden Adirondack chair across from a huge red canvas hanging from a gargantuan moveable A-frame easel. The actor is already seated in that chair contemplating the canvas before the show starts. It is to say the least an unexpected and un-nerving start to the play…he is motionless. When the lights go down he gets up and lights a cigarette and looks at the canvas, he walks toward it and touches it almost with the reverence a man might touch his wifes nude body while she sleeps. Quietly a young man enters through the door stage right, wearing a brown suit and shoes, looking earnest and eager he has come to apply for the job of studio assistant. Rothko lays down the law of employment, he’s not here to be his friend, his father, or his mentor.
The dialogue between them throughout the play is often raw and un-pleasant, Rothko’s contempt for people in general is very evident and he laces into his assistant many times and mocks his opinions after asking for them. But still he tries to draw his assistant, who is also a painter into the real meaning of art. Rothko talks about Nietzsche, Byron, and Socrates. He tells the young man to become civilised. during the show they actually take canvasses down off the huge easel and put up new ones. They actually finish stapling one on the floor and setting the corners and after placing it up on the easel they both cover it in red primer, Rothko working above, the assistant below whose white t-shirt gets covered in splattered paint! (Later we find out the t-shirt will be signed by both men and offered to raise money for AIDS after the show)
In a pivotal scene the young assistant (who has spent two years with Rothko) finally tells his employer off, giving a long soliloquy about Rothko’s self-absorption and mis-trust, and finally telling him that he (Rothko) doesn’t believe anyone is good enough to own his art or even view his art. He thinks he is fired but Rothko says it’s the first time he really said what he thinks and respects him for it. In real life Rothko, after seeing in the Four Seasons restaurant in the Seagrams building is distraught. He will not have his work in a place where such pretentious people, will pay too much money for mediocre food and look at each other assessing their worth and comparing their status. Rothko gave back the $35,000 dollar commission and continued to paint his unique vision but in his later years fell in into ill-health, an aneurism made him unable to work high up and he was forced to paint smaller canvasses. Then also ignoring his physician’s advice to quit smoking and drinking he became more depressed. Rothko was growing increasingly unhappy with the art world, and feeling betrayed by the younger artists who he felt had learned so much from people like him, finally took his own life in Feb 1970, slicing his wrists to his elbows in his studio, which was now his home after he and his wife separated. He was found by his young assistant Oliver Steindecker on the floor near the slop sink.
The play ends as it started with dramatic music being played on the phonograph while Rothko who has just dis-missed his assistant telling him to get with his friends and start something new, get with them and “do the work” he says holding his face and looking into his eyes the only fatherly advice he gives him. He looks at the canvas alone as the light dims but the red of the canvas glows with an inner fire out of the black like the burning coals of a furnace. The crowd erupts into explosive applause with many hoots and shouts of “Bravo” and the actors appear and bow before us and then leave the stage. I make my way downstairs and go outside and wait a long time for the actors to come out, Eddie Redmayne comes out first and I tell him how good the show was, he is very pleased with the attention but after finishing with us rushes to embrace a young girl and guy who waited patiently for us to be done with him. They are obviously friends and possibly fellow actors enjoying a friends big break, indeed I find out later that Redmayne was interviewed on Charlie Rose, a late night serious talk show. Next Alfred Molina comes out and I tell him that I’m a painter trying to come out of a two-year block and that he has helped me quite a bit tonight. We all take turns taking pictures with him and when all are done he gets into his limo and off he goes, he’s got to be exhausted, two shows in one day. I am too but I stop to help an old woman who attended the show find the bus stop before turning back to go down 8th Ave and Penn Station once again. The wind has died down so I am warm enough in my denim and scarf as I walk the streets and find myself standing before the big board with 40 minutes to kill before my train. So, naturally I go to Tracks for a wash up and a cold glass of Harp on tap. It’s been a wonderful day followed by a profound evening, art changes you, it should change you. With gods help and a little luck I hope to be able to say I have been changed in this way many times before Rothko’s black finally comes. I settle into my bar stool and lean back sipping my cold brew…lost in thought.