- January 27th, 2013
i'm inside the mind of an artist. it is a stark and bewildering place. most people who've entered here in the last hour have left quickly. I don't think they understand what they are seeing. for a chapel, the space is bleak, industrial, and beset by visual darkness. but as a permanent installation of abstract expressionism, this place must be close to what Rothko had dreamed about during his career. coming in from outside, even on a cloudy day, your eyes take time to adjust. everything but the paintings within the chapel is bathed in shades of grey. the floor - made of asphalt tiles - is the darkest charcoal. the walls are like seagull backs. the ceiling looks like the sides of storm clouds caught in a distant sunburst. even the light from above seems to be grey, forcing itself between the lips made of the ceiling's edge and the skylight baffle.
you should come here on a day like today. outside, there are many clouds passing from time to time before the sun. consequently, there are actually three chapels. one chapel is fully lit, another shrouded in half-night, and a third constantly in transition between two extremes of light and dark. especially when the light is at its brightest, Rothko's 14 canvases here sing on the walls. of course, you must be extremely quiet to hear them. most visitors, it seems, don't like the loudness of the silence in this space, and as soon as their own thoughts start o melt away, they choose to go.
i'm enthralled by the majesty of these works. knowing a little about Rothko's process, I know everything about them is deliberate. the purples, blues, and blacks were conscious choices by the artist. the borders were precisely applied. the size of each canvas, of all the canvases them together, and their places on the walls. none of it is an accident. so hat means when I am subjugated by the enormity of these soaring works, Rothko wished it to be so. when I am drawn deeply into the depths of the variegated colors in the sunlight, Rothko is the one leading me deeper. when I am equally dazzled and dismayed by the joy the artist must have known in painting them, Rothko willed those conflicting emotions to assail me.
I heard a lady ask at the information desk outside, "where are the paintings?" certainly one can respect her confusion. this is not art for everyone, nor is it art for art's sake. this is Rothko in full control, and without context this vision into his inner being is just as likely to bore as it is to overwhelm. you have to know that abstract expressionism is about more than expression of the abstract. otherwise, there are no paintings here at all, just abject emptiness without meaning. i think everyone who visits this chapel would benefit from a short 2-3 minute introductory film or audio recording about Rothko's process and his thoughts on color towards the end of his life. that would make a huge difference - that, or seeing "Red" as produced by Southern Rep Theater. I see many people coming in here and looking lost at first. Some of them fight against the place, knowing they should see something but wanting to have it painted for them - like this was a gallery for baroque masters or sculpture. but not all art is about yelling at the audience, and I think in that sense Rothko was the quietest artist of them all. for those that do bother to settle down and wait for their minds to catch up with he art, there is a concerto playing here. as you see the works through a few cycles of light and cloudy darkness and you bear witness to the magnificent scale of the display, Rothko's accomplishment here becomes abundantly clear. so many artists control their art - Rothko controls the experience. appreciate that and you might even find yourself wondering, "where are the paintings?" but in a totally new way. perhaps that would be the way Rothko wanted it.
today there are 18 benches here, in a 3-deep hexagon that reminds me of he south Korean flag. there are also four meditation cushions, three evenly spaced at the edge of the apse, and the fourth smack in the middle of the room. it is hard for me to say if the furniture would've need approved by Rothko or not. as best I can guess, neither functionality nor the comfort of others were central themes - or even serious concerns - for him. I think that if he had approved them, they would probably be immobile. he would've spent weeks or months deciding on the exact arrangement of the furniture in relation to the art, and then probably expected them to be bolted or otherwise anchored to the floor. it seems to me that Rothko left nothing to chance.
I suppose I could sit here for days and have no more answers about his place than I have now. but one question above all refuses to rest lightly on my mind. Rothko knew almost everything about this space before he started painting. he built a replica of part of it in his studio. why then would it be that the east and west triptychs span the entire width of their respective walls between the side doorways, but none of the other works do the same? the east and west works are both shorter and wider than all the other works here, but their proximity to the four side doorways make me feel as though Rothko may have intentionally tried to make them leap from the walls into the room. or maybe he was trying to conquer the vast expanses of the side walls of this space. surely, as with everything he did, this was on purpose. but what purpose might that have been? I feel as though i'm deep within the recesses of the artist's mind, and yet there is so much I don't know.
it rained a short while ago and I was outside. I wonder what it felt like in here. was the rain audible on the skylight? did the advancing darkness draw a cool pall of the space? would I have felt safer or less safe while sitting out a rainstorm in here? I imagine the soft pricking of he rain on the glass above my head. it would help drown out even more of he sounds created by the people visiting here. then I would've felt more intensely alone, but probably even more content. before my eyes the shade's hand, passing gradually overhead, would've drawn down a gauzy curtain over the walls. the stark textures of the ceiling and the floor would have reduce their contrast. the browns and greys would fade. but I think somehow the works themselves would speak more loudly to me when it rains. the haze of a passing storm could not entirely obscure the benevolent calm of these joyous monstrosities. their raucous, silent intrusion into my senses does, after all, become more intrusive whenever a cloud passes overhead.
I see the joy of the artist's process in these works, and why he was so insistent on the particulars of their display. to bring them to life, he had to take the space, the light, and all the other things seriously. just look at what these works in this space show: Tiger stripes! Puffy clouds! Frames in frames! Vast brushstrokes and places where the color seeps from within the canvas, instead of having been placed on it by a man. here are the tones bounded by tones that become more evident with time. here there are washes like sheets of a waterfall. over there I found a darkened no-man's-land of color where two un-parallel strokes of the same pigment have covered one another. i see linearity preserved on one canvas, to be destroyed on the next. works are hung just exactly "so", to build symmetries everywhere you look. this chapel, this museum, this gallery, this monument - it is grand and powerful in so many ways. on the occasion of my first visit, I feel captivated by it. I don't think this is art upon which I could feast everyday. but I am overjoyed that I took the time to let it speak to me on this day.