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The Rothko Chapel

Today’s post comes from Deborah Steinberg ’14 and Art Center Student Docent.

Interior of the Rothko Chapel in Houston, TX
One of my most frequent stops on my tours in the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center is the Mark Rothko painting. I ask visitors to look at the bright colors and abstract shapes, and then to describe what emotions they feel and what they think the artist intended for them to feel. The vibrant reds and oranges make some people feel anxious, or excited, or angry, or passionate. Some visitors describe experiences of which they are reminded, and some just stand there silently, lost in thought. Throughout my year as a docent, at least three people had mentioned to me that they had been to the Rothko Chapel in Houston, Texas. So when my family told me we were going to travel there over winter break, I immediately added the chapel to our itinerary.

Walking into the octagonal structure, I expected to see the same bright colors and overlapping shapes as the Rothko painting with which I have become so familiar at Vassar College. This was not the case. The first thing I noticed was that there were no artificial lights in the room, only the sunlight coming in from the central window in the roof. No one spoke or made a sound. The series of giant canvasses that dominate the walls were all dark, ranging from blacks to dark purple. From a distance, each canvas appeared to be a solid shade, to the point that I would have guessed they had simply been dipped in ink, rather than painted by a famous modern artist. A variety of people sat in the center of the single room, facing out at different walls. Some sat on benches, others sat on cushions that were placed on the floor. Not being an avid floor sitter, I took up one of the benches and stared at one of the walls that contained a large back canvas. I squinted, trying to make out any shapes or overlapping colors, like in the painting at the Loeb. Nothing. Just black. I could vaguely make out brush strokes that almost looked like waves across the canvas, but that was all. I got up and sat at another bench, this time facing a dark purple canvas. This time, I noticed that the purple did not seem as solid as I had initially perceived. I got up and walked closer. There appeared to be a very distant layer of a darkish red, covered by shades of black or very deep purple, but you could definitely tell that there was color back there, and that the brushstrokes were not as uniform and careful as they appeared from a distance. There was motion in it, very subtle, but enough that it kept your eyes moving across the canvas, following the thick brushstrokes like waves across a dark and dreary ocean.

I slowly walked around the room, closely examining each canvas to figure out what colors were layered on top of each other to create these dark colors. I lost myself in the repetitive shades, the darkness consuming all of my other thoughts that distract me throughout the day. They made the room seem larger, hollow, as though the paintings could swallow me up and I was just falling into them. I felt that my sole purpose was to delve into those canvases, to find the perfect name for each color that was overlapped, to follow the brushstrokes, and to make it all the way around the chapel back to where I began. Finally, I arrived back at the entrance. I felt strangely calm, for someone who never meditates and is not used to being silent for that long, and slightly disoriented as a result. But calm, and stable, and ready.

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