Wednesday, July 1, 2009
Rothko Chapel, Houston
As the daylight streams in through the circular opening in the roof of the Rothko Chapel in suburban Houston, the glory of these works is developed when they build a relationship with the elements that touch them: a cloud passes over the Chapel, the room darkens as do the works, and they begin to absorb the fading light that touches them. At other times, when the diffuse light enlivens the space, the paintings react instantaneously: they reflect this light, as if rejoicing in its appearance through the clouds, the paintings’ surface becomes shiny. This process of oscillation between flatness and depth, between differing relations of surface and ground, in direct correspondence to the movement of the sun, the clouds, and presumably at night, the moon and the stars, inspires the magic and awe of Rothko’s paintings.
There is also the relationship that we, the spectators, develop with the paintings. We motion and behave towards them as though they are icons, in my case, journeying from across the Atlantic ocean, suffering flight delays, lost luggage, a missed meeting with my travel companion, to be before paintings that have the power to make the ardor of travel irrelevant. And yet, these 14 paintings, some in triptych formation, others peacefully alone on a wall, are not icons. These are paintings that can never be removed or distanced from our response to them. To sit on one of the cushions placed on the floor and meditate, would seem to me to ignore the mystery and revelation of the self which here comes from falling into the paintings. It wouldn’t seem appropriate. For the mystery and reverie, the discovery of self that is had before these masterworks is borne of our ongoing relationship to the paintings, in time, as we sit before them, contemplating their enormity, their magnitude. To take away the painting, to meditate and turn inwards, would be to shut down and shut off from the source of inspiration. Despite the books that line the entrance to the chapel — the Torah, the Koran, the Bible, works on Zen Buddhism, even the Course in Miracles — the chapel is not a place where we find God, or a spirit outside of ourselves. This is a world that we enter into and discover a spiritual place inside of ourselves, a place that exists only in its reflection of the canvas. It’s a spiritual experience that has painting and these paintings in particular at its center. And so, for me, the chapel is a shrine to painting, to the power of painting, its ability to show us a place in ourselves that we did not yet know existed.
How then do the paintings ensure that we do not drift away, so far into ourselves that we forget them? They pull us towards them, to a place where we see the weft and warp of the canvas, even as it has been worked over, again and again and again. The paint on a canvas is just glorious, breathtaking, mesmerizing, incredible. There is no superlative too great for the power, energy and excitement of these paintings. Though perhaps resisting hierarchies, my favorites, those I found most captivating, where paint becomes dynamic, as if exploding on a canvas, are those of the triptych at the North face of the chapel. The movement and velocity of paint on the canvas is more chaotic, more agitated than I have seen in any other Rothko painting. In violet, the energy is like that of an orchestra on its way to reaching the climax of a concerto. And yet, it carries none of the weight of an orchestra in full force: the paintings are so luminous, almost transparent, as if in the middle of a Brahms Kinderzenen. We know because we are familiar with Rothko’s process that he has worked this paint over and over again. The violet of the central panel is also surprising, it’s so unique in Rothko’s oeuvre, like nothing else I have seen on this scale. When we sit long enough with it, the center panel reflects a pool of maroon on the panel to its left – how did that happen? The violet paintings are unique because although different colors reveal themselves over time, the canvas is not composed of blocks of two or more different colors.
As I look around the room, I wonder how an artist can create so much movement, depth, life, emotion, in a single color field. On the south wall, a black on maroon painting has a black stripe across the top of the black section. Though I saw this painting recently in London, I hadn't noticed the stripe. And in another light, a different time of day, I might not notice it in Houston. A distinct black line running vertically, part way down the edge of another painting shows uncertainty, vulnerability, a rethinking, the covering over of an old thought, the addition of a new one. Their revelations are infinite, but my discovery of them has only just begun.