Rothko on Painting: Our Favorite Quotes from Guild Hall’s RED

Victor Slezak as Mark Rothko in RED
Victor Slezak as Mark Rothko in RED, Photo: Courtesy Guild Hall

Guild Hall’s production of John Logan’s RED at the John Drew Theater in East Hampton begins its final week of performances on Wednesday—and if you haven’t seen it, now is the time to go.

The play, directed by Stephen Hamilton, follows a conversation between Abstract Expressionist painter Mark Rothko (Victor Slezak) and his fictional young assistant Ken (Christian Scheider) as they work on paintings commissioned by the Four Seasons restaurant in 1958. The troubled painter struggles with the idea of selling out and allowing his work to become decoration and nothing more.

Below are some of our favorite Rothko quotes about painting from the play:

1. “Most of painting is thinking… Ten percent is putting paint onto the canvas. The rest is waiting.”

2. “Tragic, really, to grow superfluous in your own lifetime. We destroyed Cubism, de Kooning and me and Pollock and Barnett Newman and all the others. We stomped it to death. Nobody can paint a Cubist picture today… The child must banish the father. Respect him, but kill him.”

3. “Courage in painting isn’t facing the blank canvas, it’s facing Manet, it’s facing Velasquez.”

4. “A picture lives by companionship. It dies by the same token. It’s a risky act to send it out into the world.”

5. “The point is always the tragedy.”

6. “These pictures deserve compassion and they live or die in the eye of the sensitive viewer…”

7. “The overmantles. Those paintings doomed to become decoration. You know, over the fireplace in the penthouse.”

8. “They want things to be pretty. They want things to be beautiful—Jesus Christ, when someone tells me one of my pictures is ‘beautiful’ I want to vomit!”

9. “Selling a picture is like sending a blind child into a room full of razor blades. It’s going to get hurt and it’s never been hurt before, it doesn’t know what hurt is.””

10. “Philosophy. Theology. Literature. Poetry. Drama. History. Archeology. Anthropology. Mythology. Music. These are your tools as much as brush and pigment.”

11. “Picasso I thank for teaching me that movement is everything! Movement is life. The second we’re born we squall, we writhe, we squirm; to live is to move. Without movement paintings are what?”

12. “Representational pictures are unchanging; they don’t require the active participation of the viewer.”

13. “And trust me, as you get older those colors are harder to sustain. The palette fades and we race to catch it before it’s gone.”

14. “But a generation that does not aspire to seriousness, to meaning, is unworthy to walk in the shadow of those who have gone before.”

RED is playing Wednesday–Sunday through June 8 at Guild Hall’s John Drew Theater, 158 Main Street in East Hampton. Call 631-324-0806 or visit

Mark Rothko's "No. 14" at SF Moma
Mark Rothko’s “No. 14” at San Francisco Moma

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