I visited the Rothko Chapel* for a while this morning in an attempt to soothe some inner torment.
I don’t meditate, though I have managed to have some meditative experiences while listening to recorded music. (I seem to remember some of the earliest accompanied by Pink Floyd’s A Saucerful of Secrets.) I’m not religious or particularly spiritual, either; most of the profound moments of my life have come alone outdoors or at concerts (another variety of alone). But things in my mind had gotten tangled into knots and sometimes anything's worth a try.
The chapel opened as a non-sectarian meditation space in 1971. It is an austere octagonal room dominated by grays of all tint and depth. Indirect sunlight from above lights the room brightly on clear days like this one. There are fourteen large Rothko canvasses on the walls, most in dark slate. The north wall is the nominal front of the chapel with a triptych whose center painting is a huge rectangular purple bruise.
On first sight, the Rothkos might seem to be solid colors. But they’ve been painted; they have texture, irregularities, varied hues. Hanging for thirty-five years has given some wave to the canvases, too. So there’s a lot to look at in these paintings.
Sitting in front of Rothko’s mammoth black and purple windows, I couldn't go blank. My mind wrote a running commentary. I tried to stop it, but I’m so used to journalizing my thoughts that I couldn’t.
Unable to turn my mind off or channel my thoughts, I stared ahead at Rothko’s monoliths. After a while, something looked back at me. From the purple panel emerged something like a crude straight-line drawing of a voudon spirit or an Afro-Cuban orisha. The bruised face watched me, annoyed. My foot fell asleep.
A couple came in. He led a circuit of the room, taking in the Rothkos as museum pieces. She followed in flip-flops. (I had worn flip-flops, too, but mine were off and hers were flapping.) After noting that all of the Rothkos looked basically the same and spotting the cushions on the floor for meditating, he decided to sit down. The cushions were spaced apart, so she took up one on the opposite side. Seated on the floor, he lost his self-assurance. They looked furtively at each other. He looked at Rothko; she continued to look at him. Within a minute they were gone. You could almost see them cross the item off a list:
I was there for a reason. I was searching for peace - or direction, or something. As it turns out, you can't search for peace. I didn’t answer any lingering questions of existence, either. But some anger melted away and I did stop some of the voices in my head, which had been getting frenzied.
Clouds dimmed the incoming light. The gray room took on a glower, foreshadowing Northern winters to come. When the sun came back, a new purple shape foregrounded in the center panel: female lips, broadly shaped into a grin, with dancing eyes above. I left calm with hope for renewal.
* I'm embarrased to add here that I have not yet heard Morton Feldman's Rothko Chapel.