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Sunday, August 28, 2011

The Mark Rothko Chapel

The Rothko Chapel, 1971, Houston, Texas
You walk into an immense, essentially empty room. It has eight concrete walls. An overhead skylight provides the only illumination. In the center of the room are wooden benches. On the walls are paintings. There are fourteen of them. They appear black at first, like giant video monitors turned off. Each is rectangular with a few large, rectangular, slightly irregular blotches of pure, brilliant color. It's an eerie feeling. In spite of the art, your first feelings are those of sensory deprivation. You have the sense of having returned to the womb. You sit down, silently, all alone, overwhelmed not by fatigue but by an emotional sterility you've never felt before. It's as if you have begun a fast. As the minutes pass and you contemplate your surroundings, you have the sensation that you are purging your very soul. You begin to feel like you're not looking at art so much as being drawn into it, becoming a part of it, then feeling as if it is becoming a part of you. You begin to loose all notions of time and space. It's like a supernatural Disney ride into your own psyche. You forget you're in Houston, Texas, and that you have, out of curiosity, wondered into the Rothko Chapel. You forget even which century you occupy. And when you leave, you have the feeling that, for the first time in your life, you have begun to understand Mark Rothko.

The Apse Triptych, 1956, Mark Rothko
Mark Rothko is classed as a color field painter. The chapel works were mostly done in the years 1955 and 1956. Color Field painting grew out of Abstract Expressionism. Abstract Expressionism grew out of Russian abstraction, Dutch de Stijl painting, and French Cubism, stirred, blended, shaken up, and splattered all over New York City following the Second World War by a small group of hard-drinking, hard-driving, hard-living men and women bent on cleansing the accumulated grime of centuries of figurative art from themselves and their art. It is hard art. Rothko's art is, perhaps, the hardest of all, especially if you seek to see and understand his work in the time honored tradition of art  appreciation espoused by high school art teachers, college art history professors, and newspaper art critics. If you travel this road past the works of Mark Rothko you will come away feeling cheated. They seem empty.

The Rothko Chapel, (exterior),
Phillip Johnson, Howard Barnstone, 
 Eugene Aubry, architects
The foreground sculpture is
Broken Obelisk, 1963-67,
Barnett Newman.
Did you ever pick up a cup and try to drink from it only to find it was empty? Remember the feeling? You reflexively stare into it in disbelief and disappointment. But it is not empty. You have just tasted of the most vital commodity on earth, something that you could not survive without for more than a few minutes--air. Rothko is like that. You must taste his work; feel  it; experience it. Breathe it in; savor it like a deep breath of fresh air, marveling at the heady, exhilarating feeling, and then the satisfying sensation of exhaling. It's not a religious experience but something more personal than that, more spiritual than religious. One's religious beliefs are taught; they come externally, just like most art. Feeling Rothko comes from inside. He's more primal, more instinctive, totally intuitive. It's a trite phrase in art, but unfortunately there seems to be no other expression that truly sums up Rothko--an emotional experience.

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