The day after Christmas, I sat in a dark room staring at 14 large canvases painted in deep purples and blacks, hung in an octagonal building known as the Rothko Chapel.
I grew aware of this chapel because of a poem by Jesse Bertron in Ruminate magazine titled “Outside the Rothko Chapel, Where Big John’s Eyes Appeared upon the Canvas on the Eastern Wall.” It was one of the best poems I read this year. The speaker talks about taking a group of young students to visit this interfaith sanctuary in Houston, Texas, which also serves as a public art installation and centre for human rights. He notes the kids’ boredom and reflects on the differences between a museum and a church, between watching and being watched. I had a long discussion with friends about whether the poem is cynical or hopeful, and I lean toward the latter. It ends with these lines:
I know now what they know, to know you’re being watched
will never satisfy.
Once you know somebody’s watching, how you long
for them to speak to you.
This poem was hovering in my mind as I sat on one of the austere wooden benches looking at the art, opposite other people doing the same thing.
The 14 paintings depart from Rothko’s earlier canvases featuring horizontal planes of colours with soft, blurry edges, such as this one I saw at the Seattle Art Museum.
Mark Rothko (1903-1970) is considered an Abstract Expressionist painter whose objective, like other colour-field painters, was to show the human connection to the sublime, the primordial, the cosmic using large, meditative planes of colour. Yet Rothko rejected this label, as you’ll read below.
Talk about pressure to break down and cry! To not miss the point! On going to the Rothko Chapel, I wanted a spiritual revelation like many others have had viewing his work. These are the thoughts that flitted through my head instead:
This is much heavier than I expected. Thank God for the skylight. Wish I had come on a sunnier day.
Where do I look? There are so many canvases, which one do I choose?
How long are the attendants’ shifts? They must be super spiritual from being in this space for so long. I wish I could ask them what they see but is talking even allowed?
The kids in Bertron’s poem stayed for half an hour. I don’t think I can last that long and I’m an adult who works at a contemporary art gallery. What’s wrong with me?!
Should I sit on the bench looking towards the centre to see the whole room, or should I sit facing the outside and focus on one painting?
Is that the outline of eyes in the upper right corner of the canvas? Yes, I think I can see something there. Wait a minute, do I really see something or am I just pretending to see something?
Apart from showing how expectations did not match reality, I write down these thoughts in hopes of breaking down the elitist mystique that often comes with viewing modern art. It’s easy to look at others in an art gallery and assume they “get” the work because they look really serious and are nodding intently, as if revelations are cascading over them like a baptism.
I thought that about other people in the Rothko Chapel, and maybe they thought that about me. The truth is, I found the experience quite self-conscious, concerned with having the right etiquette and seeing the right thing that’s supposed to appear to help me decode the paintings.
And I had to keep correcting myself: Maybe there’s not something to decode. Maybe this is my brain wanting to rationalize everything, to understand and move on, and maybe Rothko was trying to get people like me to sit in the discomfort of the dark and just be. And I was missing the point terribly but then I would just strive harder to get the point, which seemed counter-intuitive and so my thoughts kept spinning round and round until I felt dizzy.
I expected instant gratification, but like any spiritual practice (prayer, meditation, worship, etc), I get the sense the Rothko Chapel requires repeat visits. I talked to one local afterwards who said she keeps going back because the light is always different and can really make the canvases come alive.
I can’t help but wonder what kind of revelation Rothko had when painting these works in his New York studio. He never got to see them installed as he committed suicide after finishing them. They were his swan song.
Even with all my self-consciousness, there were some references that came to mind when viewing Rothko’s works as it’s natural to interpret things, to find meaning.
The two sets of triptychs, where the outside panels are hung at a different height from the centre panel, immediately reminded me of church altarpieces. The one at the front of the room, however, has three panels evenly hung, with the centre panel a lighter shade than the others. If there is a main work of the chapel, this felt like it. Knowing that Rothko was influenced by Christ’s Passion (and some interpret his 14 paintings as the Stations of the Cross), I pictured these panels as the crucifixion scene: Jesus in the centre, flanked by the two thieves.
Opposite this work is a single canvas that also stands out because it has an obvious colour variation. The bottom quarter is painted darker with a frame running around the edge and proportions that evoke the painting of Christ’s death and entombment by Masaccio that I saw in Florence last year.
Maybe these interpretations are all missing Rothko’s point but for someone who strives to do things right and meet other’s expectations, perhaps missing Rothko’s point is just as necessary to experience the work genuinely. That and going when the light is shining.