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How much do we believe in abstract art?

CRAIG BAILEY/PERSPECTIVE PHOTO

Thomas Derrah as artist Mark Rothko in “Red’’ at the Wimberly Theatre.

There was a time when abstract painting functioned in the homes of the wealthy as a provocation, when certain types of people used to set themselves apart in matters of taste and intelligence by their ability to appreciate marks on canvas that referred to nothing in reality.

Many paid vast sums for such works, mounted them unframed on the walls of their lofts, and drew all kinds of complex satisfactions from seeing their guests not know what to make of them.

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Serge, a character in Yasmina Reza’s oft-revived play “Art,’’ is just such a person. He has bought an abstract painting. It is all white. But in it he sees - in the right light, and from the right distance - all kinds of nuances. He wants to show it off to his friends. And in doing so, we’re given to understand, he wants to test them, to dispel niggling doubts of his own - in short, to boost himself.

His friend Marc senses this. Marc finds the painting - and the idea that Serge could have spent a small fortune on it - preposterous. Marc is “one of those new-style intellectuals, who are not only enemies of modernism, but seem to take some sort of incomprehensible pride in running it down,’’ says Serge. The characterization may or may not be fair. But we are left in no doubt that Marc is deeply offended by Serge’s purchase - his little act of faith.

A third character, Yvan - described by Marc as “disastrously open-minded’’ - has no strong feelings either way: He just wants everyone to get along.

Such is the play’s simple yet volatile premise. In the New Repertory Theatre production of “Art’’ at the Arsenal Center for the Arts (through Feb. 5), the play begins with Serge alone onstage scrutinizing his new painting. Facing away from the audience, the painting establishes a kind of barrier between him and us: What is visible to Serge is invisible to us. And there’s the nub of it.

Curiously, “Art’’ is not the only play in town with a three-letter title that begins, when the lights go up, with an actor gazing intently at an abstract canvas that we, the audience, can’t see.

“Red,’’ John Logan’s play about Mark Rothko, presented by SpeakEasy Stage Company at the Wimberly Theatre, Boston Center for the Arts (through Feb. 4), opens in exactly the same way.

The conceit in both cases establishes art itself as a question of belief, something that is visible to some but not so much to others.

“Art’’ is by far the superior play. It traffics in cliches, yes, but it has both compression and candor in its favor, and it is not, finally, about abstract art: It is about friendship.

“Red,’’ which tries much harder to serve as a meditation on abstract painting, is actually a lightly and rather crudely dramatized lecture. Ostensibly, it’s about the tendency of believers to turn into bullies (a tendency that applies in every sphere of life, from economic theory to infant sleep training). But its two lead characters - Rothko and his young assistant - are hard to believe: They feel like ciphers and caricatures.

Still, both plays dare to ask a question that, in any discussion of abstract painting (or, for that matter, theater) should not be shirked: How much are we going to buy into it? How prepared are we to fall under its spell? What sort of believers will we be? How susceptible, how skeptical?

Such questions arise, as I said, right from the outside, when we see, in “Art,’’ the passionate collector Serge, and in “Red,’’ Rothko himself, staring intently at paintings we cannot see. The questions take on added piquancy when we subsequently see the paintings and are forced to acknowledge that there’s really not much to them.

In the case of Rothko’s murals for the Seagram building (a commission around which the action in “Red,’’ such as it is, revolves), we’re dealing with just a few fuzzy shapes in two or three closely related colors. The painting at the heart of “Art,’’ meanwhile, is just a lot of textured white paint on a moderately sized canvas.

Is it empty - as William Hazlitt once reported someone saying of Turner’s seascapes, “pictures of nothing, and very like’’?

Or might it perhaps show a “First Communion of Anemic Young Girls in Snowy Weather,’’ as a 19th-century group of satirists, “The Incohérents,’’ once titled a pure white sheet of Bristol paper they mischievously exhibited?

Similarly, is Rothko’s painting just red paint? Or is it, perhaps, “Apoplectic Cardinals Harvesting Tomatoes on the Shore of the Red Sea (Study of the Aurora Borealis).’’ (The Incohérents again, titling a piece of red fabric.)

The Incohérents were having their fun in the 1880s, before abstract art had even emerged in the West. Today, almost exactly a century after the first abstract paintings appeared in France, Russia, and the United States, nothing could be less controversial than an abstract painting.

More or less everyone loves Rothko. Pollock is an American hero. Ditto de Kooning, Kelly, Stella, and Serra. What was once the most contentious question in 20th-century art is now an old dog with its legs in the air, awaiting an absent-minded scratch.

So there is something belated about the premise of both these plays, which try to generate intellectual heat from controversies that long ago sputtered out.

I’m inclined to like them for this. The truth is, for abstraction and for modernism generally, it’s this very sputtering out that is most disheartening.

When the harmlessness of abstract painting is taken as a given, when the legitimacy of “paintings of nothing’’ is not even questioned, it may be that the art’s potential to transport us is weakened. Our relationship to it becomes, like Yvan in “Art,’’ “disastrously open-minded.’’

“Every work of art,’’ wrote Janet Malcolm, “is vulnerable to the little voice in one’s head that says, ‘But this is ridiculous!’ ’’ The little voice in Marc’s head, in “Art,’’ is particularly loud. And no wonder: His friend has bought an all-white canvas and is being insufferable about it.

But Malcolm really did mean every work of art, not just radically reduced monochromes. Her point applies to literature, to music, and to theater, too. After all, isn’t music - the careful arrangement of particular frequencies and rhythms - a rather ridiculous game, when all is said and done? Why can’t we be content with birdsong, with the whistling wind?

And writing - this strange business of organizing words on a page to create stories, with all their falsely tied up loose ends and tired conventions - isn’t it a bit daffy? As for theater - theater! - why would you pay money to sit in a dark room and watch people who have memorized a script pretending to be “characters’’ interacting spontaneously under lights? Why?

We all have to find our own answers to such questions (and keep on looking for new ones after we’ve found them). In doing so, we may on some days come over a little like Serge: over-zealous, self-righteous, a little too convinced that, by falling for the latest aesthetic fad, we are complying with that great Romantic injunction to “be of one’s time.’’

On other days, we may be more like Marc - who, at one ominous point in “Art,’’ announces, “Culture is something I piss on,’’ thereby echoing not only a famous quote of Nazi origin (“When I hear the word culture, I reach for my revolver’’) but also Andy Warhol, who had his assistants literally urinate on canvas to produce his “Oxidation Paintings.’’

And then, too, there will be many days when we will be like Yvan, not caring too much one way or the other, too preoccupied with the messy realities of life to commit much energy to the distraction of art.

The point is, all art is to some degree a question of belief - belief tempered, yes, by the freedom to doubt, to turn away, to switch off. But belief all the same. And belief, like a pearl, needs the grit of skepticism to activate it.

The irony behind the central argument in “Art’’ is that abstract art originally arose precisely because of a crisis in faith - because artists could no longer believe in the game of illusionism indulged in by traditional art.

In an age of photography and mass reproduction, it no longer made sense, they felt, to be toying with brushes and paint, trying to trick people’s eyes into seeing three dimensions on a two-dimensional surface.

Abstract artists endeavored to be more honest. They rejected the old game of make-believe, and those with a minimalist bent in particular undertook never to pretend painting was anything other than pigment mixed with oil applied to stretched canvases.

In taking this path, abstraction really only established new iterations of the old game. And these new iterations provoked their own new forms of fervor, as well as new manifestations of doubt.

Since the heyday of abstract art in the 1940s, ’50s, and ’60s, when every second painter of ambition seemed to be painting abstractly, the doubters were there, stirring things up. Randall Jarrell, the poet and literary critic, wrote one of the most acute early attacks in the ’60s.

Everything in representational painting, he pointed out, relates to two things at once: the other elements in the painting and the larger world the painting seeks to represent. This duality makes representational painting a many-leveled, extraordinarily complicated process.

A principal source of our pleasure when looking at this kind of traditional painting is that the relationship between what is depicted and how it is depicted is rarely straightforward, wrote Jarrell: “Solemn things are painted gaily; overwhelmingly expressive things . . . painted inexpressively; [the dealer Ambroise] Vollard is painted like an apple, and an apple like the Fall.’’

In abstract art, on the other hand, Jarrell saw “the terrible aesthetic disadvantages of directness and consistency.’’ He called abstract painting “neurotically restricted,’’ a “specialized, puritanical reduction of earlier painting.’’

Listening to Rothko pompously preaching in “Red,’’ it’s easy to sympathize with this view. Ernst Gombrich, the great art scholar, certainly did. In his opinion, abstract art was no more than an extension of the decorative tradition we see in, for instance, Islamic tile work. Claiming more for it required resorting to mystification and dubious metaphysics.

Gombrich’s argument received an eloquent retort from Kirk Varnedoe, the scholar and curator who, just before he died, delivered a series of lectures on abstract art that were subsequently published in a wonderful book called “Pictures of Nothing: Abstract Art Since Pollock.’’

Varnedoe reminded us of the incredible complexity of the abstract tradition, its many connections to the outside world and to its own legacy, and its amplitude - an amplitude that made room for wit, subversion, and resonances of every kind.

Nonetheless, one comes away from reading Varnedoe conscious, still, of abstract art’s limits. And those limits are defined precisely by belief.

Belief in art, as the critic James Wood has said of literature, does not have to be absolute, as in religion, where the stakes are much higher (eternal life and all that). One can believe, in deadly earnest, and still be laughing, still be aware of the game. Rembrandt, don’t forget, painted those coruscating late self-portraits with his dress-up box just out of frame.

So it comes down to this: To what extent do we want to play the game and let ourselves be shaken up by art? How willing are we to expose our vulnerable selves, so full of yearning and confusion, to the possibility that we might find peace and order, yes, but also sharpened yearning, italicized confusion, or shattering intimations of our own mortality?

For those of us who love art, whose lives in some ways seem to depend on it, skepticism tempers and rounds out our native susceptibility. Art and life are indivisible, but life is life, and always has the upper hand.

That said, skepticism, just like belief, must have its limits. For the fact remains, as Gaston Bachelard once wrote, that “We can admire more or less, but a sincere impulse, a little impulse toward admiration is always necessary if we are to receive the . . . benefit of an image.’’

ART At: New Repertory Theatre, Arsenal Center for the Arts, Watertown, through Feb. 5. 617-923-8487, www.newrep.org

RED Presented by SpeakEasy Stage Company

At: Wimberly Theatre, Boston Center for the Arts, through Feb. 4. 617-933-8600, www.speakeasystage.com

Sebastian Smee can be reached at ssmee@globe.com.
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