On Rothko and the Portland Retrospective (Part 3): Experiencing Rothko Chapel (with kids!)

Posted: February 13, 2012 in Experiences, On Beauty
Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

My last post about the upcoming Rothko show in Portland was what I’d call rather “heady”. I tried to discuss the philosophical foundations of Mark Rothko’s work. No doubt, someday, some real Rothko scholar will stumble upon these posts and will find all the things I did not accurately depict. But, you do need to give me credit for taking a shot at it. To counterbalance that post, I’d like to take some time away from thinking about the work and devote a few minutes to the subject of experiencing it. For that, I’ll turn to a Houston Texas landmark: Rothko Chapel.

Houston’s Rothko Chapel was made possible by John and Dominique de Menil. If ever there were a couple who devoted their Texas oil money to art, it was the de Menils. Just down the street from the chapel, in a building by  Mies van der Rohe, is the Menil Collection – one of the most wonderful private art museums in America. I admit it: I hate Houston weather and I can’t typically spend much time there. I also admit, though, that one of my favorite “outings” of all time is a day spent at the Rothko Chapel, followed by dinner at Tony’s, and a play at The Alley Theater. So, say what you will about Houston; in my book it’s got a lot to redeem it. Mind you… I could NEVER live there. But, visits can be surprisingly wonderful. On top of the art, food, and theater; my wife is from Houston; and her family is one of the things that has richly blessed my life. I like her parents, siblings, and extended family. But more than that, I LOVE the nieces and nephews we have there. They are the real topic of today’s post.

The chapel was dedicated in 1971. It was intended to be an intimate meditative space for people of every faith. Rothko received the commission from the de Menils in 1964 and was given control over the entirety of the built environment.  The building was specifically designed to display a set of fourteen very dark and very subtle paintings. Rothko was able to work directly with architect Philip Johnson (who began the building) , and with Howard Barnstone and Eugene Aubry (who finished it).

Of the fourteen canvases, seven consist of sharp-edged black rectangles on a deep maroon background and seven are large purple tonal paintings. In the low light that Rothko specified for viewing, they initially all seem to be variations on black or deep gray. Under this light, the paintings are best experienced by sitting with them long enough to begin to notice their differentiation.

Not everyone likes these paintings as much as I do. In fact, one of my favorite “art stories” comes from my aunt and uncle who, like me, adore Rothko. Once, when visiting my cousin in Houston, my aunt and uncle were excited to go and see the chapel. With great enthusiasm and with my cousin in tow, they took off to see it. When they entered the space, they were transfixed… That is, until my cousin turned to them and said “so, where are the paintings?”

My cousin’s experience is diametrically opposite of the experience that my young nieces and nephews had when I first took them to visit the chapel. I must say that I was pleasantly surprised by the kids reaction. I’d guess that it was about 1990 or 91 when I loaded up the car with Denise, Bobbie, and Dustin (I don’t recall Jennifer coming with us), and headed out of Katy, Texas to the nice suburban Houston neighborhood where the chapel resides. We walked into the building and I expected these 3 primary school-aged kids to say something really profound (like “so, where are the paintings”). Instead, all three of them walked around the perimeter of the space with me and stopped to look at each canvas.

Instead of thinking these paintings were “black” or “of nothing”, they looked at each one and noticed the color shifts. I distinctly remember that one of them said “hey, I see some red!” Another noticed the purple. Then they commented about the brush strokes. I kid you not, 3 young Texan children, from a family without artists, seemed to really dig the place. From that point on, every time I visited Houston, and wanted to see Rothko Chapel, at least 1 or 2 of the kids wanted to join us. I don’t know if this is just an inherent open-mindedness of youth or what. But, I always feel like I did something special for those kids.

What they probably still don’t know is how much they, through their willingness to experience something new, did for me!

 

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