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QUINTESSENCE

Of Talismans and Atriums


I had the opportunity to revisit the Houston Arts District, exploring the Rothko Chapel, The Menil Collection, and The Cy Twombly Gallery. This time spent immersed in great art under a canopy of spreading oaks encompassed visual and emotional fields of vision. Engaging with art, even in the company of others, remains a private singular experience. Whatever the "it" of art is - absorption of the media, the contemplation of shape and design, a shift in thinking - occurs from inner awareness.

The Rothko Chapel, if you haven't been, is a brick and stone octagon structure. Compact, plain, and lacking in adornment or outward ostentation. A selection of sacred texts from religions around the world are displayed on a bench outside the sanctuary. The chapel itself meant to be a place free of dogma or judgment, an invitation to meditation. One leaves bright Houston sunlight and enters the chapel through darkened glass doors. Inside, an intimate, silent interior of deep subdued natural light diffused through textured linen across the ceiling. Rothko's panels of dark, nearly black paint (not true black but composed of the weight and somberness of dense, layered color) hang suspended from unadorned walls in singular and triptych arrangements. Each painting faces a low bench for contemplation placed to form an inner octagon. The paintings loom in the dim light. The chapel holds all of it: the barely-there light, the dark panels, silence.

I walked close to one of the Rothko panels and and simply stood, resting in the dark hues, the mysterious shapes in the black-not-black strokes of the artist's brush. Meditation. Contemplation. The sacred within. I thought of another artist, the words hand-scrawled across one of Cy Twombly's expansive wall canvases - "In the atrium of melancholia."

The Rothko Chapel is an altogether different form of quiet than the sepulchral white space Cy Twombly designed for his own work. Walking distance from the Rothko Chapel, Twombly's gallery houses a bold narrative of paint and poetry: mega-sized panels of white paint energetically imbued with shapes and hints of color, hand-written lines of poetry from Rilke, and nuanced, fragmented thoughts of the artist's own. An atrium of melancholia. These words come back to me later in the Rothko Chapel with their suggestion of mood, an inward ache, openness. An atrium opens to light, growth, and greening. Perhaps Rothko and Twombly, in these oppositional spaces of dark and light, circle the same understanding.

Shining white air/ trembling
white light/
reflected in the white/
flat sea

- scrawled in charcoal on a painting, Cy Twombly, The Cy Twombly Gallery

There is so much more to say about this, but let me leave with this idea: Art invites us into ourselves. What we take from art is not what the artist frames on the wall, but what we give to what we see, feel, experience. We find our own talismans. Art is an experience that takes place within, in the atrium of the self.
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