17.5.09

Rothko Chapel

Rothko Chapel, Southeast, South and Southwest Panels

I have just returned from another brief visit to Houston to do some business at Gremillion & Co., and spend some time with Ron Gremillion and all my friends and colleagues at the gallery. On my first day there, I had a little down time, and decided to make another visit to the Rothko Chapel -- since I've been thinking about those late Rothkos lately, and every time I see the chapel works, they offer some new perception or moment. It was a glorious day with bright clear sunlight and some floating clouds. As always, entering the chapel was a drastic reality shift from the brightness and heat of the outdoors. The place was empty except for a greeter at the front desk and an extremely conspicuous guard sitting in a chair inside the chapel. In addition to the rough hewn benches, the floor of the chapel was strewn with small mats with little round pillows in the middle -- obviously to accommodate lotus sitters, but very distracting interruptions of the space. Their presence made me think about the dichotomy between the paintings, and the space as a "chapel" in which the paintings exist as part of a devotional or meditative environment. Of course the idea of the chapel came first, and the paintings were conceived specifically for that context, both in terms of physicality and content -- just as Rothko was chosen for the project presumably because of the compatibility between his work and the idea of the chapel. But to my mind, the paintings have outlived the original context -- like the Giottos in the Arena Chapel or the Caravaggios in San Luigi -- their sustained importance as paintings has rendered their ecumenical role quaint if not obsolete. The notion of attaching religiosity to Rothko's paintings is a warm and fuzzy product of a past era, and is in reality diametrically opposed to the utter anarchy of the works themselves. These paintings declare a reality of vastness and flux in which any notion of certainty, any doctrine or dogma is patently absurd.

On this day, the light in the chapel was particularly changeable. I sat on a bench for a while watching as the paintings transformed from huge active painterly surfaces revealed by the full (filtered) sunlight, to monolithic almost black slab/spaces devoid of surface as a cloud passed overhead. A few people came in, some alone and some in pairs, and I noticed that they hardly looked at the paintings -- rather, they sat and read the little brochure, or just sort of glanced around for a few minutes then left. The quiet stillness of the chapel can indeed be conducive to an undifferentiated state -- only because the paintings perform a strange trick of temporarily receding from physicality, of becoming absorbed into an experience of the space as a whole, reinforcing their ambiguity. Then just as suddenly, they reassert their fierce presence. For me, the less successful of the works are the two triptychs on the east and west walls with the elevated center panels -- they now seem almost mannered, and pandering to the ideological precepts of the chapel. The verticle painting with the floating black rectangle on the south wall advances Rothko's trademark image to a powerful stark intensity. But to my mind, the paintings on the four corner walls, along with the giant tour de force triptych on the north wall, are Rothko's greatest work. The sheer scale of these paintings is unfathomable -- all monochromes with different variations of layered washed surfaces and deep dull purples. Here Rothko repudiates any preconceptions about painting's parameters, and uses the chapel context as a catalyst to achieve an extravagant radicality. These are without doubt the most portentous paintings of the NY School generation; and their bold singularity, in sharp contrast to the ideological limits of their devotional setting, places them among the most important paintings of any era.