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Cold Spaces :: Rothko Chapel & Tending, (Blue)


I can think of two spaces in Texas that put me at risk of hypothermia: Rothko Chapel in Houston, and Tending, (Blue) in Dallas.

I’ve visited both. I’ve sat silently inside their cold mouths and, in both spaces, felt a pang of gratitude for finally being spit out into warm air.

Rothko Chapel:

Tending, (Blue):

But these spaces aren’t cold in the same way that climate-controlled homes of suburbia are cold. In fact, Tending, (Blue) is open-aired. James Turrell, the artist, considered it a skyspace.

I walked through these frosty glass doors and down a purple-lit hall that funnelled me into an inner sanctum with canted stone walls making up the 4 sides of a square. The walls also served as a bench. I sat down and leaned back and looked up through a smaller square-cutout in the ceiling:

Beyond this aperture, the sky:

James Turrell intended this piece to be slowly digested. He has a problem with the idea that people spend a few seconds in front of a masterpiece hanging in a museum and then move on to another work. Turrell wants his art to be lived.

And, to that extent, he succeeded magnificently in Tending, (Blue). I sat on that stone bench longer than I’ve looked at most art. And I had some deep thoughts.

DEEP THOUGHTS: What happens when it rains or snows in Dallas? How often do they clean this place? What would my scream sound like beyond the aperture? If the walls were narrower, there would be a time of day when the sun would shine directly onto the floor, mercilessly. Isn’t there a form of torture where people are forced to sit under the venomous sun in a confined space, without respite, until their skin boils? It would be nice to be here at night with my girl. Is the angle right? Have they ever had concerts in here? I imagine a violin would sound pretty. Or are the acoustics not that great? Me and my girl and a cherry violin.

But not even the company of this last thought could keep my brain from feeling deep isolation. Melancholy flooded the chamber. I looked around at all of the bare rock and didn’t like the way I couldn’t breathe. There was something unclear about Turrell’s art. Something like a big fat WHY?

This place felt cultish. This place felt too extreme for balance. I teetered. I rubbed my arms to kindle warmth.

Then I got up and got on with the rest of my life.

Before visiting Tending, (Blue), I visited Rothko Chapel several times. I grew up with an inexplicable affinity for Mark Rothko:

His colors gave me color. I don’t think I ever got much out of his artwork other than a sense of color and emotion and how the two are inextricably linked and can clash like warm and cold fronts in the weather system.

At the very least, Rothko, give me some color! Don’t take color away from me, like you do inside Rothko Chapel:

This is Mark Rothko’s idea of non-denominational art. Massive black canvases with a muted color hue. I applaud the eyes who can see anything other than depression in this dreadfully cold space.

I forced myself to sit down on one of the benches. I tried to give the space a chance to communicate. I looked up at the oculus and had some deep thoughts.

DEEP THOUGHTS: The use of natural light is pretty neat. I like the way it’s splayed into 8 beams. An octagon: the shape of a stop sign. It’s as if this hunk of concrete were saying, Light, stop! But Light won’t listen. Light does what it wants. Light is protean. It is shapeshifting. It is divine. And what about that gigantic black painting in front of me? And what about that other gigantic black painting? And what about that gigantic black painting over there? Is Rothko trying to tell me something? Do all people who come here to meditate or pray or worship before these canvases realize that true Light comes from the sun and not manmade creations? Is Rothko forcing me to follow the only true Light there is instead of some manmade religion or art?

Then I got terribly cold. I rubbed my arms to kindle warmth. I tied my shoelace and hurried outside.

The Russian abstract painter died a year before the completion of Rothko Chapel. He committed suicide in his kitchen. A response to deep-seeded depression.

::2nd, 4th, and 5th photos pilfered from Diorama Sky::

July 20, 2010 11:08 am

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