November 9th, 2009
The Rothko Chapel: Art to be Felt First, Seen Second
In 6 Words: designed, melt, peaceful, canvas, dark, tolerant
For those of you who need a place to purge your sins, ask some questions, or perhaps just hide from that girl you made out with on Halloween night, you know… the one you thought was really hot until she took off her mask; I have found the place for you: The Rothko Chapel. I realize the word chapel conjures up certain stereotypical images that tend to scare the sinner in most of us away, but this is no ordinary chapel. It is a work of art.
The Rothko Chapel was created by Mark Rothko, an Abstract Expressionist, at the request of Houston art collectors, John and Dominique de Menil in 1964. Rothko designed a space that fuses his paintings with a sacred place that welcomes all persons, regardless of religious or spiritual belief.
Upon entering the chapel, I am greeted by a low bench covered in books that span an array of the world’s religions. I zero in on the colorful children’s book titled, What is God. I pick it up and make my way into an octagonal sunlit space. There are a few visitors and one museum official occupying the space. I sit on one of the four rows of wooden benches that face fourteen massive dark canvases in the room that is lit by a skylight overhead. My keys make a soft clatter on the floor as I set them and my bag down.
I notice a husband and wife seated to my right, the wife seems embarrassed by her husband’s lack of appreciation for the arts. Her husband looks at me and throws his arms up in the air, as if to say that it wasn’t his fault that these dark canvases meant nothing to him. There are a few adolescents who may have walked here straight from school judging by the pleated skirts and oxfords. I close my eyes and try to shut out the shuffle of people leaving. By the time I reopen them, I realize I am alone, with the exception of the monitor, a little, old lady shoved in a corner on a folding chair (to be as unobtrusive as possible), pretending to be invisible.
I make my way to the center of the room, to a yoga mat that someone has placed there.. I sit, take a deep breath and close my eyes, not opening them until I feel at rest. I open them slowly and note how beautifully the design of the building complements the placement of the canvases. If you don’t look up or down and concentrate on your immediate horizontal perspective, you seem to be surrounded by a sea of dark paint. Now that I have uncluttered my mind, I start to notice details on the canvases that I didn’t notice before. What seemed like canvas completely covered in a uniform dense black paint takes on deep hues of purples and blacks that form spaces within spaces on the fourteen canvases. If you stare into one long enough,you start to feel that all of your worries will slip away into the black abyss of the canvas’ centers.
I retreat to my bench, pick up the children’s book I grabbed from the entrance and randomly turn to a page illustrated with bright colors and smiling children that reads, “God is what you feel.” I reflect on that and decide I have taken all I can from the day. I walk out of the Rothko Chapel with a new definition of worship in my mind and a much lighter feeling in my soul.
Where – 1409 Sul Ross St, Houston, TX 77006 (View Map)
What – Faith in Fourteen Canvases by Mark Rothko
Wear – Anything Goes, But Nothing Does Not Fly
Who – Seekers, Ponderers, Thinkers
How Much – Your Money is No Good Here (but donate to the foundation)
When – 10 A.M. to 6 P.M. Daily