In my early 20’s a very close friend of mine tried to open my eyes to the beauty of Mark Rothko. Unfortunately, while he was trying to teach me about color field theory and the phenomenology of looking, I was caught up in the drama of Modigliani. To be fair, Rothko is not for everyone but because it was so important to him, every time I went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Menil or any other museum, I would stare at the Rothkos and hear my friend’s plea for patience: Joy, just have the patience to stare at it. It will reveal itself to you. I knew that with all the written and visual research he had done on those seemingly still color-block canvases, there had to be something there.
While Rothko was quiet and intense, I wanted Modigliani’s romance and passion. While Rothko required patience and sure footedness, I wanted the abandon of Modigliani’s uneven lines and paint. And so it took me some time to see the complex simplicity of Rothko. Even more time and maturity to see that in the same way Rothko painted nearly the same canvas over and over again, my own life with its repetitive days also looked identical yet, like the paintings, felt different upon studied contemplation.
To this day, I still think of him each time I see a Rothko and, though I lack the patience to appreciate them the way he does, Rothko reminds me that there is art I do not understand yet. Art waiting to be uncovered as I continue to grow. More importantly, Rothko reminds me that sometimes I need someone else to explain beauty to me so I can expand beyond my own sensibilities.
When, after many years of not seeing each other, my friend came to Houston on business. I was so happy when he could break away from his meetings so I could take him to the Rothko Chapel. Dedicated in 1971, the Chapel is a sacred space that welcomes people of all faiths and is considered one of the most peaceful spaces in the world. Inside are large murals painted by Rothko and benches and cushions for people to sit on in order to meditate, pray or simply reflect. The mood in the space is sombre and the canvases have faded to a gray and black tone, Rothko’s famous mediation between colors almost indeterminable in some instances. While it does not seem like a space for jubilation, the vaulting ceiling, crystalline quiet and expansive space creates room in your soul so that when you exit from the heavy doors, there might be more room cleared away for happiness than before you walked in.
The Rothko Chapel is one of the most special places in Houston. If you haven’t gone, you must but, as my friend would tell you, have patience. Sometimes beauty takes time to be revealed.