The Rothko Chapel: The Dark Before the Dawn

By Rebecca A. Spears

Rothko_Chapel_ExteriorThe few years I lived in Houston’s Menil neighborhood, right behind the University of St. Thomas, I felt like I’d been invited to live in a sacred garden, a nearly prelapsarian environment.

It is a beautiful space, near the art museum known as the Menil Collection and its park, and bordered by several streets of Craftsman-style houses.

Yet while I lived in my “Menil house,” I was forced to learn more about darkness and my faith and how it might endure. Both my daughters, in their early twenties, were in trouble. They’d become entangled in bad relationships with jealous, controlling men. They’d begun abusing drugs.

During that time, I saw my daughters less and less; they seemed to be disappearing right before my eyes. I’d invite them to the house every couple of weeks or try to meet with one or both of them for coffee. Often they’d say yes, only to cancel at the last minute or forget to show up. Or when they did show up, they’d arrive with their drugged, unpredictable partners.

On a positive note, my friends loved my new space and were happy to stop by or spend the whole day with me there. In the fall, we could walk to the Greek or Italian festivals. Or we’d visit the Menil Collection or just sit on my front porch, enjoying the view—the park, the massive live oaks, and directly across the street, the Rothko Chapel. [Read more...]

While My Pen Gently Weeps

6742625959_af858306f8_mMy daughter Gracie was helping me prepare dinner one evening. We were doing the bœuf bourguignon from Virginia Willis’s amazing cookbook Bon Appetit, Y’all, which puts a southern spin on every recipe—this one, by adding bacon.

As Gracie stood on her cooking stool and crisped the bacon at the stovetop, the aroma filled the kitchen and mixed with the onions I was cutting at the counter. She talked over the bacon’s hiss and sizzle about being a chef someday, quitting cross country, girls at school she liked and didn’t like, boys.

I drifted as she chattered, but snapped back to attention when she said, “And if you’re going to be a writer—”

“I am a writer,” I cut in. I wasn’t sure how we’d come to this. [Read more...]

There’s No Original Art

scarfWhat a joy to be knitting something beautiful for a woman I don’t know and never will.
She’s a guest at my church’s soup kitchen, where every guest gets a gift at Christmastime.

The yarns are a rich red and orange wool interlaced with red-orange nylon eyelash.
She’ll say “how pretty —at least I hope she will.

Maybe it will become her favorite scarf,
make her feel special, dressy, worthy in a way that the world doesn’t usually value her.

But maybe she’ll leave it by mistake on the bus,
where it will ride up and down town alone on the seat
until a quick turn slides it to the floor.

The next passenger doesn’t notice it caught in his boot as he steps off the bus.

The red-orange lies limp in the gutter’s blackened snow.
A child walking by with her mother points with “Oh look! Can I have it?”
“No, we don’t take dirty things from the street.”
[Read more...]

Francis and the Via Negativa Part 2

Continued from yesterday.

In retrospect, my reaction to Pope Francis’s election makes so much more sense when I consider that during my tenure at the college my artistic guiding lights were St. Francis and the painter Francis Bacon. About as far from a saint as one can imagine, Bacon is infamous for showing us things that perhaps we would rather not see: nightmarish self-portraits, unnerving studies of screaming popes, and writhing and wrestling biomorphic forms.

But Bacon was not interested in merely horrifying us. He was painting, as he said in an interview, to “excite himself”; spreading paint in a way that was expressive of his anger, his lust, and his love of painting. In a rare explanatory moment, he revealed to an interviewer that his numerous paintings that reference crucifixion were not religious but “an act of man’s behavior to another.”

Some moralists have said that his paintings are corrupting and harmful, but I’ve always felt that they do no more harm than if one took to hanging around a butcher shop or meat packing plant. To me, his paintings, like all great art, make us confront essential questions about the human condition.

My rather vague and unrefined view of Bacon was tested when, in 2004, at a conference at Notre Dame on the future of art in a Post-Christian world, I attended a keynote delivered by the eminent philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre titled “What Makes Religious Art Religious?”  Using examples of paintings by El Greco and Mark Rothko, he made the claim that what makes a painting religious is not subject matter but when a “religious intention is communicated to the viewer.”

Over the course of about forty-five minutes, MacIntyre thoroughly supported his thesis, and then impressively fielded questions bent on picking apart his thesis for another thirty minutes.

[Read more...]

Art Is Long, Life Is Short

My wife and I were in Chicago over the summer, and as part of our tourist rounds, we of course visited the Art Institute, which is far too large to take in in a single day. As happens every time I go to a large museum, by the time we walked out I was in a state of melancholy existential astonishment.

One installation was a meticulous recreation of the cave paintings in Lascaux, France, some of them estimated to be as much as 20,000 years old.

Until we reached the modern art, all the millennia of individual creators represented in the gallery were long dead, many not just dead but anonymous.

In the American galleries, I viewed the famous American Gothic which I first encountered in a board game in childhood called Masterpiece. The game was ostensibly about art collecting, which doesn’t sound like much fun for kids. You gather cards with famous paintings on them attach cards with a monetary value by the luck of the draw. Players buy, sell, and trade art. Several fraud cards float around, so you never know if someone is trying to pass off a forgery on you. The goal of the game is amassing the most expensive collection without regard for aesthetics. [Read more...]