Sunday, April 25, 2010

The Rothko Chapel

When I first heard I was coming to Houston, there were two places I felt I really had to visit, alongside all the operatic goings-on. One was the Space Centre (which should happen on Wednesday) - the other was the Rothko Chapel. I'd known about this space for years - ever since I first started researching Rothko as a visual inspiration for The Great God Brown in (I think) 1993. He then became a major source for one of the early Border Crossings shows - the multi-media devised piece I did as a solo show, Departures / Arrivals. In that production, I played Rothko on film (though I look nothing like him!), as well as a version of myself on stage. We used imagery from his work and quotations from his letters in the form of projected text. His incredible use of emptiness to portray so much of the contemporary human condition carries on being a huge influence on me. The stage spaces for the Trilogy, and even for pieces like Bullie's House, Mappa Mundi and Double Tongue, all owe something to this aesthetic - and, more importantly, to its underlying spiritual power.

The Chapel is in an area of Houston which was bought by an incredibly wealthy philanthropic couple called the Menils, who collected art from all over the world, including an amazing selection of Greek vases and a vast array of Magrittes. Their collection is now on free display in an ever-changing exhibition space, which currently features a whole series of very funny, and very disturbing interventions by the Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan (he's the one who did the Pope being struck by a meteorite). The presence of this iconoclast is another tribute to the open-mindedness of the Menils, who were, after all, devout Catholics - they also endowed St. Thomas's University in this same area of Houston, which appears to teach everything within a Thomist framework.

The Rothko Chapel, however, is not Catholic. In fact, it isn't even Christian. It is visited and used by Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Taoists, Hindus... you name it. It is a space of contemplation, meditation, and spirituality in the widest sense. What you do there may or may not involve a deity. To my mind, Rothko's paintings are about the spiritual meaning of the deity's absence (or apparent absence), in the contemporary world. They seem to work like icons - providing a bridge into another reality - but that reality is empty. His fourteen vast canvases, nine of which form three triptychs, are open shimmering spaces of black, dark reds and deep purples. They are not about "glory" or "redemption" or "consolation". They are about our need to face up to emptiness, and to find a relationship with that vast void which envelopes our existence.

I went twice during the day. The first time there were quite a lot of people there: including one who was trying to take photos and set the attendant scurrying towards him. The second time, after I'd been to the Menil Collection, I was able to sit there on my own with the paintings. It was totally silent, apart from the attendant occasionally turning the page of her newspaper. The silence was like a noise. And the emptiness of the paintings was like a fullness - shimmering and numinous, overpowering with the presence of absence.

Outside, there is a pool, with a broken obelisk by Barnett Newman. It's set in a little garden. The sun was very hot, and the birds were singing.

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