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Julio Chávez gets under the skin of Mark Rothko

Actor Julio Chávez in a pensive mood before the premiere of Red.

Starting today, he will appear in the BA production of John Logan’s play Red

Stage and screen actor-director Julio Chávez, who last year played one of last year’s most talked-about roles as gay lawyer Guillermo Graziani on TV’s Farsantes, will tackle another challenge starting today at the Paseo La Plaza in downtown Buenos Aires. One of Argentina’s most respected performers, Chávez will appear in the local production of John Logan’s play Red, based on the last phase of US abstract expressionist painter Mark Rothko. “Premieres still make me nervous, the act of expression is an act of violence,” Chávez says in an interview a few days before the opening.

“Serenity and peace of mind do not come to me naturally before a premiere, it’s a bit like a woman nearing childbirth. The text is heavy on me, but I have to overcome this feeling, climb on stage and make swift decisions about a vulnerable material like a stage play. An actor must learn to hold the reins on himself,” says Chávez.

Chávez, usually not very eloquent, makes frequent pauses during the interview and goes silent on several occasions, turning the interview into something theatrical. “My role is beautiful, Rothko was a very special painter with a profound knowledge about theatricals. This is how he chose to take his own life. For him, the word ‘truth’ was an empty carrier, he preferred the scene, and in this sense he pioneered the modern art form known as installation.”

Red revisits the powerful, troubled life of the Latvia-born US artist Mark Rothko, one of the most prominent members of the New York School of Arts in the early and mid 19th century. Although he was usually identified as an abstract impressionist painter, Rothko himself rejected the label, and wouldn’t even admit to being an “abstract painter.” Mostly known for his painting of bright colour blocks, Rothko, along with Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning, was one of the most famous and influential postwar artists in the US.

In 1958, Rothko was awarded the first of two mural commissions for the Four Seasons restaurant at New York City’s Seagram building. Designed by architects Mies Van der Rohe and Philip Johnson, the Seagram building had just been completed when Rothko agreed to provide paintings for the luxury restaurant.

Rothko tackled the challenge and in three months he finished forty paintings — three full series in dark red and brown, modifying his horizontal format to vertical in line with the restaurant’s vertical lines. From an ideological viewpoint, Rothko’s Four Season’s paintings were positioned right in the centre of an architectural symbol of capitalism. Known for his communist ideology, Rothko led a bourgeois life typical of the average US citizen, but his art reflected his concern with the relation between man, art and his time.

Rothko is a very demanding role even for a seasoned veteran like Chávez, who could barely take a breather from Farsantes (filming of which wrapped up a month ago and is still airing on Channel 13). Chávez says playing Rothko will allow him to see clearly after a hectic year on TV. “I can’t complain about last year’s tight agenda, it wouldn’t be right to bemoan the success of the series, but I still haven’t quite shred the remnants from my role in Farsantes, everything is right there, at home, still unpacked,” says Chávez.

Talking to Chávez, it becomes clear why he was so attracted to the role of Rothko. Chávez loves painting, and maybe his devotion for this art form will help him turn the role into a precious gift.

In Chávez’s own words, the local production “is devoid of mannerisms that could obscure its meaning. Far from a biographical account or an academic piece, we want the play to reach viewers in a direct, corporeal way. I hope the play becomes a sensorial experience that prompts audiences to grab books about painting to take a peek into a painter’s atelier.”

In this sense, Chávez underlines the similarities between an atelier and a kitchen. “For the audience, it will be a demythifying experience to take a look at a painter’s atelier, a work place like any other, and not necessarily a muse of inspiration,” says Chávez. “As in a kitchen, (the activities) developed at an atelier are related to material things and sensorial experiences,” he concludes.

—Herald staff with Télam

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