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The Atrium of Melancholia

"Shining white air/ trembling
white light/
reflected in the white/
flat sea"
- scrawled by Cy Twombly in charcoal on a painting, The Cy Twombly Gallery

Yesterday I spent the day in the Houston Arts District, exploring the Rothko Chapel, The Menil Collection, and The Cy Twombly Gallery. The time under the canopy of spreading oaks allowed new ideas to flow: fresh thoughts into visual and emotional fields of vision. I noticed one thing in particular about engaging with art - even if you are in the company of others, art is a singular private experience. Whatever the "it" of art is - the absorption of the media, the contemplation of shape and design, the shift in thinking - this occurs within. An awareness born of solitude.

The Rothko Chapel is a simple brick and stone octagon structure, an empty interior illuminated by diffuse light that is absorbed silently by painted panels of black (not true black but in fact many colors) suspended on the walls both in singular and triptych arrangements. The paintings are faced by simple benches. The only media is a selection of Holy texts from religions around the world arraigned on a bench outside the sanctuary. The chapel is meant to welcome all, a place free of dogma or judgment, an invitation to meditation. On this day, workers noisily scraped and dragged chairs out of the interior from a lecture held the previous night. The space was violated both by noise and indifference and disregard. Disturbed, I walked close to one of the Rothko panels and and simply stood, resting my eyes rest in the many dark hues and shapes suggested in the black-not-black largesse. Solitude was lost to me within the room itself yet cupped within the painting, and I drank it in.

I thought of words hand-scrawled across one of Cy Twombly's panels. Yes, here we are, "in the atrium of melancholia." The Rothko Chapel is an altogether different space than the sepulchral space Cy Twombly designed. His gallery houses a narrative of paint and poetry, mega-size panels of white paint freely imbued with shapes and hints of color, bits of hand-written Rilke and broken, nuanced thoughts of his own. I came back to that phrase - an atrium of melancholia. The words suggest a mood of inward ache, yet openness as well, as an atrium is to growth and greening. Perhaps the greenhouse of insight and awareness seeds in the dark? Were Rothko and Twombly, spaces of dark and light, circling the same understanding? A conversation with my daughter came to mind, that when we feel ourselves entering a growth phase we seek to go apart. Perhaps then art invites us to "go apart," to grow.

There is so much more to say about this, and I will revisit these thoughts soon, but let me leave you with this idea: Art invites us into not the framed displayed work itself, but into ourselves. The artist gives us the gift of technique, talent, and insight not as a "work," but as a catalyst to new thinking. What you take from art is not what the artist gives you, but what you give back to what you see. Art, It seems to me, is an experience that takes place within. Like poetry, one person's meaningful art is not necessarily another's. We find our own talismans. Experiences through and with art which represent inner unformed languages within the atrium of the self. Through our senses we journey. Go happily.

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