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Learning not to look: a visit to the Rothko Chapel.

With its fourteen huge, dark, abstract paintings, the Rothko Chapel in Houston, Texas, is one of the great sites of modern art, and of abstract expressionism in particular. It is a necessary--an inevitable--experience for Rothko's admirers, who respond to him with a special sense of intimate connection. For most of those who visit, their experience is powerful, but strange and elusive; they describe it in somber tones and terms that dramatize the awe and mystery that they feel, that the massive array of paintings conveys to them.

Yet the testimonies that visitors give about their experiences, as well as the scholarly commentaries on the Chapel and its paintings, seem inadequate, incomplete, They are heightened but indistinct, resonant but vague. It is not clear what it is that people see. Do they, one wonders, really see anything in these large, looming canvases? They say they do. The paintings, it is said, are saturated with death; they are representations of the void, stark and remorseless but, somehow, uplifting evocations of emptiness: they absorb us into themselves the longer we gaze at them.

I made my own visit to the Rothko Chapel because of the intensity of my response to Rothko's work, and I expected that I would feel as others have felt. At first, in some ways I did. But as my relationship with the paintings in the Chapel unfolded, I realized that I had not understood them, and that was because I was looking at them when the essential point of these paintings--their meaning--is that I should be looking away from them. The story that follows tells how I came to know this.

My flight landed in Houston on a sunny spring day. I hurried to the first cab I saw and showed the driver a map of the neighborhood where the Rothko Chapel was located. He did not know where it was but said he expected he could find it. It was late morning on a Friday, and there was not much traffic on the highway. My driver went fast with all four windows down, and I caught sight of roadside motels, barbecue joints, and tire and scrap-metal stores.

When we left the highway, we moved through streets of modest houses. There was a breeze but I could feel how oppressive the days must be when the humidity settles in during the summer. I saw a gray-haired man walking a beagle and told my driver to stop for directions. He said he had not heard of the Rothko Chapel, but did know where the Menil Collection was. That was a museum I wanted to visit, and I knew it was near the Rothko Chapel.

It turned out we were close, and after several minutes we were on Yupon, crossed West Alabama, and came to a stop sign at Sul Ross. On the left I saw a three-story apartment building, which I assumed was a dormitory connected to the University of St. Thomas, where the wealthy Catholic philanthropists and art patrons John and Dominique de Menil, the architect Philip Johnson, and the painter Mark Rothko at first believed the Chapel, intended for Catholic worship, would be situated. Diagonally to my right, through some leafy trees, I saw a plain flat-roofed brick building with a tall black door on the side. The back of the building was just a few feet from the narrow street. I did not see anyone, and, at the stoplight at the intersection of Yupon and Sul Ross, my driver waited for me to make a decision.

I noticed a young woman with blond hair who had come up behind us on the right. I asked her through the open window where the Chapel was, and she said, pointing across the street to the brick building, "that's it right there." I paid the driver, crossed the street, cut between two trees, passed another large tree on my left and the black door on my right, and turned the corner toward the entrance. Near the front, on the right, there was another tree, a bench, and a trash can. I looked to my left and saw Barnett Newman's monumental sculpture, "Broken Obelisk," located on a stone base in a reflecting pool. It is sixteen feet and ten inches high, jagged at the top, and balanced at the bottom on the point of a pyramid nearly nine feet high. I had seen another version of this piece at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, and then in Philadelphia, where it had been transported for a Newman retrospective at the museum there. It makes a big impression, but it was not what I had come to Houston to see.

I turned back toward the Chapel building. There were no windows, just a recessed black door. I walked in and said hello to a nicely dressed woman at the front desk. There were brochures, postcards, and a few books and pamphlets for sale. I could see through the entry doors on the left and on the right the tall, stark, very dark paintings within; from my glances the paintings on the side walls looked intensely black and the parts of two others on the far diagonal walls appeared black or purple-black. I put my bag behind the front desk and entered.


I knew that the space would be octagonal; Philip Johnson had envisioned a square shape but Rothko, an admirer of octagonal Byzantine churches, had insisted on an octagon as the "environment" for his commissioned paintings and had gotten his way. But the space, while brought close by the height of the paintings, was more open than I had expected. This feeling, however, lasted only for a moment as I faced the paintings. It was not possible to see one of them at a time. My consciousness was always of one while others demanded attention on either side. I had a small notebook with me, where I had jotted down a few diagrams and measurements taken from books about Rothko and the Chapel. I checked in it for what I had drawn and written, and then looked back and forth at the paintings on the walls. I was trying to get some control over what I was in the middle of.

On the far north wall I faced a plum-colored triptych, fifteen feet high and nearly twenty-five feet wide. On each of the diagonal walls, there were single-panel paintings, again in plum color, about fifteen feet high and a little over eleven feet in width. Both the east and the west walls presented another triptych, eleven feet high, nearly twenty-one feet wide, but with the middle panel raised about eight inches above the other two; each of the three panels was dominated by a large, hard-edged black rectangle placed on a maroon ground. On the south wall was a single painting, fifteen feet high and about nine feet wide, with another hard-edged black rectangle against a maroon ground.

I felt the cold impact of the paintings in the room but I was more aware of what I was not feeling. I had seen many Rothko exhibitions in galleries and museums in the United States and Europe, and on every occasion I had been thrilled by the power and richness of his work from the late 1940s through the 1950s and into the early to mid-1960s. These paintings have an immediate appeal to me, with their feathered edging of colored rectangles set within carefully articulated grounds through which the rectangles--Rothko called them his "performers"--both recede and advance. Often, beginning in the late 1950s and becoming more pronounced through the 1960s as Rothko's palette darkened, the paintings are formidable rather than immediately beautiful--declarative, more difficult to get hold of, even ominous. But for me they are captivating; they beckon to be viewed. The Chapel paintings did not feel like that. They seemed aggressive, rejecting my company and withholding their meaning.

I did not like what I was feeling. I was not receiving the sense of being enveloped and lifted out of myself that Longinus, Burke, Kant, Schiller, and other theorists of the sublime describe, and that Robert Rosenblum and Lawrence Alloway have discussed in relation to Rothko, Clyfford Still, and other abstract expressionist painters. I could not understand why Rothko had done this.

I tried to work out an explanation. I knew about the history of the Chapel, Rothko's absorption in this project from 1964 to 1967, and his struggles with poor health and depression. He was fearfully uncertain about his own achievement, convinced that unless he controlled "the situation" in which his work was seen he would be misunderstood and his paintings would be distorted and abused. He had worked on two murals series in the past, for a restaurant in the Seagram Building in New York City (1958-60) and for Harvard University's Holyoke Center (1961-62), but in both instances he had been obliged to create art for spaces that others had designed: his art would exist within someone else's structure. With the Chapel it was different: this time he was able to imagine and craft the space that his paintings would inhabit.

The more popular Rothko became in the 1950s, the more he was vexed by the pleasure that many viewers took in his paintings, saying that where he had intended doom and violence, his admirers were seeing joy in vivid colors, as though he had produced gorgeous decorations for walls. The Chapel paintings were a defiant statement against all of that. But so much was excluded, absent. The Chapel shut me in and shut the world out. The paintings asserted their maker's anguish; the space was bereft of everything except hopelessness.

I had to concede that, nonetheless, it was calm and peaceful. Inside this fortress in a quiet neighborhood, no sounds entered. Several people were there with me, but they either spoke in a hush or not at all as they sat on one of the low benches in the middle of the room, or sat or kneeled on one of the two black cushions. I looked from a distance at each of the paintings. It seemed to me that if I could force myself into sympathy with them, drawing on all of my love for Rothko as an artist, I could be moved and would feel them welcoming me. Their forbidding darkness would dissolve.

I could not make this happen. I could not break through the isolation and entrapment. The paintings held their ground, and as I walked toward them they seemed to menace me.

I kept moving. I examined each of the paintings close up, not sure at first of what I was hoping to find. I felt myself looking hard and, gradually, there was relief in the brush strokes on the canvas. It was the touch of the hand I wanted, the touch that affirmed Rothko's presence in the classic paintings of the 1950s and 1960s. Those paintings engaged my attention from a distance, and, with their hues and shadings, they grew even warmer and more alluring on close study. But in the Chapel paintings I could take little solace even in the movements of the brush.

From my reading about Rothko I knew that he had planned these paintings meticulously. He had done the black rectangles with special care, making minute adjustments with masking tape as he focused the exact relation of rectangle to ground and edge he wanted. Yet I also remembered that Rothko had employed assistants to help him with the painting, and that at one stage of the process he supervised while two assistants did all of the painting themselves. Whose touch was I responding to?

When I went outside, I felt the bright dryness of the day. The light and air were a relief, and I sat on a bench by the pool with a row of bamboo plants behind me and to my left, and I wondered whether the trip had been worth the time and money. I had invested much in my conviction about Rothko's depths of meaning: I was thinking that I would have to understand my visit to the Chapel as an obligation, and that this experience would be detached from my feelings about Rothko's essential power. I decided to walk through the University of St. Thomas campus and the Montrose section of the city where it was located, eat lunch and read for a while, and then come back for a second visit.

Two hours later, I walked from the campus down Branard and saw the Chapel on my right. I had the impulse not to go there right away and instead walked a block to the Cy Twombly Gallery.

The Twombly Gallery gave me more than I expected. I found the work--thirty paintings, drawings, and sculptures--breathtaking from beginning to end, and the elegant, subtle building, designed by Renzo Piano, perfectly in accord with the art on display. I was the only person there, and the gracious woman at the desk explained to me how the building makes possible an even diffusion of natural light as it slants through ultraviolet filtering glass and passes into each of the rooms through stretched cotton fabric on the ceiling. The color, light, and openness of the space, and the slashing colors, whirling and swooping lines, busy marks, squiggles, and scratches on the canvases: all of this was a liberation after the walls of black, maroon, and plum in the Rothko Chapel.

My time in the Twombly Gallery renewed me. I made my way the short distance back to the Chapel, which I caught sight of on my left through tall trees and bushes. I walked around the bamboo plants and then by the pool where the "Broken Obelisk" was located. The black door on the Chapel did not look welcoming. I walked past teenagers hanging out near the bench on the right and entered once again.

The scale and darkness of Rothko's maroon and black and plum paintings unsettled me but this time the overall effect was less severe. The paintings were grave and serious yet not as confrontational. I felt the contrast with Twombly; his work had quieted down what Rothko had done and made it more approachable. The triptych on the Chapel's north wall and the four single-panels were offering me more to see. I noticed that the paint had not dried evenly across the canvases, and from top to bottom this created the effect of shimmering waves. Perhaps these patterns on the surface had resulted from the impossibility of mixing materials in exactly the same proportions for bucket after bucket of the paint that the surfaces required. I was reminded of Monet's light and surface in his water-lilies paintings, especially the grand ones that had encircled me at Musee de l'Orangerie in Paris.

However, I could not overcome Rothko's disregard for me as a viewer. He once said that he favored large pictures precisely because their size demands from the viewer an intimacy that smaller pictures forestall; big pictures, he said, take us into them, whereas smaller ones enable us to stay outside, in command of the work and in possession of ourselves. Something different was occurring here. The Chapel paintings were monumentally there, like architecture, and I felt myself again resisting them. I glanced at other people coming in and out. Some lingered and seemed absorbed. Others tried to puzzle out what they saw and left.

I sat on one of the scarred brown benches on the stone floor. I could not recall the details of James Breslin's account of his experience in the Chapel in his biography of Rothko, but I did remember he had emphasized despair, obliteration, and annihilation. Staring at the paintings was provoking no thought in me, and I was aware that I too was being drawn to characterize my response as bound up with nihilism and negation. But this felt too easy, reassuringly grim, and I could not accept the disjunction between it and my commitment to Rothko's achievements as an artist. Besides, what would it amount to if I concluded that in the Chapel paintings Rothko had expressed annihilation and despair? Twombly and Piano, down the street, had already refuted a metaphysic of blankness and silence.

It then occurred to me that perhaps Rothko's paintings in the Chapel are not about doom or death or despair but about the history of painting and this artist's assault on it. I moved toward the paintings on the north wall, and I did not think I was being fanciful in perceiving in them the silhouettes of Rothko's rectangles. In the dark paintings on these walls he had entombed the forms that distinguished his classic work. With utter finality, he had delivered a statement against all of the influences on his art--Fra Angelico, Rembrandt, Turner, Matisse, Avery, Bonnard--and all of the styles of his modernist precursors and contemporaries--Malevich, Mondrian, Pollock, Newman, Still, Reinhardt, de Kooning, Kline, all of them. Ultimately, everything they had done would be flattened into this unexpressive vacancy.

This was the end of painting, its burial ground. The Chapel, I perceived, was about Rothko's own burden--the burden of being a painter whose creations he believed people had grown too fond of. But, more than that, it was about the futility of art--every kind and manner and tradition of artistic work. I remembered Rothko had said he wanted to make paintings for the Chapel that visitors would "not want to look at." No one could live in the world of the Chapel because what Rothko had painted here comes after the world we know. These paintings are from death. At last I understood them.

Disturbed but pleased with myself, I exited and walked down Branard, past the Twombly Gallery on my left, and I entered the Menil Collection, where I spent a good two hours. There was an exhibition of Ellsworth Kelly's paintings, drawings, and notebooks, and much else was on display from the permanent collection--Newman, Still, Rauschenberg, and enthralling art from Africa. There were also two brilliant, rapturous Rothkos from 1956 and 1957. From a distance their whites, golds, and blues made a stunning impression, and up close they rewarded me with their brushed nuances, glows of light, and formal relationships. I recalled a phrase that the critic William Seitz had used about Rothko's shapes against their ground colors--"vaporous translucent barriers'--and another one by Irving Sandler--"blocks of colored ether"--and I felt a surge of recognition and recovery. Rothko had come back to me.

When I returned to my hotel, I read for a while on the terrace, ate dinner there, and then watched a basketball game on TV. I was ready to head home, but I had another day since my flight was not until Sunday. When I had made my plans, I had worried about giving myself too little time. In my past experiences of Rothko exhibitions, I had always regretted the moment I had to leave.

Saturday morning was humid, cloudy with breaks of hazy sun. At 9:30 I walked down Montrose, crossing over u.s. 59, and cut through the St. Thomas campus toward the Chapel. A final visit, and then I would find other things to do. I was the only visitor when the Chapel opened at 10:00, and right away I was soothed by the coolness of the interior. I perceived changes in the light as it passed through the baffle attached to the ceiling and descended on the paintings and plaster-gray walls. Except for a guard sitting in a metal chair off to the side, I was alone.

I sensed myself letting go. There was a loosening of my will, which had been in such resistance to Rothko during my previous visits. This experience was happening to me; I was not making it happen. My unease was departing. I was looking at the paintings without intensity, aware they were there but even more conscious of the environment, of being in a space where I was not obliged to understand. I looked down at the mottled stone floor, and at the low metal rails that keep people a foot away from the low-hung paintings, and then upward to the rough surface of the ceiling. I had the sensation not of having no thoughts but of having odd lofty thoughts. I wondered, what is human nature? Then I wondered, where did that question come from?

I sat on one of the benches in the room and looked at the three-part painting on the east wall. From this distance the black rectangles seemed heavily black, and I knew there was nothing for me in these works. But from somewhere, and it was in a flash, I knew that this was not true. Rothko had not made these paintings for me to see. He had made them for me not to see. I realized that he wanted me to look away from them.

I felt myself led to look at the attendant. She was a stocky middle-age black woman, and she was sitting on a folding chair with her right leg crossed over her left. She was wearing white sneakers, short black socks, a black-and-white running suit with a dark blue scarf around her neck, and a baseball hat on her head. I thought what a long day it must be--the breaks must be precious time for her.

About twenty-five minutes had passed. I had moved to the bench in front of the painting on the south wall, but I turned not toward it but toward the center of the room. Three young women entered on my right; all were wearing jeans and dark tops. Two were together, and they sat on the bench facing the painting on the north wall The third walked to one of the cushions, picked it up and placed it near the painting on the diagonal northeast wall, and knelt on it. She looked at the painting, her hands resting on her thighs. I looked to her left and I could see the other women. One with brown hair was leaning forward, the other with short black hair was leaning back with each arm slanting behind her to prop herself. I watched these two women for several minutes, and I saw the woman with black hair lift her right arm and brush something from her eye. She did this again in a few moments and then again. She was weeping.

After an hour I left the building. It had been hard to withdraw from the feeling of heightened attentiveness. When I opened the black door, I saw three men near the pool who were practicing martial arts exercises. I heard a jet overhead, birds singing, a car driving by, and someone closing the trunk of a car. The smell from the magnolia trees in the park was strong. As I walked across the grass, to the side of the men, I noticed a bright blue and white fire hydrant. I did not think I would want to tell anyone about this weird tumble of awarenesses.

I returned to the Twombly Gallery, and it remained magical. The artist's scrawled words and phrases and passages of poetry; the fragility of the colors in some areas and hurtling attack of colored patches and mixtures of thick paint in other areas: I could not imagine a more dynamic experience than being in the company of these paintings, beautifully installed and displayed, luminous.

But I was not content where I was. I was impatient to make another visit to the Rothko Chapel. It was now mid-day and cloudier as I walked back and reentered its interior through the right-hand door. Again I felt soothed in my response; the paintings were very large and dense yet familiar to me. I took them in but did not need or wish to look at them.

On my left, I noticed an attractive young woman and her boyfriend, who was slender with wire-rim glasses and a short haircut. They were seated on the bench in front of the triptych on the west wall, its black rectangles against a plum ground. They were quiet, holding hands. After a while they stood up together without a word, and still holding hands they left.

I was alone again with the guard. I approached her, pretending to study the paintings nearby. I asked, "Excuse me, are there lights here for when they have events? I remember reading about lectures and concerts." She rose from her chair and said, "Oh, yes, there are lights right up there," and she pointed to a row of lights near the baffle on the ceiling. "They use them when there's things going on or when it's raining." "I can show you what they're like," she said, and she moved a few steps and flicked on a switch so I could see how the lights worked.

I asked, "Does it ever get tiring to be here during the day? I see you sitting there when I keep coming back, but you seem fine about what you're doing."

She replied, "Oh, no, I never get tired. It's always so interesting with all of the people coming here all the time. They come from all over the world. But you see the same people here a lot too. We also get people who are really sick. Cancer patients. Sometimes people come who've had a good result from a test, and they sit and are glad about that. Dying people come, and people who have lost someone in their family or a friend or someone like that."

I noticed new arrivals coming through the door. I did not think I should keep talking to the guard so I said "thank you" to her and moved to a bench. I watched a Korean couple and their daughter as they walked around the room, pausing before each of Rothko's paintings. Then a group of children, led by two teachers, came in; the children curled into position to write and make sketches in their notepads.

I had not understood Rothko's paintings when I thought I had, for when I had viewed the paintings as a burial ground, I was not seeing the reality before my eyes. The reality is that the Chapel is not about the paintings but about the persons in the room. Rothko had achieved what he intended. He had made pictures that no one would want to look at. If you look at them, you miss the point. What you should be drawn to look at are the people coming in and out.

In Rothko's Chapel there is no tragedy about death, oblivion, or cosmic emptiness. The tragedy is in the possibility that you will leave too soon. In front of these great paintings, everyone is the same because each person takes his or her place before the same dark background. Yet this background defines each person's specialness: the paintings bring forward the person you are to someone who has paused to see you. This is a rare form of empathic art, and I want to say that it has no precedent: it exists in a zone of experience that includes yet is other than art.

There is, I came to see, no connection between the Chapel paintings and Rothko himself, the restless, brooding, gloomy man who took his own life in February 1970 and who never saw his work installed in the Chapel, which was dedicated a year later. Their surfaces do not reflect him, and that is because their content and meaning are external, outside themselves. Rothko once said that he aspired in his work to "express my not-self," and in the art of the Chapel he did that. These paintings are meaningful as an experience not because of what they are but because of whom they turn us toward. Viewers with patience and understanding will see: they will know to look away.

This was coming to me as I fingered in the Rothko Chapel. As I sat on the bench on the west side, facing the center of the room, I saw a father and son come in on the right. The father was lean and muscular; he had long blond-brown hair, with sunglasses pulled back over his head. I noticed the loose black sleeveless shirt he wore, faded jeans, black band on his wrist, and handsome face. His son had on a black tee-shirt and baggy black jeans. He stood while his father looked around. I doubted they would stay long; this place must seem strange to them.

The father nodded to his son and the two of them walked toward the immense plum-colored painting on the north wall. Each picked up a cushion and, moving apart, they set the cushions on the floor and kneeled. Each of them looked toward the paintings and brought his hands together. I watched them lower their heads. Minutes passed slowly, then the father rose, said a word to his son, and they walked out the doorway as new people were arriving.

I did not want to leave.
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Author:Cain, William E.
Publication:Southwest Review
Article Type:Travel narrative
Geographic Code:1U7TX
Date:Mar 22, 2009
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