September 2, 2008

Rothko's Chapel: Everyone's missing the suicidal artist's point

In The Guardian Jonathan Jones reports that his visit to the Rothko Chapel in Houston left him impressed, but troubled that Rothko's project is so clearly misunderstood by all the religious groups who meet there. "Locals use this place. In fact, they love it. They come not just as tourists but to meditate, pray, and talk somberly. They see it as a religious place and the art as spiritual. It is called a chapel, after all, and most Americans believe in God.It seems to me these people, and the other sincere believers I meet here, are missing the point about Rothko, too.

"This chapel has been here nearly 40 years, yet it has never really become a stop for art tourists. It's a living communal entity: coming here is not so different from visiting Baroque churches in Italy, and seeing the rituals that go on within them. It is not, as some critics claim, an austere, dead, modernist monument. It's a living chapel. People sing and play music here. But maybe they should look around a bit more - because this is one of the most compelling rooms I have ever been in. Its art simply swallows you up.

"The room is an octagon, which has a fascinating visual effect. As you walk in from the small lobby and see paintings ahead, there is the feeling of ambush: Rothko has got you surrounded. It's impossible to get away from his overarching vision. His paintings are bigger - much bigger - than you are. They are juxtaposed with those doorways that lead nowhere, that powerfully evoke the sinister closed doors at the corners of Michelangelo's New Sacristy at San Lorenzo in Florence. Michelangelo used sealed doors and sealed windows for one reason: to suggest death. Rothko's doorways are also portals of death. And they invite you to see the paintings as portals, too. For these are vertical rectangles, like giant black doors. They tower over you and pull you towards their madness. Stand close to one and you feel like you're about to totter into a void.

"The interpretation - repeated to me and originated by Dominique de Menil - of the chapel as a progress towards the lighter, warmer colours of the 'altarpiece' (an arrangement of three purple paintings that faces the entrance to the room) is inaccurate. The chapel does not have a single focal point. It does not offer progress towards a consoling vision. Instead, the last picture you see is the one you face as you walk towards the exit. It is the most oppressive of all. A black rectangle pierces a brownish container. It is a blackness of utter desolation, like looking into a waiting coffin. Any illusion of paradise the chapel might have engendered is dashed to pieces.

"And Rothko planned it this way. His chapel is one of the most overwhelming syntheses of art and architecture in the world. It is as compelling as the great Italian religious interiors he admired, yet as terrifying as Munch's Scream. It is a tragic theatre of emptiness, death's antechamber, the self-expression of a suicide. As such, the Rothko Chapel was destined to be misunderstood. Had it been understood, it would not have been built." Read more.

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