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What is art? What is friendship? Actors’ Studio play takes on both questions

rc)Left to right. Drew Battles (Serge), John Pierson (Ma and Larry Dell (Yvan) talk and laugh about "Art" and life
Nancy Fowler
Left to right. Drew Battles (Serge), John Pierson (Marc) and Larry Dell (Yvan) talk and laugh about "Art" and life.

“In the sweetness of friendship let there be laughter,” poet Khalil Gibran wrote. Nowhere is laughter between companions more important than in the Tony Award-winning play, “Art,” presented by the St. Louis Actors’ Studio, beginning tonight.

But wait, shouldn’t a play called “Art” be about art? Well, it is — and isn’t.

The comedy’s centerpiece is a nearly all-white painting. Three friends in 1980s Paris squabble over the purchase of the contentious abstract piece — for which dermatologist Serge paid $33,000.

His friend Marc is stunned and calls the work the “s” word.

“I might have known you’d miss the point,” Serge chastises Marc. “This is a field about which you know absolutely nothing.”

Credit the camera

Credit St. Louis Actors' Studio

A lot of people really do scratch their heads over abstract art, according to St. Louis Art Museum curator Simon Kelly.

Here’s how Kelly defines it: “Abstract art is art that is not wedded to the natural world and involves an exploration of color and line in their most pure form,” Kelly said.

Until the development of photography, artists strove to duplicate reality. Then, because cameras could capture the real world, artists began to experiment.

In the early 20th century, Russian-born painter Wassilly Kandindsky was on the front lines of the artistic revolution. His work began to suggest forms, rather than clearly present them, “breaking bonds with the natural world,” Kelly said.

Simon Kelly
Credit St. Louis Art Museum
Simon Kelly

Other artists began producing such work, including Dutch artist Piet Mondrian, whose “Composition of Red and White: Nom 1/Composition No. 4 with red and blue” (see below) is in the modern-art collection of the St. Louis Art Museum.

It’s important to study the progression of abstractionists, including Mondrian, over time, before forming an opinion, according to Kelly.

“If you look at Mondrian’s work, you can see the development of naturalism, his early work of naturalistic landscapes, before he began reducing his subjects to line and color,” Kelly said. “It helps to know the context.”

The same goes for Pablo Picasso, Mark Rothko and any other abstract artists, Kelly said.

“It does involve a little bit of work on the part of the viewer to make the effort to understand what was in artist’s mind,” Kelly said.

Prop or art?

Abstraction began to make its way to the United States in the early 1940sand continues to evolve today. In fact, the St. Louis Art Museum also has in its collection a white-canvas work reminiscent of the one in the play “Art.”

Composition of Red and White: Nom 1/Composition No. 4 with red and blue, by Piet Mondrian
Credit St. Louis Art Museum
Composition of Red and White: Nom 1/Composition No. 4 with red and blue, by Piet Mondrian

It’s a 2012 work called “Untitled (Seascape)” by St. Louisan Tom Friedman. (You may have to enter the title into the search field to consistently bring up an image of the work.) The suggestion of water is created by manipulating the paper itself.

In the play, “Art,” the abstract painting was created not by an artist, but a set designer, to the specifications of playwright Yasmina Reza. So does that make it a mere prop? Not necessarily.

“It’s a work of art,” according to “Art” director Wayne Salomon. In fact, he has specific plans for the canvas after the play’s over, one that will remind him of friendships forged and strengthened through “Art.”

“I will take it home and hang it on my wall,” Salomon said. “And it will live forever and be a great memory of mine.”


‘Art,’ presented by the St. Louis Actors’ Studio

Where: The Gaslight Theater, 358 N. Boyle Ave., 63108

When: Friday, April 17 through Sunday, May 3

How much: $30-$40

Tickets: Ticketmaster

Information: STLAS website

Follow Nancy Fowler on Twitter: @NancyFowlerSTL

Nancy is a veteran journalist whose career spans television, radio, print and online media. Her passions include the arts and social justice, and she particularly delights in the stories of people living and working in that intersection.