Over the years, I’ve seen a number of Mark Rothko paintings. I’ve visited them in museums in San Francisco, New York, and Los Angeles. And as I tried to stand quietly before the paintings, I have often become conscious of the artificial environment—a Rothko hanging next to a Pollock like a guest at a cocktail party—and I have been distracted by onlookers jostling at my elbow, fiddling with their headsets.
Seeing a painting in an art museum can feel like seeing a stuffed coyote in a science museum. The creature is striking, beautiful, and even surprising, but it is not a wild creature living in its own habitat. Or, perhaps, it is like trying to have a private conversation at a cocktail party. With so many distractions, it’s difficult to hear what the artist is trying to say.
About twenty-six years ago, I wrote my undergraduate thesis on the paintings of Mark Rothko. When my professor, James Breslin, showed us slides of purple and black paintings from the Rothko Chapel, I thought, “How can that be anything?”
Still, many years ago, I put visiting the chapel on my bucket list. Then, this last Spring, I finally made the trip. I flew to Houston, rented a car, and followed Siri to 3900 Yupon Street.
When I pulled up to the humble brick building that makes up the Rothko Chapel, I said to myself, “That’s it?” It looked like a boiler room on a college campus. A disappointment.
But once I stepped inside, it felt different. The space opened up. The room was silent. Light streamed down from above. Few people if any were in the room. And the paintings, monumental in size, reveled in their freedom.
I moved close to them. Allowed myself to feel immersed in their presence. It was like looking into a mirror that absorbed my image instead of reflecting it. It was a kind of nothingness. And everything. It was unnerving.
Then it struck me. Here, for the first time, though I had seen many Rothko paintings in museums, I was finally seeing one in the wild—in its native habitat where it could really live and breathe.
While at the chapel, I purchased the book Mark Rothko, From the Inside Out, written by his son Christopher Rothko. After I returned to California, I sat down with the book and read the first essay. That night, I had a dream about my dead father.
In the dream, my dad was standing at the kitchen door of my childhood home. It was a Dutch door. The top half was open. It was night. My father was staring into the darkness. I asked him, “Do you have a message for me?” He replied, “Do you have a message for me?”
It’s no mistake that I had this dream after visiting the chapel and reading the essay. The conversation I had with my father in the dream is like the private conversation I had with those paintings in the silence of the chapel. I asked, “Do you have a message for me?” and the paintings replied, “Do you have a message for me?”