These works are a series of acts best comprehended in groups or as a continuity. Except as a created revelation, a new experience, they are without value. It is my desire that they be kept in groups as much as possible and remain so. … So I am in the strange position of seeking an environment for the work and the small means wherein I’ll be free to continue the “act.”
Houston’s Rothko Chapel is a small unremarkable building set just off a suburban corner, adjoining a series of plain, low houses and a college campus. Within it, however, is a world entirely itself, as real as the houses and classrooms surrounding it but an enclosure of myth and tragedy. The fourteen maroon-and-black canvases inside invite absorption into the space, originally designed by Philip Johnson, dedicated to their exhibition. Famously non-representative, they achieve the distillation of myth and tragedy in the sense that Nietzsche wrote in The Birth of Tragedy, the book that of all Nietzsche’s work was most influenced by Schopenhauer:
Insofar as the subject is the artist, however, he has already been released from his individual will, and has become, as it were, the medium through which the one truly existent subject celebrates his release in appearance. … Only insofar as the genius in the act of artistic creation coalesces with this primordial artist of the world, does he know anything of the eternal essence of art; for in this state he is, in a marvelous manner, like the weird image of the fairy tale which can turn its eyes at will and behold itself; he is at once subject and object, at once poet, actor, and spectator.
Within this chapel, and within the bodies of work by artists such as Wagner, Syberberg, Beckett, Feldman, Rothko and Barker, we find a new definition for the tragic epic. Ordinarily the word “epic” is treated as genre, or formal description, but more precisely it is the representation of the will’s noumenal cosmology through phenomenal means. In this sense “epic” ties Homer’s poems to Beckett’s. As a cosmology the body of work is necessarily precise and detailed, requiring more than a mere story or anecdote – or a single painting – for its full expression. It requires that imaginative extension besides.
Lest we balk at the word “tragedy” itself as mere genre, let us consider it here as a dynamic, a consciousness, a perspective, rather than a form. The epic artist insists upon tragedy’s expression through lengthy duration in time and and expansive extension in space. (Leaving aside for the moment the idea of “comic epics,” which will have far more numerous defenders, unlike the tragic epic, which in post-capitalism, unsellable, stands alone.) In terms of duration and space, the expression is extensive. Wagner’s Ring or Tristan und Isolde; Syberberg’s seven-hour-plus Hitler: A Film from Germany; the four hours of Beckett’s dramatic output after 1962 (these small plays like canvases; arranged in a group, they display as epic a vision as Rothko’s Chapel); Barker’s day-long The Ecstatic Bible and other plays. The extension through time is deliberate. The description of cosmology, especially as an aesthetic project, necessitates time and patience.
Extension through space may be another matter. As impressive as it is, the Rothko Chapel is not a large building. In a letter to Dominique de Menil, Mrs. Gifford Phillips reported on a conversation she had with Rothko: that Rothko had described to her his project of one-man museums in “small, very simple buildings – made of cinderblock, I remember that – scattered throughout the country in small towns. And each building would be an homage to a particular artist. One would contain Reinhardts, one Rothkos …” The size of the arena seems to be unimportant; what is essential is that the work seem to possess the space entire, to blend with it: to express that all-encompassing cosmos.
I have discussed before my affection for small spaces, for the fifty-seat black-box theatre. Perhaps the root of my affection lies in the ability for the work to more easily possess a small space than a large one. The epic artist lays siege not only to contemporary consciousness but to environment as well. Barker’s exordia, the preliminary mise-en-scene which he presents to the audience entering the performance space, is a means of possessing that space, of breaking the continuity between foyer and playing area. The foyer to the Rothko Chapel is plain and functional. (As is the foyer to the theatre possessed by that other epic artist, Richard Foreman, who has spent the last few decades working in a similarly small space, smaller than Rothko’s Chapel; Foreman also presents a stage picture to the audience as they enter, a sculpture of objects and setting that the audience can begin to explore.) Syberberg’s sole setting is a soundstage; bereft of exteriors, the film takes place in a world as self-contained as the crystal ball containing Edison’s Black Maria that forms a motif to the Hitler film.
These artists invite us in to these cosmologies, these worlds. In the case of Rothko’s Chapel, these cosmologies are shorn of traditional figuration to reveal the essence of tragedy: beyond names and story (so many artists make the mistake of thinking that a mere recycling of a story or the use of a name like Oedipus is a means of confronting the tragedies that lay behind these stories and figures; these artists lay claim to them in a desperate attempt to lend their own work significance), but inherent in the very real instruments of the art form: the pigment, the canvas, the body, the sound. The substance lies in the real, the world of the phenomenon. Rothko warns of this fetishization of story and name:
If our titles recall the known myths of antiquity, we have used them again because they are the eternal symbols upon which we must fall back to express basic psychological ideas. They are the symbols of man’s primitive fears and motivations, no matter in which land or what time, changing only in detail but never in substance. …
Our presentation of these myths however must be in our own terms which are at once more primitive and more modern than the myths themselves. … The myth holds us, therefore, not thru its romantic flavor, not thru the remembrance of the beauty of some by gone age, not thru the possibilities of fantasy, but because it expresses to us something real and existing in ourselves, as it was to those who first stumbled upon the symbols to give them life.
In his late work, Rothko’s titles too were shorn of mythic resonance, often mere descriptions of the colors within the painting. But he still insisted upon the tragic resonance. And his work was prone to the same kinds of misunderstandings as Beckett’s. Once, an observer called Rothko’s canvases of bright yellows and oranges optimistic “celebrations.” Rothko responded that these colors, to him, were the colors of an inferno. (This is something I must remember the next time somebody describes the “hope” that Beckett’s work elicits from them.)
The contemporary epic, tragic vision is rare. The comic can be sold; everybody likes to laugh and have a good time; I do too. But the more lacerating self-scrutiny that tragedy invites is of a different nature and inheres in this cosmology: in the imaginative creation of a world like the Rothko Chapel, of a space in which we can feel those things that have remained foreign or hidden to us in the spaces outside the chapel or the theatre. What emerges is not some vague abstract sense of hope or happiness, but the sense of life’s possibilities: ecstasy in recognition. On my first visit to the chapel I carried in my arms my new daughter, far too young to know where she was or why she was there; she will not remember this visit. But I hope (with a true, fleshed, real hope born of that recognition) that, when she’s older, she will vaguely sense that, one day early in her life, she experienced those canvases, that silence, that dim light. And that early in her life she will have experienced, will have been given access to, will have been encouraged to seek out such consecrated aesthetic spaces that give her entry into her own unexpected imagination of the world.