You walk into an immense, essentially empty room. It has eight walls. An overhead skylight provides the only illumination. In the centre of the room are rows of simple, wooden benches. On the walls are paintings. There are fourteen of them. Each is rectangular with a few large, rectangular, slightly irregular blotches of brilliant pure colour. It's an eerie feeling. In spite of the art, your first feelings are those of sensory deprivation. You have the sense of having returned to the womb. You sit down, silently, all alone, overwhelmed not by fatigue but by an emotional sterility you've never felt before. It's as if you have begun a fast. As the minutes pass and you contemplate your surroundings, you have the sensation that you are purging your very soul. You begin to feel like you're not looking at art so much as being drawn into it, becoming a part of it, then feeling as if it is becoming a part of you. You begin to loose all notions of time and space. It's like a supernatural Disney ride into your own psyche. You forget which century you occupy, or that you're in Houston, Texas, and that you have, out of curiosity, wondered into the Rothko Chapel, even . And when you leave, you have the feeling that, for the first time in your life, that you have begun to understand Mark Rothko.
Mark Rothko is classed as a Colour Field painter. The chapel works were all done in the years 1955 and 1956. Colour Field painting grew out of Abstract Expressionism, which grew out of Russian abstraction, Dutch de Stijl painting, and French Cubism, stirred, blended, shaken up, and splattered all over New York City following the Second World War by a small group of hard-drinking, hard-living, hard-driving men and women bent on cleansing the accumulated grime of centuries of figurative art from themselves and their cumulative painting. It is hard art, and Rothko's is, perhaps, the hardest, especially if one seeks to see and understand his work in the time honoured tradition of art criticism and appreciation espoused by high school art teachers, college art history professors, and newspaper art critics. If you travel this road past the works of Mark Rothko on the walls of art museums you will come away feeling cheated. It will seem empty.
Did you ever pick up a cup and try to drink from it only to find it was empty? Remember the feeling? You reflexively stare into it in disbelief and disappointment. But it is not empty. You have just tasted of the most vital commodity on earth, something that you could not survive without for more than a few minutes--air. Rothko is like that. You must taste his work, feel it, experience it. Breathe it in, savour it, like a deep breath of fresh air, marvelling at the heady, exhilarating feeling, and then the satisfying sensation of exhaling. It's not a religious experience. It's something more personal than that. One's religious beliefs are taught, they come externally, just like most art. Feeling Rothko comes from inside. It's more primal, more instinctive, and totally intuitive. It's a trite phrase in art, but unfortunately it seems to be the only avenue of expression that truly sums up Rothko--it's an emotional experience.