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In the Darkness, Light

Mark Rothko, No. 7 (1964, National Gallery of Art)

available at Amazon
Morton Feldman, Rothko Chapel,
UC Berkeley Chamber Chorus
The final installment of this year's artistic meditations for the Triduum (see Holy Thursday and Good Friday) comes from an unlikely source, the installation of Mark Rothko's late black-on-black paintings in the tower room of the National Gallery of Art's East Building. Well, perhaps not so unlikely -- Rothko had just finished these seven paintings when he received the commission from John and Dominique de Menil to decorate a Catholic chapel in Houston. As a result, he made larger versions of the same idea to be installed in the octagonal room (the original architectural design by Philip Johnson was completed by Howard Barnstone and Eugene Aubry) now known as the Rothko Chapel. The artist attributed his inspiration for the black theme -- darkness as light -- to the window of blackness in a late Matisse painting, Porte-fenêtre à Collioure (1914, now in the collection of the Centre Pompidou).

The truth is that, when you look at these paintings up close (for those unable to make it to the museum, there is an online slideshow), they are more complex than the term black-on-black describes. They are right in line with most of Rothko's abstract work, in that a black (in one case, brown) rectangle hovers over backgrounds of slightly different colors and, also like many other Rothkos, even more colors are masked underneath the uppermost layer of paint. In many cases, those lighter hues glow around the edge of the central rectangle, like a halo or the corona of sunlight at the edge of an eclipse. Spending some time sitting in the trapezoidal room at the top of the East Building made me recall that the focus of the Tenebrae service is, after all, darkness: the darkness into which Christ cast himself, offering himself up for a ruination to be compared with that of Jerusalem razed by its attackers.

Other Articles:

Blake Gopnik, National Gallery exhibit challenges traditional view of Rothko's black paintings (Washington Post, March 14)

Bill O'Leary, Alfred Molina and Mark Rothko's Strokes of Genius (Washington Post, March 27)
The symbolism often seen in the Tenebrae service is that candles (and other lights) are gradually extinguished, until the final candle is carried from the room, leaving utter darkness. The sense of entering an otherworldly space is heightened in this exhibit because the museum, quite brilliantly, is showing the Rothko paintings while playing a recording of Morton Feldman's Rothko Chapel, the piece commissioned for the 1971 opening of the Rothko Chapel. (The recording is a recently re-released one from the New Albion label, linked above, paired with Feldman's Why Patterns?.) It is one of Feldman's more tonal, and therefore more easily accessible, works, and it plays off the Catholic setting of the chapel in its use of antiphonal choirs, forming clusters of notes or trading wordless motifs, with a viola's solo lines and touches of celesta and percussion filling the gaps. (For a thoughtful appreciation of Feldman's absorption of influences from the New York abstract painters, see this article by Alex Ross. You can also listen to the whole thing online.) The whole experience suits the Holy Saturday conclusion to the Triduum, where even in the selections from the Lamentations assigned to the day, there is a glimmer of light in the agonized darkness: "The Lord is my portion, said my soul, because of that I shall wait for him" (from Lamentations 3: 22-29).

In the Tower: Mark Rothko will be on view at the National Gallery of Art through January 2, 2011.

1 comment:

Mark Barry said...

This looks like a good reason to get to the city.