The Rothko Chapel

There are many places we could start this story. But let’s start here:

In Houston there is a simple octagonal chapel that contains 14 paintings by Mark Rothko. When you enter, the paintings surround you — tall paintings, 15 feet high, and black. Black as night and near-black — a kind of purple-plum-black — everything deep and saturated. There’s no real painting to speak of — no expressive brush-strokes, no inter-mingling of colors and forms; Rothko may have not even touched most of the canvases with his own brush. The shapes are severe — all rectangles, large ones, black ones, pushing out to the very edges of the canvases. The paintings are serious. Monoliths. Voids. Empty. Solid. Everywhere.

In some strange way, this Chapel — Mark Rothko’s last great work before he slit his wrists in his studio — has become the center fixture in my search for meaning, for significance, for what matters.

Let’s also start here:

Nine years ago I am 19 years old, sitting in the bleachers of a gymnasium at the Missionary Training Center in Provo, Utah. With me are two thousand or so 19- to 25-year-old guys and girls (mostly guys), listening to General Authorities of our church give us spiritual pep-talks about the work we are all about to engage in throughout the world: the work of saving souls, of bringing the Truth to all of God's lost children, of shining a Light in the darkness.

I’ve been preparing for this moment for days, months, years, in respective degrees of specificity.

Days: I’ve made sure I had everything I need. Before we left Seattle, I loaded a recording of Morton Feldman’s Rothko Chapel onto my phone; I charged my camera battery overnight; I packed my hefty copy of Mark Rothko: A Biography by James E. B. Breslin, along with Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy, a favorite and influential text for the artist; I’ve also told my wife I’d like to have about an hour by myself in the Chapel, if possible, so I could listen to Feldman’s piece in situ — which meant she’d have to find something to do for that hour with our 3-year-old son. I wanted to be sure I had some proper communion time.

Months: My art-historian wife and I planned this trip when we found out a collection of paintings by her favorite artist, Caravaggio, was making its only US stop in Fort Worth, Texas. Since we would have to head to Texas for art, it seemed only fair to make the trek to Houston and see the greatest work of my favorite artist, Mark Rothko. My wife and I jokingly refer to this trip to the Rothko Chapel as “my pilgrimage,” but it’s not unreasonable to remove those quotation marks.

The Prophet: Rothko.
The Relics: The Chapel paintings.
The Scripture: Breslin’s biography; The Birth of Tragedy.

Years: I was in high school when I first came across the luminous, colorful canvases of Mark Rothko. I didn’t know at the time whether he was young, old, living or dead. But Rothko was doing something I recognized immediately. He was wordless, figure-less, filled with nothing but bands of light and color. We were after something — for me it was through music, for him, paint — some essence, some purity beyond symbols, something profoundly beautiful — not something about the thing, but the thing itself.

Slightly Fewer Years: My freshman year of college, the best paper I wrote was about the Chapel. I was fascinated by it — why did this painter, whose paintings were so full of light and color, turn so dark and empty?* It was in writing this paper that I first realized that Rothko took his paintings much more seriously than I — or most people, for that matter — had ever thought to take them:

I’m not an abstractionist. I’m not interested in the relationship of color or form or anything else. I’m interested only in expressing basic human emotions: tragedy, ecstasy, doom, and so on — and the fact that lots of people break down and cry when confronted with my pictures shows that I communicate those basic human emotions…. The people who weep before my pictures are having the same religious experience I had when I painted them…. If you are moved only by their color relationships, then you miss the point.

— Mark Rothko, from Conversations with Artists by Selden Rodman

*It helped that the professor for that writing class — a strange Vietnam-vet-meets-conservative-Mormon — was particularly fond of “the void.” Though I can’t say I read it, we did spend lots of time in class discussing Moby Dick — and the one discussion that I still remember was about Pip, who gets stranded alone in the “awful lonesomeness” of the sea — the Void — and, when rescued, has gone insane.

As I cross each of the dozen-or-so blocks between our hotel and the Chapel, I get more and more of that lovely combination of anxiety and peace one feels when a long-anticipated moment approaches — and I realize that this is as holy as I have felt in years. It is a different, secular kind of holiness, a rather self-aware noticing-that-I’m-noticing version of a feeling that part of me still assumes I will never fully retrieve.

Somewhere between seven and nine years ago, I am a 3-hour drive north of here, in Dallas, TX — a Mormon missionary, in suit and tie, preparing to enter the holy Temple.

Inside, I change out of my suit and tie and into white — white slippers and socks, white pants, white tie. All is whispers and reverence, white carpet and light fabrics. The ceremonies here are repetitive and rehearsed; they feel both ancient and eternal. To Mormons — to me, at this time — the ceremonies, and the truths they represent are eternal; a Temple is literally the House of the Lord; Satan, a real being, is shut out, forbidden from tempting you while inside. It is a place of holiness, of goodness, of light. You leave, and their opposites — wickedness, evil, and darkness — flood back in and wage war for your soul.

As I contemplate and participate in the ceremonies — a rather passive activity — I feel as holy as I’ll ever feel in my life. You see, Mormons know things. We have the answers. And I, sitting in that padded chair, knew the following:

I am Good. I don’t smoke, drink, swear, or lie; I keep my mind as free from lewd thoughts as possible. I am faithful. I believe with my whole heart. I am spending my life trying to teach the people of Dallas of the Truth that will set them free. I am God’s servant, and He, my benevolent master. I know, if I am to die today, I would be found worthy, and thanks to the blood of Christ, would enter in to the joy of the Lord.

I am Right. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the one true church on the face of the earth. Jesus Christ Himself appeared in 1820 to the prophet Joseph Smith in upstate New York, and revealed to him the Truth. I know the Church is not just a Church — it is the Kingdom of God on the earth. Anyone who humbly seeks the truth will find it here, and they will know as I know, and not merely believe. All other faiths, while not exactly wrong, are not fully true. Truth leads to happiness, to peace, and any falsehood hinders happiness. Those who don’t have the truth — the real truth — can never be truly happy. And that is why I’m in Dallas — to correct errors, to give people the answers, to teach the right way to unencumbered happiness.

God knows me, loves me, and speaks to me. I know all this because God has revealed the truth of it to me. He has burned it into my heart in a way that can only be described as divine. When I listen, God speaks to me — breathes warmth into my heart, words in my mind, love into my soul.

I am Eternal. I — my soul, my spirit, the individual that I am — will never die. I lived with God as a spirit before coming to this Earth, where He, my Spirit-Father, knew me and loved me. He placed me here on Earth as a test, to allow me the opportunity to learn by experience what good is, what evil is, and how to choose the good, and refuse the evil. When I die, my spirit awaits the Resurrection, when it will be joined with a body that will never die, and I will continue on forever and ever as Me — remembering everything I experienced here on Earth, spending the rest of eternity together with my loved ones — my parents, siblings, my future spouse and children, together forever. Death is no mystery, and nothing to be afraid of.

Holiness, Purity, and Truth. Darkness will be rooted out, Light will reign forever.

And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.

— John 1:5

After some weaving through the neighborhood, I find the Chapel. I see it. I know it well from pictures — I’ve even looked at it on Google street view — but now I’m seeing it. I park on the street in front, and gather my things. I take out my camera from its case, and put the earbuds for my phone into my pocket.

When I get to the door, I read what I feared I would read — No photography inside. “Aw, you’re kidding me…” I whisper to myself, and take my camera back to the car — the Holy moment tainted, just a little. Nothing I can’t recover from.

I open the heavy door and walk inside. Despite all my reading about this place, I never quite grasped the layout of the entrance. But here it is. Desk facing the entryway, behind which the — what to call her — Greeter? Security guard? Steward? — sits, glass walls with doors on the left and right, benches along the glass which hold holy books — Bible, Qu’ran, etc., and I am pleased that the Book of Mormon is among them.

I sign the guest book, and walk in.

Reality blow #2: The Chapel is filled with black plastic folding chairs. A grand piano and a drum set are in the apse. A riser with the sound equipment is in front of one of the panels at the back. All the photos I’d seen of the Chapel show it empty, with four long, simple benches, arranged in various ways. I’d seen pictures with a man on a mat, meditating. But always open, simple, empty. I ask, and it turns out there is a Christmas Celebration that evening. I can’t decide if Rothko would appreciate this or hate it. Pretty sure he’d hate it. But he hated most things.

A few months ago it’s my lunch break at work and I’m overwhelmed. My soul is consumed in what is generally called an existential crisis. Every unoccupied moment of my time is spent staring into the abyss that is my existence (do I exist at all?). On the bus to and from work, at night as I fall asleep, in the shower, in between tasks at work, on my lunch break — and today it’s boiled over. I’m losing it, and I have to get out, I have to go somewhere.

I’ve been reading the introduction to the Dhammapada, so my struggles have taken on an Eastern tint: Buddha wants me to escape the flow of the river — we can live out our lives merely reacting to what comes our way, or we can find true peace by learning how to transcend the small stuff. What sends me to the waterfront that day is this paradox: isn’t my very desire to escape the flow of the river — let alone any actions I might take to do so — just another reaction in the great chain of reactions? Escaping the river isn’t escaping the river — it’s just another river. Can I do anything that isn’t just a reaction to something else? Is any part of me not just playing out its part of the great equation that is the Universe?

I leave the office and walk the three blocks to the waterfront, and stare at the cold, silent horizon.

I’m used to knowing that I was special — that God formed my soul, and made me into this autonomous, eternal being capable of making his own decisions. But I’ve lost my belief in God, in Heaven, in souls — and I’m desperately trying to figure out if I mean anything anymore. This sickening paradox strikes at the heart of my greatest fear: I have no free will. My thoughts, my emotions, my body, every nuance that makes up what I think I am — everything that makes up the Universe, for that matter — is a series of chain reactions upon chain reactions. This very realization, the desire to escape it, and any attempts I might make to escape it, are chain reactions. And there is, in the end, nothing I can do to escape the flow.

If I am to understand Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy correctly — or, more properly stated: if I am to understand Rothko’s interpretation of Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy correctly, the basic premise is this:

Within us, there are two natures: Apollo and Dionysus. Apollo, the god who carries the sun across the sky every day — majestic and honorable — whose nature is one of order, of reason, of weights and measures — of plans and goals, of logic and objectivity, of rules and boundaries, of obedience and loyalty; and Dionysus, the god of orgiastic revelry, of rule-breaking, of passion and wild emotion, of communion, of silliness, of impulse and obsession.

We are both, and both natures battle within us. Either nature, alone, is problematic. Apollo: lifeless. Dionysus: disasterous. Neither are right, neither are wrong. But each makes the other bearable.

Boundlessness, immesurability — we hate it and crave it. We fear the obliteration of Self: death, infinite time, the universe, lonliness, obscurity — and yet we yearn for it: transcendent communion, with God, with Nature, through the joining our souls in Nirvana — through relationships, through sex, through losing one’s self. It is what Rothko calls the “insatiable appetite for ubiquitous experience.” We want to connect, to merge, to be a part of something bigger than ourselves.

But almost by definition, we disintigrate in a world that is all chaos and transcendance. It is the balance, the bounds, the routines, the reason, the Apollonian details and routines that keep the Dionysian bearable.

Conversely, one nature always spoils the full experience of the other. Our enjoyment of order, predictability, and honor is often thwarted by randmoness, injustice, and desire.

According to Nietzsche, the ancient Greeks were able to strike the balance just right in their tradgic plays. The dialog and scenes were Apollonian, balanced by the Dionysian choruses — songs sung by a group. The specifics of these ancient plays are completely beyond me, but the point is: to Rothko, Nietzsche is saying that art — in whatever form it takes — should contain both Apollo and Dionysus. Order and chaos. Bounds and boundlessness. Containment and communion. To be truly great — to be prophetic, ideal, to be True — art, like our souls, must balance the knowable with the unknowable.

As is always the case with places only seen in pictures, I had the scale of things wrong. The paintings are taller than I imagined. They tower overhead. The all-purple panels in the apse are wider, more prominent in the space, more clearly at the “front” of the octagonal room.

But it’s beautiful. The wine-purple colors are rich, deep, and layered; the blacks thick and heavy. In the low light of the chapel, the paintings take on a mystical presence.

Around the edges of the paintings I can see the evidence of layer after layer of thin paint being applied — I can see the broad brushwork like waves in the night across the canvas. The black rectangles are not entirely voids — they are paint — thick, bumpy, dried oil paint. Flaws in the canvas, not-exactly-perfect edges, uneven drying, splatter marks — Rothko has made no real attempt to hide the fact that these mammoth panels are paintings, made with brushes and stretchers and canvas, painted by humans — by him — by hand — which makes them feel even more monumental and overwhelming.

Other artists of the time were taking their own hands out of their work entirely. Sol Le Witt was providing instructions to manufacturers to build his geometric sculptures. Dan Flavin was using store-bought florescent lights to make his light-sculptures. Ellsworth Kelly, Frank Stella, and other so-called “minimalist” painters were producing works that were all flat shapes and flat color. If Rothko wanted to surround the viewer with towering panels of empty black and purple rectangles, especially given their size, there were easier ways to do it than to paint them by hand with brushes.

But Rothko’s chapel was not just about form, color, and scale. Rothko doesn’t want you to forget that these are paintings. Where the minimalists wanted to suppress the past, Rothko wants you surrounded by it — by centuries of painters making images — religious icons, royal portraits, landscapes; paintings of flowers, gods, demons, still-lives, battle scenes, street scenes, allegories, crucifixions, annunciations, caricatures, boats, document-signings, heros, lovers, dictators; delightful, morbid, beautiful, shocking, erotic, peaceful, tumultuous, symbolic images; centuries upon centuries of layers upon layers of paint, painstakingly applied by a painter, on a canvas.

The romantics were prompted to seek exotic subjects and to travel to far off places. They failed to realize that, though the transcendental must involve the strange and unfamiliar, not everything strange or unfamiliar is transcendental…

Even the archaic artist, who had an uncanny virtuosity, found it necesary to create a group of intermediaries, monsters, hybrids, gods and demigods….

When they were abandoned as untenable superstitions, art sank into melancholy. It became fond of the dark, and enveloped its objects in the nostalgic intimations of a half-lit world. For me the great achievements of the centuries in which the artist accepted the probable and familiar as his subjects were the pictures of the single human figure — alone in a moment of utter immobility.

But the solitary figure could not raise its limbs in a single gesture that might indicate its concern with the fact of mortality and an insatiable appetite for ubiquitous experience in face of this fact….

I do not believe that there was ever a question of being abstract or representational. It is really a matter of ending this silence and solitude, of breathing and stretching one’s arms again.

— Mark Rothko, from The Romantics were Prompted

Rothko was fond of complex language. He has journals full of indecipherable philosophizing, though this passage is a little more lucid than most. What it means to me:

We all want the transcendental. The ancient artists created a group of intermediaries — gods, monsters, i.e. religion — things to believe in which helped us reach the transcendent. When we lost our ability to believe in gods, we lost our transcendence. So, art became dark and nostalgic — pictures of solitary people, frozen, unable to speak of their hunger for communion, for “ubiquitous experience,” in the face of their mortality. The Romantics turned to the exotic and unfamiliar for the sublime, but this was a mis-placed, naïve place to look for it. And Rothko wants to end the silence, and make paintings that supply an entry to the transcendent, without the intermediaries.

This is why Rothko was my Prophet. Art, for him, was religion without Religion. The process he points out — religious transcendence, loss of religion (and transcendence with it), striving for transcendence without religion — is exactly what I’d gone through. I wanted exactly what he wanted. And I saw it in his work. I believed that he found it.

After absorbing each panel, taking in the space, I decide it’s time to listen to Feldman’s piece. I take out my phone, and put the earbuds in my ears. But the “security guard” — really just a volunteer — is saying something to me.

Reality blow #3: “You can’t listen to music in here.”


“You can’t listen to music in here.”

“Not even through headphones? I’ll keep it quiet.”

“Nope, sorry.”

I want to bargain with her. I want to say, “Lady, I’ve flown thousands of miles and waited years to come to this space and listen to this very quiet piece of music. I promise I won’t disturb anyone.” But, I value my peaceful mood, so I don’t want to ruin it by arguing with the security lady. It takes me a second to get over it, but I do, and I start to recall the piece from memory. The quiet timpani, the still chords of the choir, the little cyclical rhythm of the xylophone, the singular notes of the viola and soprano, the bittersweet melody of the viola. I know it well. It’s almost better this way.

During another of Rothko’s studio moves, he asked Jon Schueler to help him carry some big canvases. As the two men worked, Rothko began discoursing about the paintings — “he was terribly interesting at bringing out these things and talking about them” — but as Rothko went on, he began handling the paintings roughly. “Each one was like a killing gesture, terribly destructive.” Schueler was appalled, “and I’d keep trying to hold things together and at the same time to listen. And then at that point he looked at me and he pulled out a painting and said, ‘My paintings are nothing’.” Schueler was intrigued by Rothko’s statement. Was he being clever? Or melodramatic? If not, what was he saying? When Schueler returned the following day to complete the job, Rothko refused to discuss the issue.

— from Mark Rothko, by James E. B. Breslin, p. 426–7

Rothko has a lot of surface area to work with. If he wanted to make paintings, he could have painted anything. He could have filled it with color, with broad brush-strokes (certainly his peers would have: de Kooning, Pollock, Still). Paintings of this size — even if they weren’t very good — could have easily dazzled viewers. But he didn’t. Just as it wasn’t about form, color, or scale, he makes it glaringly obvious that it also isn’t about paint. These are more than just paintings.

The easy explaination is that they are paintings of nothing. Black, purple rectangles. But they are far from nothing. This black is not nothing — it’s not empty. It has a presence — more a wall than a void. And it’s not “black.” It’s not just a color choice. It is darkness and density. Impenetrable, flat, frightening, sad. Gaping.

There are unpredictable proportions. Some are consistent, some are different — wider here, slimmer there, symmetrical here, asymmetrical there. There is a hum of tension when you sit in this room because you can’t tell if everything is really the same or not — you can’t tell if this is nothing or something — if there are patterns, or if it’s random.

As I’m there in the chapel, I think of this metaphor: these paintings are to nothing as meditation is to sleep.

However, it’s true that there’s very little to look at. There’s evidence in the paintings themselves that Rothko pushed the edges of these rectangles further and further toward the edges of the canvas — always toward more tension, more uneasiness. And these tense, awkward borders are the only things your eye can really consider, unless you give yourself over to the yawning emptiness of the black, or the shapeless layers of hazy maroon, brown, and purple.

They have you surrounded. You want to somehow take yourself out of it so you can see them all at once — to compare the panels, get a lay of the land, so-to-speak — to separate it from you. But you can’t. You’re in the middle of it, and looking at one set means you’ve got others behind you. You are inside them. It’s an unsettling place.

I’m used to the Truth being one thing — the thing that is Right, as opposed to everything else. Since I lost all my answers, I’ve been wanting a new silver bullet, a new narrow path, the magical release from the battles of life — the Secret to Happiness, the Thing That Is Not What I’m Doing Right Now Because What I’m Doing Doesn’t Seem To Be Working. I want the secret answer. The Right answer. The Shortcut.

And I had the answer — that all injustices, all feelings of insignificance, everything that is not Right and Good will be clensed, redeemed, forgiven, replaced, repaid seventy times seven times over — and that life — my life — is eternally meaningful in both length and depth. I will never die. Peace is in Rightness.

But I will die. I believe that now. I will die, and everything I am, everything I have become, everything I have known, everything I’ve had any influence on, everything and everyone I’ve never seen before, will die. The earth will get consumed by the sun in a few billion years, and no one will be left to remember us. Justice and injustice will die together. The universe itself will expand until it is a cold, black nothingness. Everything tends toward falling apart, and eventually, everything will.

True meaning, true significance, is only achieved when it is eternal — when it is something that never dies. Joseph Smith, in a very famous sermon in Mormon history, used this analogy:

I take my ring from my finger and liken it unto the mind of man — the immortal part, because it had no beginning. Suppose you cut it in two; then it has a beginning and an end; but join it again, and it continues one eternal round. So with the spirit of man. As the Lord liveth, if it had a beginning, it will have an end. All the fools and learned and wise men from the beginning of creation, who say the spirit of man had a beginning, prove that it must have an end; and if that doctrine is true, then the doctrine of annihilation would be true.

And I believe he’s right. There is a fine line between everything and nothing.

The panel opposite the apse, between the two exit doors, is the most reminiscent of Rothko’s signature style. A single, somewhat thin and overwhelmingly tall canvas has a more brown-hued ground layer than the others, and its sharp black rectangle starts right at chest-level, and towers overhead. Standing in front of it, I feel for just a few seconds the hopelessness, the tragedy, the silence, the imposing threat of death — real death — in that blackness, standing above me like a sentinal. I am moved to the brink of tears, thinking of the man who made this sorry thing; a man searching, wanting, fearing enormous things; a man who wanted me — the compassionate viewer of his relics, the humble pilgrim to his chapel — to confront my eventual obliteration, as he did daily.

But it’s not just death I’m seeing. Any threat the blackness imposes is flanked by the luscious undulating purple canvases on each of the four angled walls, and the three panels in the apse — all with their rich patina, and their velvety glow. Rothko has paired the ashes of death with a lushness that is part wine, part earth, part sea, part blood — something from deep within; the quenching deliciousness of life that we all want to drink in deeply and never thirst.

It’s cruel, this combination. Tragedy wrapped in ecstacy. But here they are — Apollo and Dionysus — thrown in a room together, their battle scene fixed in paint on canvas.

But even this most sublime moment is easily betrayed. They are suddenly nothing in a different way. They are only paintings. They are contained, silent, harmless; just paintings on the wall, made by some guy in the ’60s.

I felt something there in that chapel that in the months since I have tried to grasp. The only way I can think to say it is this:

Truth is not one thing.

Everything has its opposite, but there is no eliminating one thing in favor of the other. Certainly I am meaningless. But my life is not meaningless. I have meaning — now — and it is now, and it is not a little. Andalso — all of my meaning sums up to zero.

A paradox. We are both things. Rothko’s canvases — empty and rich. Neitche’s Apollo and Dionysus. Living and Dying. Hopeful and Fearful. Cruel and Benevolent. Balanced and Imbalanced. Free and Enslaved. Significant and Irrelevant. Eternal and Finite. Knowable and Unknowable. Everything and Nothing. We are both things, both things are True, and we flutter in the mixture. This is the Holy Sublime — the arrow that pierces St. Theresa’s heart. Pleasure and Pain, Fear and Joy, at once.

Both, at the same time.