Painted Places and Patronage

HOUSTON, TEXAS | FEB. 12, 2011

The following talk was delivered on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of the Rothko Chapel.

Before I begin my remarks I’d like to quote from a book by J. C. Cela. The book is called Travels to the Alcaria and it recounts a trip that he took in the early ’50s, traveling on foot through the provinces of central Spain—northeast of Madrid. He came to the village of Pastrana where he found that a group of 17th century tapestries had been removed from their ancestral home and taken to Madrid:

Things are best seen where they are a trifle mixed-up, a trifle disoriented, the chilly administrative neatness of museums and filing cases, of statistics and cemeteries is an inhuman and anti-natural kind of order: it is, in a word, disorder. True order belongs to nature—which has never produced two identical trees, or mountains, or horses. Furthermore, to have taken the tapestries out of Pastrana and brought them to the capital was a mistake: it is much more pleasant to come upon things, as it were, by chance, than to go looking at them in a place where you know they’ll be set up to perfection with no risk of disappointment.

Rothko Chapel (interior), original skylight grid, 1971.

Paintings are removed from their homes, sometimes to protect them, sometimes not. Often they never had any homes to begin with, since, for at least three or four hundred years, painting has primarily been a portable object of commercial value. Today paintings are valued by their price and, more importantly, by their re-sale prices. The validation (or lack of validation) by the market, the commodification, has resulted in an extended family enthusiastically supporting the game; but there is another way for painting to enter the public consciousness, and this place is a good example of that alternative.

You probably know that the chapel and its paintings were made possible through the patronage of John and Dominique de Menil. But, do you know what is involved in being the patrons for this sort of aspiration? Money is only a part of the equation. If you have money it’s easy to be a collector, but if you want to support the creation of a painted place that is free to the public, you need a strong commitment to the artist, his vision, and the notion of patronage in the service of society. That commitment requires work, intelligence, and faith because even if you have seen the artist’s past work, and are familiar with his ambitions, there is always the chance that he might make something exceptional. Good patrons surround themselves with people who can understand and share the collective aspiration—they listen to and are inspired by these collaborators. The de Menils were excellent judges of potential helpers and their acumen resulted in the remarkable contributions of people like Paul and Helen Winkler, Harris Rosenstein, and, later, Carol Mancusi-Ungaro (to name a few of the many people who made the projects at both Rice University and the Menil Collection possible). Without Paul Winkler’s oversight, the Piano Building, the Flavin installation, and the relighting of the chapel might never have been realized with such attention to the ambitions of the artists and architects. This attention is apparent in every detail and there are few museum directors who are capable of getting things built as well as Paul Winkler.

Drawings from the Chauvet Caves. Courtesy of Don’s Maps.

Harris Rosenstein was a friend whom I knew from New York. He brought his intellect and humor to Houston, and Houston was made richer by his presence. Harris brought a philosopher’s temperment to the work and created an intellectual climate of the highest order.

When Carol Mancusi-Ungaro came to the Menil, her relationship with Paul and Harris produced a rigorous study of the Rothko paintings that led to the restoration of the work as we see it today.

These people were chosen by the de Menils because of their expertise but also because they shared their ethical, social, and creative ideas. The sorts of ideas that informed all their endeavors. But, finally, it was their commitment to Rothko, their faith in Rothko, that allowed him to realize his ambition for a mural art. They might have simply collected his paintings, but they knew that, under the right circumstances, Rothko could make a mural cycle of extraordinary power. John and Dominique created the circumstances and Rothko invented a magnificent painted place.

Barnstone and Aubry, plan (as built), 1970.

There have been very few collaborations of this sort recently. Very few places where one might see an alternative to the market-based paradigm. Very few places where painting has been made for a specific and permanent site. The vast majority of painting was made for specific permanent places by people whose names are not known to us—the history of this kind of painting goes back to the caves and it is long as well as profound. I have been lucky to see, to experience, this sort of painting. When I finished school in 1963, I went to Europe and was astonished to realize that painting could be something other than rectangular objects hung in neutral spaces. I was young and had been taught “art history” by means of reproductions—yet another rectangle in an even more neutral space. So nothing had prepared me for the power of the places that I went to see. I had never thought of paintings made of glass or mosaic, paintings that incorporated the light, architecture, and landscape, and, of course, I never imagined a completely painted place like the Scrovegni chapel. I was seeing painting that was wedded to both a place and a purpose. Since then I have seen many painted places. I have seen the caves of Cantabria and the Dordogne as well as the painted walls of the Hueco tanks. I have seen the stained glass of Europe and the mosaics of Byzantium. I have seen the Alhambra and Romanesque frescos. Painted rooms at Teotihuacan and the Sistine chapel. Much more and much more that I haven’t seen—in Egypt, Syria, China, India, etc.
The overwhelming emotion that I have felt in these places has led me on my path. It is the painted place that is closest to my heart.

Philip Johnson, octagonal plan, 1964.

I believe that Rothko (and his contemporaries, Pollock, Newman, Still, and Kline) would have been muralists in a better time. They would have been able to make painting in a context that would have been consistent with their architectural and existential ambitions. In 1962, I saw a room of Clyfford Still’s paintings at the County Museum in Los Angeles—there were, I believe, three paintings the size of the three walls on which they were hung. In fact, the paintings became the room and, although I don’t think that Still painted them as an ensemble, the implications of that installation fit very well with my later understanding of the painted place. Certainly these were the largest paintings that any of the group called Abstract Expressionists were making at that time, but Pollock, Newman, Kline, and Rothko would soon follow and all four of them either made or wanted to make architecturally related painting. They evolved strategies that evoked the scale, the presence, of murals. They spoke of the intimacy of large scale work—the sense that one has become absorbed in the painted world. Only Rothko left us commissioned murals but there can be no question that painting-as-wall figured into the work of the others. I don’t think that idea is generally well-understood—in a recent exhibition at MoMA called “Abstract Expressionism in New York—The Big Picture,” the museum’s sterile conveyor belt of images reduced big paintings made for small spaces into small paintings in big places. This demonstrates a very poor understanding of the painter’s intentions. The museum’s lack of interest in painters’ intentions is not a new phenomenon. When Rothko was given an exhibition at MoMA, he insisted on controlling the way that the paintings were hung and lighted. The museum people thought him “difficult” because he didn’t want to accept the curator’s ideas about the installation. Of course, he was right.

Given Rothko’s insistence on determining the way his paintings were seen (including the social environment) I wonder why he chose to make the paintings in New York. The mock-ups he made are no substitute for the real physical space. The parachuted skylight and New York atmosphere are very different from the Houston oculus. He couldn’t know what it was like to come in from the bright park—the transition to the interior. Was he too ill to come to Houston? Perhaps, but even if he had come in the years between the completion of the paintings and his death, it would have been too late to amend the architecture or the paintings.

Rothko Chapel (interior), skylight with deflection baffle, 1976.

There are so many questions around Rothko’s last years. What did these paintings look like when they were first completed? I remember them being darker and glossier in the early ’70s. Now they seem more Roman-Imperial purple. They felt heavier, and so the gravity of the place has changed as well.

I think that these are not paintings to “look” at like television, movies, or a lot of contemporary painting. They are paintings to commune with, to be with in motion or seating because the only liturgy that is in use reflects Rothko’s composition; and as radiant as Rothko’s self-referential, anti-pictorial program appears, he was working in a great and ancient tradition that only appears “modern” because it has been submerged in the present moment. (Think of the octagonal plan of the Orthodox Baptistry in Ravenna). Tradition aside, this commission offered Rothko a great opportunity, and with it came a crisis. And here I’m going to quote Harold Bloom, who in the book Ruin the Sacred Truths says (better than I could) “a crisis, particularly of a cognitive kind, need be no more than a crossing point, a turning or troping that takes you down a path that proves rather more your own than you would have anticipated.” Was Rothko asking himself what Bloom calls “the triple question concerning the contending focus of past and present: more? Equal to? Or less than?” Bloom goes on:  “easier satisfaction must be deficient in favor of a more delayed and difficult reward—that difficulty being an authentic mark of originality that must seem eccentric until it usurps psychic space and establishes itself as a fresh center.” Rothko’s ensemble, in its presentness and timelessness, expresses the paradox that exists in all great painting but is most moving when the tradition has fallen on hard times.

David Novros, sketches for “Boathouse.”

So how did Rothko respond? Naturally there is a different drama between a single painting and an ensemble. The interior drama of beautiful rectangles within a field is no longer necessary. It has been replaced by the relationship of the paintings within the ensemble. By renouncing the more traditional content for the physical conditions of light and space and time, Rothko has created a kind of metaphysical landscape, adamantly self-referential and intensely emotional.

I think that conjecture is part of communing, and while I am communing with these paintings, I am asking myself, “How would these paintings appear if he had painted them directly on the wall? If he had done away with the object?” The physical nature of the paintings doesn’t feel right to me and I suppose I think that the relationship of the image to the object to the wall is less beautiful than the relationship of image to wall—without the furniture. You are saying, “Who is this Novros to criticize Rothko?” But I am not criticizing­—I am communing and no thoughts need be censored. While I’m at it—I wonder why he changed his preference for dimly lit spaces. He went from a cave to a light cave and I think that the oculus is a primary failure of the chapel. The expanse of diagonal ceiling—between the tops of the paintings and the oculus—is empty and ugly. The doors have never felt right to me. Strange oversights for a painter whose history and profound drawing would suggest otherwise. These are observations that I have come to after looking at this place for 40 years. One mural painter’s take about the experience of being here. My own experience as a muralist has been mixed—I have had great patrons (Don Judd was the first and I have been helped by Virginia Dwan, J. Patrick Lannan, Margaret McDermott, Robert Graham, and the de Menils, to name a few) and I have had nightmare patrons. I have made some beautiful painted places and others I would like to remake. That’s the nature of working semi-improvisationally in true fresco. My projects have been praised, vandalized, denounced by politicians, seen as irrelevant by the art scene (correctly, since they have no resale value). My work is stored out of sight in the art gulags of the museums and destroyed by institutional neglect. But here in Houston, for 10 of 15 years, there was a golden age, and in that time the de Menils supported people like Rothko, Newman, Heizer, Twombly, Flavin, Marden, and myself—no ingratiating illustrators, a bunch of non-representational artists—not the sort of patronage that increases attendance or sells tickets.

David Novros, “Boathouse,” 2003. Middleburgh, NY.

So while I am here to celebrate this place, I am also here to mourn the passing of the patronage that made it possible. Where are the next patrons with faith in the creators—not the institution or marketplace?

David Novros, “Boathouse,” 2003. Middleburgh, NY.

If we had a less disconnected society, museums could become patrons. (A 1975 fresco of mine was saved from destruction by Paul Winkler, Jack Carter, and Peter Marzio. The 9 by 27 foot wall was made for a square room of 27 feet and now it is installed in the Houston Museum of Fine Arts cafeteria. While I’m glad it was saved, I wish it were installed in the space for which it was intended.) These pesky painters and their intentions. Museums could directly commission work for permanent sites connected to the institutions or they could broker projects involving the artist(s), architect(s), the museum, and the community. At this point, I think we have a better chance trying to pass a campaign finance reform bill; I’m afraid that museums are not interested in decentralized patronage. They prefer their endless expansions, commercial deals, educational centers, auditoriums, bookstores, and all the attributes of branded entertainment venue. The government, businesses, and universities have proven to be all but worthless as patrons for the sort of work that interests me. So, who will enable painters to make this sort of transcendent place?

CHAUVET 12-30-10

The lioness is waiting
Down wind of the herd.
She is hidden by a boulder.
The boulder is a boulder.
The lioness is a line.


David Novros