Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Rothko's Darkness

Interior photograph of Rothko Chapel, Houston, Texas
Completed 1971
"It is at once a reduction of the whole of the universe to the infinitesimal point of the anxious self and an absorption of the self in the eternal calm of the sea of being." 
-Rabbi Jacob B. Agus
In the September 26th edition of The Guardian Weekly, the opinionated British art critic Jonathan Jones describes his visit to Mark Rothko's chapel in Houston, Texas, as "a pilgrimage to the greatest marriage of art and architecture in the US." Jones worries, though, if the chapel is misunderstood, or even misused, by American visitors.

For the British critic, the Rothko chapel is "one of America's greatest and strangest monuments: a chapel created by a modern artist who had no religious beliefs." Jones is dismayed, then, to find that many visitors to the chapel are anything but irreligious.

Inside Rothko's master work, a fellow chapel-goer asks the critic if he sees in one of the over-sized paintings "the figure of Jesus Christ our Lord on the Cross?" Jones writes, "I look into the gigantic abstract work. It contains no images, Christian or otherwise."

Jones is clearly bemused that the chapel is today regarded by so many as a sacred space, and he chalks this interpretation up to our American religiosity.
"Locals use this place. They love it. They come not as tourists but to meditate, pray and talk sombrely. They see it as a religious place and the art as spiritual. It is called a chapel, and most Americans believe in God."
Jones feels Rothko would be similarly befuddled by the religious interpretation. The critic explains that Rothko designed the chapel to take "his pursuit of...the 'tragic' to its ultimate extreme" and that the artist "believed that all serious art was about death." Undoubtedly, Rothko had a fatalistic, deeply melancholic streak - he killed himself in 1970, one year before the chapel opened - but I'm not sure that the artist would, like Jones, bemoan the religious significance of his chapel.

A Russian Jewish immigrant, Rothko (originally named Marcus Rothkowitz) certainly didn't intend visitors to see Jesus Christ in his large canvases, but he was not, as Jones contends, a man "who had no religious beliefs." In fact, Rothko's father was an Orthodox Jew and the young Rothko spent time in Russian cheders before his 1913 emigration to the United States. After his family settled in Portland, Oregon, Rothko became active in the local Jewish community. Whether the future artist's connection to Judaism was principally cultural or spiritual, I do not know, but later in life he frequently described the making of his paintings as a religious experience.
Interior photograph of Rothko Chapel, Houston, Texas
Completed 1971

So what was Rothko thinking when he undertook the chapel project, and what did he intend the space to be? We can only speculate.

For his part, Jones asserts that the paintings act as doorways or portals. I agree, but the British critic insists that they are "portals of death." Jones sees the blackness of Rothko's chapel paintings as "utter desolation," blackness that shatters "any illusion of paradise." The chapel overall Jones describes as a "theatre of emptiness, death's antechamber, the self-expression of a suicide." He dismisses other interpretations, claiming that, if the Texas oil barons who commissioned the project understood more fully Rothko's deathly intentions, the chapel would not have been built.

But the blackness in Rothko's late works can also be understood as nothingness. Negative theology, more commonly referred to by the Latin via negativa, breaks down the word "nothingness" into "no-thing-ness." God, according to negative theology, is ineffable; literally, It, that is to say, God, is No Thing. As Lao tzu, author of the Tao Te Ching, wrote in that essential text, "The unnamable is the eternally real...Darkness within darkness. The gateway to all understanding."

This mystical conception of God or Being would be familiar to an educated Jew like Rothko. The Jewish Kabbalist notion of Ein Sof springs from a medieval Spanish Jew's exposure to Eastern philosophy. (Most historians agree that Moses de Leon, a prominent Spanish rabbi, composed the Zohar, the central text of Kabbalah, in the late 13th century. Some of these scholars argue that de Leon's work is a syncretic project, injecting tantra and other Eastern thought into the ever-evolving Jewish tradition.) Ein Sof, translated from Hebrew to English, literally means "there is no end." It is the unquantifiable, ambivalent and infinite energy that exists before, within and after the more mundane conception of God. The kabbalists, though, take their negative theology one step further. Ein Sof is the ineffable All, but Ayin, or "nothingness," is Ein Sof rendered finite. Some Jews consider Ayin the cosmic potential extant prior to the Big Bang.

Daniel Matt, a leading scholar of Kabbalah, writes in "God and the Big Bang":
"The paradox is that ayin embraces 'nothing' and 'everything.' This nothingness is oneness: undifferentiated, overwhelming the distinctions between things....This mystical nothingness is neither empty nor barren; it is fertile and overflowing, engendering the myriad forms of life. Medieval philosophers - Jewish, Christian and Muslim - had taught that God created the world 'out of nothing.' The mystics turn this formula on its head, reinterpreting it to mean that the universe emanated from divine nothingness."
For some religious individuals, concepts like Ayin and Ein Sof allow a point of entry. Rabbi Richard Rubenstein, a Jewish scholar and writer, speaks of God "as the Holy Nothingness." Detailing his turn from secularism to faith, he writes, I "replaced my atheistic nihilism with a mystical nihilism. To be all that there is, as God was in the beginning and will be in the end, is equivalent to being, so to speak, absolutely nothing. In the beginning, God dwelt in the womb of his own omnipotent nothingness." I love the contradictory nature of such a God!

Likewise, religious mystics of all persuasions believe that individuals must embrace darkness in order to find spiritual integrity. They must, as the prominent Rabbi Arthur A. Cohen put it, "...[surrender] to unknowing, [enter] the 'dark night' of which all mystics speak - a metaphor for the condition of desperate ignorance - and there [identify] a frail connection between the emptying of the self of all knowledge, the abandonment of knowledge, the perfect unknowing which enables the process of knowing to be renewed and the being whose existence renews. It is the passion of thought and the desire to know which presses us to the limit where thought cannibalizes itself in despair, where knowing ceases, where the emptying of the self is undergone and the fullness of God may commence."

Those chapel-goers who claim to see in Rothko's paintings Jesus Christ, Muhammad, Buddha, or any other religious hero are guilty of unimaginative literalism but, if their experiences are real, they are "seeing" through darkness into spirit. I believe that Rothko, an artist much invested in mythology and mysticism, would respect and even commend that.

Jones writes in The Guardian, "[The chapel] is not an austere, dead, modernist monument. It's a living chapel. People sing and play music. But maybe they should look around a bit more - because this is one of the most compelling rooms I have ever been in."

But why should these religious visitors have to stop worshipping, singing or otherwise participating in the work to take (what Jones considers) due notice of the room's quality? Given the power of the space, might not the room compel their behavior? Rothko insisted that he was no mere maker of abstract paintings. "If you are moved only by their color," the artist said of his mature works, "then you miss the point."

Photo credits: images ripped from HASTAC on Ning


mordicai said...

This is an interesting discussion, but I've got to go with my kneejerk & agree with the Brit; Americans, stop praying!

Hungry Hyaena said...


Yeah, I used to feel similarly. As recently as last year, I found it highly offensive if another person said she was "keeping [me] in [her] prayers," and I continue to cringe whenever athletes or celebrities thank God for their good fortune.

Yet, though it is a substantial number, it remains a minority of "religious" Americans that give the term a bad name. Their tribe subscribes to an unimaginative, naive and hallucinatory literalism, yet their actions are often in gross conflict with their scripture. It's very frustrating...and maybe even dangerous.

I'd like it if America's fundamentalists stopped praying, but I'd prefer it if they just went away.

With regard to the rest of the religious lot, though, I've come to feel more comfortable. I even believe that progressive religion provides our plural country with common cause in social justice, regardless of creed or ethnicity. Secular humanism can do that, too, of course, but most secular types (I'm guilty, too) retreat into iCulture, forgoing community action, volunteerism and extended good will.

Perhaps it's a pipe dream to believe that religion may help us move onward and upward - and I ain't talking about heavenly stairways! - but it's a worthy one.

All the best!

Michael said...

In many ways, the chapel is a fulfillment of the iconoclastic notions of our early settlers-- the protestant sects that branded any imagery as idolatrous. Ironically it shares a common sensibility with some Muslim ideas about representation.

Speaking of pipe dreams...

Your description of seeing through darkness into spirit transported me to a time in my childhood when we spent days exploring the network of storm drains under our suburban development. We rolled through the smaller tubes belly-down on skateboards. Often light would be entirely absent for ten minutes or more. During these dark stretches, I would experience incredible hallucinations that had nothing to do with drugs. It was pretty amazing, like the semi-lucid moments before sleep, but fully awake. I think the mysticism of emptiness is sort of like that.

Of course, my first reaction was. " Wow! It's like Malevich on Miracle-Gro."

Joshua Johnson said...

I love this article Christopher. I've always been enchanted by the notion of a negative theology, but had never drawn the connection to Kabbalah. The relation to art, and a sort of romantic aestheticism makes a lot of sense-- I've been going over some Benjamin recently, and have been trying to think a bit about his mystical view of language, and found your article at the same time... a serendipitous coincidence. I wonder, however, at the territory that lies between this view of the world, and a more materialistic, scientific description of the universe. One seems to provide a more humanistic perspective, while the other resides in the glacial regions of a Spinozan rationality.

Joe Heaps said...

Nirvana is no-thing-ness, homey

Hungry Hyaena said...


Excellent point about the iconoclastic leanings of the early settlers. The more I learn about Protestantism, the more complex it seems. I suppose that's true of any subject, but the patrician WASP isn't the only caricature.

Even more interesting to me are your storm drain adventures. Because fear and deep anxiety can open into transcendental experience, I think that the combination of darkness and close quarters is ideal for inducing hallucinations. There are, of course, all sorts of rational explanations for those "trips," but I stridently reject the idea that nothing of value can come of them simply because they might be dismissed as a variety of displacement behavior.


I'm a proponent of humanism, too, although I'm leery of those populating the extreme wing, those "secular humanist" champions like Christopher Hitchens, who deny all relevance/value of the Spinozan conception.

In any case, the resurgence of interest in Spinoza and, more generally, in rigorous mysticism, is exciting. I do worry, however, that these realms offer the casual practitioner a ticket out of social responsibility. A marriage of mysticism with social commitment is therefore ideal.


True 'nough...but I'd argue, riffing on the above, that it is the Bodhisattva of Mahayana Buddhism, not Buddha, that most fully participates in the world.

Donald Frazell said...

Some people thionk too much, and live too little. Rothko did kill himself, not sure why, but sure didnt have much purpose i life. Dwelling constantly on onself is useless, and destructive, to oneself. Just as annoying, if not more so than someone who wants to pray. Really, turn the lights up on rotchko and what you got? Blah. Hardly greatt art, as art is filed with life, and yes, god. Viewing Rothcko is like contemplating ones own navel. ooooooommmmm

Hungry Hyaena said...

Donald Frazell:

I'm surprised that a photographer with an eye for subtly and non-traditional compositions would render such harsh, dismissive judgment with regard to Rothko. Furthermore, what, really, do you mean by claiming that Rothko "didn't have much purpose in life"?

I agree that "dwelling constantly on oneself is useless," but I don't believe that meditating (your "Om" reference) has anything to do with the individual practitioner. If approached earnestly, meditation is about connecting to the rest of it by exploding the self.

Donald Frazell said...

One Explodes oneself by getting OUT into nature, not internalizing focus, on what? There is nothing inside, except what we bring into ourselves. We are born as simply a set of potential skills and aptitudes, emotions and temperament. We are the sumof our decisions, who we hang ewith, what we do. there is no doing in Ooooommmmmm. It is relaxing, and clears the mind, as does prayer. But hiking and creating art, focusing on nature and its patterns and life, decay and growth, is so, So, SO much more.

Rothko is very imited. you dont have the light dial dimmed jsut right, it si what it is, a bunch of colored mud smeared about. I would FAR rather sit in a room of well lit Monets, now THATS life. And spirituality. I can think of many places better than what this appears. Hell, I got married at the Wayfarers Chapel, clear walls revealing nature, trees, sea, sky, SO much more. And it really is a chapel. If they didnt want it used as a spiritual center, why call it a chapel? Thats absurd. It is, and I can see it being a place of calm, and introspection. Thats fine. But lets not get carried away. Give me Yosemite Valley anyday.

It may sound vain,but I see a helluva lot more in my photos of Montana de Oro than any Rothko. Sorry, but he just aint all that. not bad, but a footnote to art history. Plenty of others far greater who get little press, give me Rufino Tamayo and Romaire Bearden anyday. Rothko about as intreesting as Botero, who actually is pretty god once I sw his stuff, live, it has a intersting glow. As does Rothko, when lit properly. But then, light does that. As a photographer thats what it is all about. Captured reflections of light. And as one I can speak about it authoritatively.

Again, Ansel Adams has more god and spirituality. I se ahole in a soul herre. Asking for god, for meaning, for life. But not finding it. There is a certain poetry to this, but he obviously failed, he took his own life. Edward Weston found more, his son, who was my only competitor as a photographer when I did my photos, in c. 1980, but photo people never understood him or me, they only bought Bretts photos becaues of his famous father and the f64 group being centered in their home of Carmel.

Its OK, but far from all this hubub. The complete lack of anything with longevity or substance in contemporary art has led to seeking out anything they can find with some inkling of eternity. even if shallow.
Seen better. In many places outside of the art world.

But would be a nice 15 minute break from the outside world, we all crave a little quiet, from thought and emotions also.

Art collegia delenda est

Donald Frazell said...

I will say that Jones just likes to make waves and publicity, likes to incite, and is not all that insightful. Sometimes he is just playing around however, just to get reactions. Been on his blog, and banned, with the silly Brits and their absurdly horrible "art", the Brits having lost all their comedic wit and self deprecating humor. Terribly self important "art", now.

And this is spiritual stuff, just cant stand such literalism, this fixation on The Word, the thing that has made the Jueo-Chritstian_Islamic such a cross to bear(Pun intended) They have much to offer, but the obsessive nature of word worship, that words ahve mystical meaning, when all they truly are is man made symbols, with no intrinsic value whatsoever.

Art has always been at its best when decidedly non literary. All modern art is based on music and poetry, that which suggests, flows, ties to nature and life. Not commands it, overwhlems it, gives unnatural power to the bearer of it. Michelangelos God creating the sun and moon is one of energy, raw power beyohd description, unable to capture or render in thought, it creates life and matter, with no mysticism involved at all. This si far closer to Modernism, its forunner actually, as were Goya, Turner, even early Renaissance frescos were more music and hymns to God, than revealing of The Word.

The Word is control, and that is evil incarnate. The attempt of man to ahrnass god, the life force, for our own purposes. Silly when you think about it, but the true impulse behind all mysticism. And absolute power corrupts absolutely. Man is weak, and not able to handle power.

So Rothkos chapel does have a sense of peace, as it is the absence of the word, absence of everything that is not god so that god can come into the man. But still a way to control god, and not living life as we are meant to. Becoming more by our actions and work. Building on what on has given us. I believe we create our souls, they are there, with what god has given us, but it is ours to make or break.

I dont believe in eternal life, but who knows? Not mine to say, or offer, or have. That is Gods, whatever that is. And Arts job to discover, to live. We attempt to gradually define Man, who we are, to uncover our purpose, to fulfill life, not take it for ourselves. WE come and go, ashes to ashes, but life goes on. It is humanity that matters, not the individual. Our contribution to man is all that matters, within gods creation.

Art collegia delenda est

Caril Chasens said...

Rothko Chapel...fascinating...

H.H....agree, agree, and agree..

Mordecai...c'mon, let 'em pray...

Religion, spirituality, art - we differ. Respect is often a good response. The ?god I don't believe in is not petty.

Phil said...


This is Phil from Tikkun. You recently referenced this post of yours to refute a point I made to Dave Belden about contemporary art. The point I had made to Dave was that contemporary art is often intentionally uncommunicative. You refuted my point of view, using Mark Rothko as your example of a contemporary artist whose work "communicates volumes."

I would like to continue this debate.

And so my question to you is, "Volumes of what?"

As cited in your own article, the range of subjective responses to Rothko's work demonstrates that no one knows exactly what the hell the man was trying to communicate.

In response to the visitors in the chapel who claim to see imagery of the crucifix in Rothko's paint, you say he "certainly didn't intend visitors to see Jesus Christ in his large canvases." But by what authority can you make such a bold statement? I could accept use of the word "probably" or "seemingly" in that statement, but the word "certainly" implies you know this for a fact. Were you in the room when these canvases were painted? If not, for all you know there could be pictures of crucifixes, airplanes, Barbie dolls, snake heads and Twinkies buried under the layers of paint on those canvases. You have no idea.

You imply that because Rothko claimed to have "religious experiences" that he therefore had "religious beliefs." But I have had French experiences although I am not French. Can I not have religious experiences and not be religious?

You are projecting your own conclusions and interpretations onto Rothko's work.

Since he left behind no quintessential explanation of his work, what choice do you have but to interpret it subjectively?

If Rothko had intended for us to know what he was communicating he would have been direct, specific and clear. The opposite of being direct, specific and clear is to be uncommunicative. Your article and the comments that follow it prove my point.

Hungry Hyaena said...

Thank you for commenting, Phil.

It seems that we may be seeking slightly different things from our respective experience(s) of art.

I champion the instruction to "show, don't tell." As I see it, successful art, like poetry, does not illustrate an idea or communicate a specific concept. Rather, it evokes ideas or feelings, even if the artist has specific ideas in mind. If the artist does intend the work to communicate a specific idea or group of ideas, the work might be called "didactic art" or, more accurately, "illustration." I believe that illustration is distinct from art, as it illustrates an idea, concept, or tale in a clear way.

I'll use my own work as a convenient example. I have a very specific idea of what each painting and drawing is about, but I'd be shocked (and a little disappointed) if all viewers interpreted my work in the same way. Our individual dreams, after all, are only partially shared by everyone else...and may be interpreted in a great many ways!

On a tangentially related note, I find it odd that so many contemporary artists and art writers label illustrative artwork - that is, art that is poetic, but incorporates illustrative technique - "illustration," intending the label as a pejorative. The label would be better attached to the didactic, conceptual work that remains en vogue, as those artworks are intended to "mean" or to "tell" something quite specific. Moreover, these didactic, conceptual works usually "explore" ideas that are already elucidated in philosophical or political essays (in better form). The art world's relatively recent dependence on "artist statements" - those "attached written notes" that Dave [Belden] mentioned in his post - betrays a pseudo-intellectual self-consciousness, an unsurprising result of the art world's becoming an arm of the luxury market and worrying that it has to "tell" viewers how intelligent it is.

With my perspective in mind, I've below responded to several points that you made.

You write, "You are projecting your own conclusions and interpretations onto Rothko's work. Since he left behind no quintessential explanation of his work, what choice do you have but to interpret it subjectively?"

True, but all art must be interpreted subjectively.

You write, "If Rothko had intended for us to know what he was communicating he would have been direct, specific and clear. The opposite of being direct, specific and clear is to be uncommunicative."

If Rothko had been "direct, specific, and clear," it's my opinion that he wouldn't have been making art. I'm hard-pressed to think of a single poet who isn't as interested in the individual reader's (or listener's) abstract and emotional association as they are the over-arching sentiment expressed. Similarly, Rothko is communicating clearly to each viewer; just what he's communicating, however, will vary wildly. Such is art.

We may be at semantic loggerheads. No harm done, if so. Everybody has their opinion, especially when it comes to the amorphous, irrational realms, like art or theology!

(Comment continued below)

Hungry Hyaena said...

You write, "In response to the visitors in the chapel who claim to see imagery of the crucifix in Rothko's paint, you say he "certainly didn't intend visitors to see Jesus Christ in his large canvases." But by what authority can you make such a bold statement? I could accept use of the word "probably" or "seemingly" in that statement, but the word "certainly" implies you know this for a fact. [...] You have no idea."

I appreciate your point, Phil, but, in fact, I do have an idea. Granted, my idea could be incorrect, but few honest art writers will insist, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that their "read" of a particular artwork or body of work is the one, true interpretation or meaning. All art and all art interpretation is, to some extent, subjective.

This is not a new phenomenon. Vasari, writing in the 16th century, was no less subjective, even though he generally knew what classical or Biblical narrative was being depicted in every painting he responded to. Art, like religion, is as much about individual experience and interpretive variation as it is about a recognized or shared story.

Still, I do apologize for my word choice, and I thank you for the suggested change.

You write, "As cited in your own article, the range of subjective responses to Rothko's work demonstrates that no one knows exactly what the hell the man was trying to communicate."

Or, as I see it, anyone (who is willing to look with an open mind) will know exactly what the man was communicating! Again, I think we're just approaching the work from very different angles. There's no such thing as consensus about art. ;)

trumbull73 said...

There's so much rubbish written about Rothko. Thank you for saying something intelligent.

The biggest thing about abstract art - and why it persists as a method of expression - is that it is essentially a mirror, exposing our own feelings, prejudices, failings and loves. It's like those myths and fairy tales where people see what they want to see in something or someone.

As vehicles for seeing one's self/conscious/soul, the paintings in the Rothko Chapel are ideal; the setting of quiet, focused religiosity is appropriate, too. This may have been at the root of Jones' observation, but if it's a fusion of art and architecture he's looking for, the Seagram's building is [was] another contender for the top spot.