Blog Site

Monday, November 23, 2009

How Houston's Rothko Chapel paintings illuminate

Rothko Chapel interior.
(c) Rothko Chapel.
For those who haven't had a chance to see the Rothko Chapel here in Houston, I'd highly recommend a visit. Located at 3900 Yupon near the museum district and Montrose area, it is a 'generic' chapel for those of any belief or tradition. Opened in the year of my birth, 1971, it's angular postmodern simplicity of design creates a space that is reverent, calm, and peaceful – an ideal place for meditation, contemplation, or simple quiet time. Many events from people of all traditions are held there. I was organizing a Humanist Contemplatives Club a year or so ago, and we would often meet there (I am currently beginning a new Humanist Contemplatives Meetup here in Houston, by the way, although we now meet elsewhere).

What I'm writing about today, however, are Mark Rothko's paintings which are presented inside the chapel space. These paintings are huge foreboding canvases which seem at first glance to be mere black panels. Upon further inspection one sees the varying shades within the darkness, and the different kinds of 'black' and different textures on the canvases – nevertheless, the overall impression of featureless darkness is unmistakable. One also will eventually notice the interesting relative sizes and positions of the canvases.

However, the overall impression leaves many perplexed. In the book The Rothko Chapel Paintings: Origins, Structure, Meaning by Sheldon Nodelman, the author writes:

“A strong component of the visitor's initial impression of the chapel is likely to be a sense of bafflement, of the inadequacy of one's available discursive apparatus to the experience one is confronting. This is no accident...”

Indeed, a friend of mine had just that reaction. He told me recently that he had been to the chapel and seen the paintings but that he “just didn't get it”. I tried to explain a little but found myself stumbling a bit, which is what inspired this article. Note that Nodelman wrote of this effect on viewers: this is no accident.

What do the paintings mean?

Atypically, the artist was allowed to have a say in the architectural layout of the space, so the paintings were specifically created as one with it. Therefore no one painting can be understood alone or apart from the architectural environment for which is was composed. The entire chapel is a unified statement.

The statement seems to be one of “darkness and impenetrability” that had become present in Rothko's work by the late 1950s. Rothko's own tumultuous life can be read about on Wikipedia, among other places. It describes the effect as “surrounding the viewer with massive, imposing visions of darkness”.

Over the six years of his life spent on this project, Rothko had a gradually growing concern for the transcendent (caution: that word doesn't mean the same thing to everyone). Nodelman writes that he told friends the Chapel would be his most important artistic statement. Initially, the chapel was to be Roman Catholic. It's octagonal shape was based on the Byzantine church of St. Maria Assunta. The format of canvases in threes recalls the common triptych arrangements of paintings of the Crucifixion. However, Rothko left out overt references, which created something more universal.

Rothko thought completing the paintings was “torment”. He said the result was to create “something you don't want to look at”. This makes me think of two spiritual practices, one from Stoicism and the other from Buddhism. In Stoicism there is a practice author William B. Irvine calls negative visualization (in his book, A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy). In Buddhism, there is a meditation technique called “reflections on repulsiveness” (Patikulamanasikara), which includes things like dwelling on the image of bloated corpses.

But this dark and negative interpretation is only surface deep. Rothko himself nevertheless said that his intention was to “illuminate” the chapel with his paintings. For such “dark and impenetrable” paintings, Rothko's meaning could not have been literal. Rather, he no doubt was referring to another kind of illumination.

Slightly less negative is the notice that Rothko's paintings represent isolation, solitude, and hermeticism. Solitude, of course, can not only be beautiful, but a necessary component of spiritual exploration. Nodelman says, “The beholder experiences himself or herself as an infinitesimal speck in an immeasurably greater cosmic vastness...” For those who have read my previous article on the music of John Boswell and seen his videos, consider the elegant manner in which this vastness can be presented as inspirational and awe-inspiring. I am also reminded of another past article, in which I quote the Taoist Chuang-Tzu who said, “But now that you have emerged from your narrow sphere and have seen the great ocean, you know your own insignificance, and I can speak to you of great principles.” Indeed, this feeling of vastness is certainly generated by Rothko's paintings.

But let us not forget the obvious. The most notable thing about Rothko's work here is the complete removal of forms, or symbols, and of representation. Nodelman writes, “Most of the obvious features through which paintings have excited the imagination and interest of the viewer are studiously absent...” as if to say, this is not a place to come and be excited or entertained as you are so constantly assaulted by popular media on a constant basis.

At the dedication of the paintings, sponsor Dominique de Menil said, “We are cluttered with images and only abstract art can bring us to the threshold of the divine.” He referred to the paintings as an “impenetrable fortress” of color.

Nodelman continues, “The work seems to afford no point of imaginative entry; instead the frustrated viewer is thrown back upon himself...” as if to say, the answers you seek aren't to be found out here, in a painting or your external world – they are within you. Indeed, surrounded by this “impenetrable fortress” of paintings, the viewer is left with nowhere else to retreat than inward.

This stripping away of iconography makes me think of the story of the Buddha on Vulture Peak, who took a single flower and showed it to his followers. Everyone was silent as they tried to understand what the Buddha was communicating. One of his followers smiled and he gave him the flower saying, “I have the eye of the true teaching, the heart of Nirvana, the form of no form, and the ineffable stride of Dharma. It is not expressed by words, but especially transmitted beyond teaching.” In that story, the point is that our symbols, our language, and our icons that we use to categorize and label reality can be a filter that blocks our direct sensation of it. You can learn by simply witnessing the flower as it is, without labeling it or having preconceptions about it (as an artist, I can say this is a similar technique in learning to draw what you see, rather than what you think you see). A big part of Buddhist mediation is to learn to perceive things directly, without that filter of language or labels. By stripping away all iconography from his images, Rothko was making a similar statement – that the truth of reality and of conscious experience is something you can witness directly, not something to be labeled and categorized into iconic images, words, or other abstractions.

(On a side note then, how ironic it is that works such as these are called the 'abstract' art, rather than those that indeed use abstractions in the form of imagery to communicate their meaning.)

Nodelman notes that the idea of using large figures of inconceivable elegance and featurelessness is not new, pointing to the example of the pyramids at Giza. One can only imagine the awe and mystery such a site as the newly built smooth triangular structures, vast on the horizon, must have instilled in the minds of ancient Egyptian subjects.

It recalls in my mind that strange feeling you get when first glimpsing the monolith in the 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey. Here the monolith represents something so primal, so universal, and so mysterious that were it to be anything but stubbornly absent of features we might investigate or think about further, the image would have been diminished in its power and breathtaking contrast to its surroundings.

Like the monolith, ancient and primal, Rothko's chapel strips away all of the contrivances which have been built up by human religions and attempts to access that core sense of experience upon which it all began – upon which all forms of spirituality, religion, ritual, tradition, and practice have referenced. This, it could be said, is that element of wonder, mystery, and awe shared by all religions. Nodelman says, “Rothko was a professed unbeliever who rejected all confessional orthodoxy or dogmatic constraint. But he also understood himself to be confronting, in his paintings, universal issues of human destiny that could only be described as religious.”

A musician by the name of David Donfero has written a song about Rothko Chapel. In his lyrics he sings:

But there's this place in Houston Texas, seems like the perfect church to me
reminds me of your heart and how comforting a cold black void could be...
my religion is in nature, art and literacy
my religion is in science, music and poetry
my religion is the mountain, my church is the seas
my religions is to love you yet my church is entropy
my religion is in your eyes but my church ain't organized

[Link: Listen to Rothko Chapel, by David Donfero]

[Link: See a virtual panorama of the Rothko Chapel interior]
Warning, this doesn't do justice than the feel you get walking into the space in person!

On a final note, I would be remiss not to mention another wonderful work of art just in front of the Rothko Chapel building, called the Broken Obelisk by Barnett Newman, which sits in a reflecting pool designed by Philip Johnson. The obelisk is dedicated to the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and is a wonderful piece of art. But that is another story :)

No comments:

Post a Comment