Monday, October 01, 2007

9/28: doors and mountains

This morning, before a glut of meetings and minglings, we went to the Rothko Chapel, which Jamie had learned about in a PBS documentary. As she described it, Mark Rothko always wanted to display a group of his paintings in a space specially designed for them, a space that would interact with them. When the first such place, a fancy hotel, proved too stuffy, he decided on the more humble, populist backdrop of a Houston chapel commissioned local patrons the Menils.

“That’s so cool,” I said. “I can see how an artist would want to expand beyond just the canvas, to have a whole environment speaking to and with his work.”

“Well, they’re still individual paintings,” Jamie cautioned. “And I think it was during his black period. So we might, um, be visiting a room full of black squares.”

And we did. An octagonal room with 14 huge black canvases and a handful of wooden benches, the chapel can make you feel tricked: Hey, someone convinced me this was not only art, but profoundly spiritual art! Someone got me to stare at a rectangle of black paint for a half hour—I could have stared at my pant leg or the asphalt!

At the same time, the chapel can make you feel like you’ve stumbled upon a wonderful secret: Blackness is not just blackness—it’s blue-black, brown-black, purple-black, wine-black! It’s misty Chinese mountains and small square doors. And yes, if this is art, anything is art. But hey, what a wonderful concept! Anything is art. And the person who stained this bench, who took time to get to know the grain of the wood, that person is an artist too.

Looking at something big and black—in a chapel—it’s hard not to think about death, even if you feel sort of obvious doing so. And you think, In the alleged void of death, there are mountains and doors. You just have to go into it to see them.

And while the chapel did not make me cry so much as bubble with ideas as I enjoyed the earthy-clean smell and museum-quiet, I loved this quote from Rothko:

“The people who weep before my pictures are having the same religious experience I had when painting them.”

Spirit is not about presence or absence. It is not the paint anymore than God is the Bible. It’s in the looking—the looking isn’t what leads to the finding; the looking is the finding, desire its own creative force.


Anonymous said...

Really enjoyed your piece on the Rothko Chapel. Something about the way you extrapolated/interpreted Rothko's quote on the experience of viewing his paintings into the realm of the spiritual transformed the abstract into the profound for me.

Cheryl said...

Thanks, Anon!