Rothko Chapel, Houston

The truly great ones are fresh continuously, repeatedly. Like a painting you can sit in front of for hours and never fully grasp.

When I was just beginning to study art, I asked my professor about Mark Rothko. He and de Kooning were the giants of the generation of artists who inspired my teachers, and they were both spoken of with palpable reverence. When I asked the naif’s question of why, my teacher simply said, “Go to the museum and sit in front of a Rothko painting for one hour. Then let’s talk.”

Simple exercise, and the perfect way to introduce a newbie to what has since that day been a guiding influence in my view of how the visual experience can transform consciousness. Rothko didn’t want spiritual dimensions attributed to his work, and yet he knew he was touching into something so profound it had no reliable words to describe it. And that experience still happens to me. When many of his paintings are gathered together as they are at the Rothko Chapel in Houston or in the Rothko room at the Tate Modern in London, it is the visual equivalent of breaking the vibration level of what the human ear can hear. Utterly exquisite but also utterly intense.

I first read Emerson when I was 12 or 13, along with the awakening that was my encounter with Walden. I took that 19th century Concord crowd on as my cotravelers and like-minded forebears, and I wrote about them and their work whenever I had a term paper assignment. Amazingly, rereading Thoreau and Emerson later in life has convinced me that their real message was lost on my adolescent mind. They write so poignantly to the wizened, the well traveled and well worn, the “I know a thousand ways it doesn’t work” crowd. I could hardly imagine what I was thinking when I was 15 and their work spoke so deeply to me. Prescient foreknowledge of who I would be at a later point in time? Who knows.

Here are a few memorable paragraphs from Emerson’s Nature, published in 1836.

The problem of restoring to the world original and eternal beauty, is solved by the redemption of the soul. The ruin or the blank, that we see when we look at nature, is in our own eye. The axis of vision is not coincident with the axis of things, and so they appear not transparent but opake. The reason why the world lacks unity, and lies broken and in heaps, is, because man is disunited with himself. He cannot be a naturalist, until he satisfies all the demands of the spirit. Love is as much its demand, as perception. Indeed, neither can be perfect without the other. In the uttermost meaning of the words, thought is devout, and devotion is thought. Deep calls unto deep. But in actual life, the marriage is not celebrated. There are innocent men who worship God after the tradition of their fathers, but their sense of duty has not yet extended to the use of all their faculties. And there are patient naturalists, but they freeze their subject under the wintry light of the understanding. Is not prayer also a study of truth, — a sally of the soul into the unfound infinite? No man ever prayed heartily, without learning something. But when a faithful thinker, resolute to detach every object from personal relations, and see it in the light of thought, shall, at the same time, kindle science with the fire of the holiest affections, then will God go forth anew into the creation.

It will not need, when the mind is prepared for study, to search for objects. The invariable mark of wisdom is to see the miraculous in the common. What is a day? What is a year? What is summer? What is woman? What is a child? What is sleep? To our blindness, these things seem unaffecting. We make fables to hide the baldness of the fact and conform it, as we say, to the higher law of the mind. But when the fact is seen under the light of an idea, the gaudy fable fades and shrivels. We behold the real higher law. To the wise, therefore, a fact is true poetry, and the most beautiful of fables. These wonders are brought to our own door. You also are a man. Man and woman, and their social life, poverty, labor, sleep, fear, fortune, are known to you. Learn that none of these things is superficial, but that each phenomenon has its roots in the faculties and affections of the mind. Whilst the abstract question occupies your intellect, nature brings it in the concrete to be solved by your hands. It were a wise inquiry for the closet, to compare, point by point, especially at remarkable crises in life, our daily history, with the rise and progress of ideas in the mind.

So shall we come to look at the world with new eyes. It shall answer the endless inquiry of the intellect, — What is truth? and of the affections, — What is good? by yielding itself passive to the educated Will. Then shall come to pass what my poet said; “Nature is not fixed but fluid. Spirit alters, moulds, makes it. The immobility or bruteness of nature, is the absence of spirit; to pure spirit, it is fluid, it is volatile, it is obedient. Every spirit builds itself a house; and beyond its house a world; and beyond its world, a heaven. Know then, that the world exists for you. For you is the phenomenon perfect. What we are, that only can we see. All that Adam had, all that Caesar could, you have and can do. Adam called his house, heaven and earth; Caesar called his house, Rome; you perhaps call yours, a cobler’s trade; a hundred acres of ploughed land; or a scholar’s garret. Yet line for line and point for point, your dominion is as great as theirs, though without fine names. Build, therefore, your own world. As fast as you conform your life to the pure idea in your mind, that will unfold its great proportions. A correspondent revolution in things will attend the influx of the spirit. So fast will disagreeable appearances, swine, spiders, snakes, pests, madhouses, prisons, enemies, vanish; they are temporary and shall be no more seen. The sordor and filths of nature, the sun shall dry up, and the wind exhale. As when the summer comes from the south; the snow-banks melt, and the face of the earth becomes green before it, so shall the advancing spirit create its ornaments along its path, and carry with it the beauty it visits, and the song which enchants it; it shall draw beautiful faces, warm hearts, wise discourse, and heroic acts, around its way, until evil is no more seen. The kingdom of man over nature, which cometh not with observation, — a dominion such as now is beyond his dream of God, — he shall enter without more wonder than the blind man feels who is gradually restored to perfect sight.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson