Rothko Chapel: silence, contemplation, and art in a busy city

8 03 2011

Tourists have crowded into the half-dark of the enormous Romanesque church.
Vault opening behind vault and no perspective.
A few candle flames flickered.
An angel whose face I couldn’t see embraced me
and his whisper went all through my body:
“Don’t be ashamed to be a human being, be proud!
Inside you one vault after another opens endlessly.
You’ll never be complete, and that’s as it should be.”
Tears blinded me
as we were herded out into the fiercely sun-lit piazza,
together with Mr. and Mrs. Jones, Herr Tanaka and Signora Sabatini;
within each of them vault after vault opened endlessly.
 
Tomas Tranströmer
Trans. Robert Bly

Late Thursday night, as Carter Abel and I [Matt] walked down Shearn St. on our way back from a lovely man-date,  we noticed the strange quietness around us. It was just after 10 pm, the traffic on Houston Avenue and the adjacent freeways had subsided from the stream of white noise, sirens, and rumbles, to a sputter of cars. We could hear our own feet on the sidewalk, and the chirp of crickets replaced the roar of engines.

The city is a noisy place, and I have no doubt that it has an effect on the minds of its denizens. Detaching from the privilege of a private vehicle has removed the seal of noise and choice of what to hear–radio, cd, silence–and subjected me to the barrage of noise that the urban poor face: the bus, for example–hissing of hydraulics, recorded voices and beeps signaling stops, the occasional person with headphone-music that the whole bus can hear.

In January I made a small Sabbath retreat to the Rothko Chapel, which I had intended on visiting for the sake of seeing the work of an artist I admire, and wound up finding a place of silence and solace. I had many thoughts about the art and the chapel as a work–but what stuck with me was the sudden and total silence in comparison to the busyness and noisiness of Houston. The paintings within the chapel embody this place of silence, their composition based merely on color and texture, removes a layer of narrative noise that we normally seek in art–a direction of what to think and feel. In contrast to classical chapel-art–Michelangelo for example–where there is a narrative arc, Rothko’s pieces dwell in emptiness, much like contemplative prayer.

Thinking about silence challenged me to work on my Vacancies paintings without the accompaniment of headphones–as was my habit–subjecting myself to noise around, the people milling around Taft, and to my own thoughts. This, I will admit had it’s good and bad sides: opening up more conversation with people, while having to listen to some . . . interesting music choices by the baristas. It also has spurred my thinking about how large the role of silence in art is–how rhythm is built just as much on silence as sound, what note is hit as when nothing is played, just as negative space plays a role in a painter’s composition. For Lent, which begins this week, I am going to make a commitment not to use headphones at all–for a few reasons, one of which is this exploration of silence.

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