Before He Was Rothko

Joseph Graves at Mark Rothko and Chris Wendelken as Ken

Joseph Graves as Mark Rothko and Chris Wendelken as Ken in Arkansas Rep’s production of Red, October 25-November 10.

Mark Rothko’s Life

“Real identity is incompatible with schools and categories, except by mutilation.” 

Marcus Rothkowitz was only ten years old in 1913 when he arrived in the United States.   His father, Jacob, had emigrated from Russia three years before, but died only six months following the arrival of his family.  Rothkowitz spent the next several years in Portland, Oregon, where he took art classes and taught himself to play the mandolin and piano, fostering a love of art and music that would flourish throughout the rest of his life.  In 1921, Rothkowitz left to attend Yale University.

Though he was a stellar student in philosophy, math, and literature, among other things, Rothkowitz left Yale without a degree and headed to New York City.  Shortly thereafter, he began taking art classes at the Art Students League.   In 1925-6, he studied with Max Weber, a modernist who experimented with Cubism, Fauvism, Futurism, and eventually, Expressionism.  Weber was one of many artists (such as Milton Avery and Matisse) who inspired Rothko to question realism.

Rothko exhibited his first group art show with fellow students in 1928.  In 1929, he began teaching children at the Center Academy of Brooklyn Jewish Center (a position he held for 23 years).  Three years later, he married Edith Sachar.  During the next few years, Rothkowitz continued to show his art and teach classes.  In 1935, he was part of forming an artistic group known as “The Ten,” whose interest was in expressionism and experimentation.  The group dissolved in 1939, one year after Rothko became an American citizen.  By 1940, Rothkowitz had changed his name to Mark Rothko (not legally making the change until 1959).  In 1944, his marriage to Sachar ended in divorce.  He married Mell Beistle the next year.  Together they had two children, Kate and Christopher.  In 1961, he opened a show at the Museum of Modern Art, becoming the first living member of his generation to have a one-man show at the museum.

When Rothko suffered an aortic aneurysm in 1968, he was already battling liver problems and depression.  The next year he was diagnosed with emphysema, and his marriage was in distress.  Mark Rothko took his own life on February 25, 1970.  The Rothko Chapel in Houston, TX was dedicated the next year.  Despite (or perhaps due to) his physical and psychological challenges, Rothko produced a remarkable body of work—somber, muted, and dark in tone—in the last two years of his life.

Rep on Fire in September with New Season, New Theatre

Arkansas Repertory Theatre is on fire this September with the LORT premiere of Ring of Fire, The Music of Johnny Cash in a newly renovated and updated facility.

Arkansas Repertory Theatre ended its capital campaign on January 31, having exceeded its goal of $5.4 million and securing a $600,000 Challenge Grant from The Kresge Foundation. Now the theatre is slated to reopen in September with a newly renovated facility at 601 Main Street.

The first performance in the new theatre will take place at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, Sept. 14 with the Grand Reopening Gala Preview of Ring of Fire. A red carpet reception will be held at 6 p.m. in the lobby prior to the performance in the newly renovated theatre space, where patrons will be the very first audience to attend a performance in the brand new theatre seats. Tickets to the Ring of Fire Gala Preview are $100, with proceeds from the gala going toward the establishment of a maintenance fund for ongoing upkeep for the facility.

The current phase of renovations addresses all public spaces, including the lobby, expanded rest rooms and updating of The Rep’s private party room, Club Mezz, which will be renamed “Foster’s at The Rep” in honor of Vince Foster, former chairman of The Rep Board of Trustees.

This phase also provides for the renovation of the theatre itself, which will get upgrades to lighting, sound and technology, adjusted sight lines and all new theatre seating. The new facility will also include the addition of approximately 30 seats. The auditorium will be named in honor of Cindy Murphy.

Ring of Fire, The Music of Johnny Cash is a collection of Mr. Cash’s enormous catalog and variety of songs. It is the only theatrical show he ever gave his approval for and endorsed, says director Jason Edwards. William Meade and Richard Maltby, Jr.’s concept was never to have someone impersonate Mr. Cash, but rather to get underneath his image and present what he was trying to say in his lyrics.

Creator Richard Maltby, Jr. describes the production as a journey of a man in search of his own soul, which is what emerges when you consider all the details of Cash’s life together. That seemed to be a worthy story to put on stage – and one that could be told entirely in songs.

While the production does not dramatize Johnny Cash’s life, by the end of the show the audience will feel that they have spent the evening in the presence of an extraordinary and real man, says Maltby. The details are there for those who choose to find them, but within these songs are glimpses of the world Cash lived in – of home, and family, and the land; of hard work and adversity; of faith and love and compassion for people who are down on their luck. These are songs full of love and feeling, wit and understanding, and like all country songs, they tell it like it is.

In many ways Johnny Cash wrote and sang about the lives we all lead, regardless of where we lead them, says Maltby. If, watching this show, you feel yourself being drawn back to your roots, it isn’t accidental – even if you’ve forgotten what those roots are.

Ring of Fire will kick off on Sept. 14 with a Grand Reopening Gala Preview, a public preview on Sept. 15, and preshow discussions about the life and music of Johnny Cash on Sept. 15 and Sept. 21 at 6:15 p.m. in the theatre. Ring of Fire opens on Sept. 16.

Ring of Fire will run from Sept. 14 – Oct. 9. Tickets are available at The Rep Box Office at (501) 378-0405 or online at