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Itinerary: Rothko Chapel and Discovery Green

Houston is home to the Rothko Chapel, but the first time I saw a Rothko painting was actually at the Tate Modern in London last year. This year the Seagram Murals, originally commissioned for a hotel restaurant in NY, are shown in an expanded exhibition at the Tate along with other works from the series. I have no plans to be in London this year, but according to the artist’s son the ultimate Rothko experience is in actually in Houston.

The exhibition has set off a wave of stories about Mark Rothko in the British press, including an article by the Guardian art critic Jonathan Jones who sheds some light on what the artist may have thought about displaying his work in a posh restaurant. The night Rothko had dinner at the restaurant (food transforming art?) for the first time he changed his mind about the commission and decided to return the money, telling his assistant that “anybody who will eat that kind of food for those kind of prices will never look at a painting of mine”. He donated the paintings to the Tate Modern in his final act of defiance against the NY social elite a decade later.

Fischer quotes Rothko describing the room in that very expensive restaurant in the Seagram Building as “a place where the richest bastards in New York will come to feed and show off”.

Rothko didn’t seem to Fischer in the least unworldly, let alone spiritual about his intentions. “I hope to ruin the appetite of every son of a bitch who ever eats in that room,” he gloated, with paintings that will make those rich bastards “feel that they are trapped in a room where all the doors and windows are bricked up”.

Jonathan Jones writes well, but he’s also hard to read. Like many writers at the Guardian and the Independent he paints all Americans (and Houstonians for that matter) with broad brush strokes and his articles are dripping with pseudo intellectual innuendo, but he is also a capable art reviewer, so it’s worth slogging through his condescending prose. 

In his previous articles he draws on the similarities between the Seagram Murals and the Rothko Chapel, both influenced by the vault-like space created by Michelangelo. He digs up details casual art fans may not be aware of – before the building was even built, Rothko constructed a life size model of the chapel space in his studio in Manhattan to get appropriate sense of dimension. Rothko did finish the paintings, but killed himself roughly a year before the chapel was completed – the same day the Seagram Murals arrived at the Tate Modern –  never making it to Houston to place the paintings himself.

If you are in Houston and plan to see the Rothko Chapel, you’ll find that navigating the city can be somewhat disorienting. Even the locals are frequently surprised by what they find in the patchwork of neighborhoods that make up this giant un-zoned city, so I put together a suggested itinerary loosely based on a day I pretended to be a tourist in my hometown. Have fun and hydrate.

7am: no reason to wake up at 7 unless you have to. Collect $200, go right back to sleep.

10am: head down to Midtown and share a plate of chicken and waffles at the Breakfast Klub (it’s really more of a lunch dish). No one eats healthy breakfasts in the Republic of Texas. Neither should you.

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11am:
Head to Discovery Green to see exactly how much park $145 million dollars buys you. The corporate sponsorship at this place is a bit “enthusiastic”, but overall Disco Green (that’s what the cool kids call it these days, I hear) is a surprisingly good time. I didn’t bring my bocce balls or a putter, but I did have fun reflecting the best of Kraftwerk off the completely awesome Listening Vessels, designed by Doug Hollis. Being a bit stubborn, I also spent no less than half an hour trying to figure out if the Synchronicity of Color sculpture was interactive. It’s not, but feel free to give it a shot anyway.

 

The most interesting thing about Discovery Green is not how much it cost, but how much more livable Houston Downtown appears to be than it was as recently as 5 years ago. Even as the rest of the country is having a real estate induced meltdown, Houston is growing upwards – dozens of residential high rises and luxury mixed use projects  still going strong all over the city, including one directly across from Discovery Green. Though a bit crammed with “features”, the park goes a nice job of integrating nature with architecture and art in a single organic space that anchors a new, far more residential Downtown than ever before.

If you spend enough time at Discovery Green, there are several dining options right in the park. Foreigners with fists full of weak dollars might as well head straight for The Grove, which has one of the best looking dining rooms in the city. The restaurant would like to walk the line between the casual and more serious food, but the more ambitious dishes never quite catch up with the level of talent in the kitchen. Simple is best at the Grove, though even on the small plates menu as potholes. Skip the pasty chili con queso and the greasy tortilla chips that taste like they belong in a Texas themed restaurant in Helsinki. The chorizo spiked deviled eggs are much better. The oyster BLT sandwich and some of the salads can be quite good, too.

 

If you are a red blooded American watching your 401k account evaporate then the Lake House and it’s red meat menu of burgers and kobe beef hot dogs may be the best choice. It’s a better fit for Discovery Green anyway, plus you can eat outside.

Now that I think about it, the Tree House may be an even better bet. I haven’t been there yet, but the recently revamped menu looks interesting enough for a visit.

2pm: Get in the car and head for the Museum District. Houston may finally have light rail, but to get a feel for the neighborhoods you still need a car. Besides, that’s what locals do anyway.

Going directly to the Rothko Chapel from Discovery Green here may be a mistake. Jonathan Jones writes “(Rothko) chapel is one of the most overwhelming syntheses of art and architecture in the world. It is as compelling as the great Italian religious interiors he admired, yet as terrifying as Munch’s Scream” and he has a decent point. Going to both back to back will be a bit disorienting. The Menil Collection located nearby is a perfect place to decompress, however. The Menil is one of the finest private art collections in the world and there is a lot to see here. Make sure to allow enough time for the surrealist collection.

4pm: Walk over to the Rothko Chapel and stop by the Broken Obelisk set on the chapel grounds on your way. The sculpture is dedicated to Martin Luther King, but Kubrick fans may get other ideas:

 

The Rothko Chapel is one of those things that has to be experienced in person, even if don’t think that a bunch of monochromatic paintings should be considered art. The space is difficult to describe and even more difficult to photograph, but the 360 view below should give you a rough idea (zoom out for best view).

  

Unless you happen to arrive during a tour or a special  event, one thing you’ll notice is the stunning silence. The chapel is located in a quiet residential neighborhood, but  the walls block out the sound so completely that the other senses have no choice but to heighten. Bring a book or a set of sound insulating headphones if you want to tune the world completely out (you may get kicked out if the attendants notice you are disturbing others, so be warned).

If you get done early, the Museum District has 18 museums to explore. I have lived in Houston most of my adult life and still have only been to a half of them (Buffalo Soldiers museum?), not to mention the independent art galleries dotting the area. Personally I’d head for the Contemporary Arts Museum.

5:00pm: It’s too early for dinner, but it may be a good time of day to drive around the Westmoreland and Audubon Place neighborhoods. Both are some of the best preserved examples of craftsmen homes in Houston. If you get bored with that stop by Cafe Brazil, itself a contemporary art gallery of sorts.

7pm: A dinner at Nippon seems like an appropriate way to wrap up a Rothko day. You are more likely to find a sushi chef taking sake shots with regulars at this place than an ambitious sushi bar serving up exotic specialties, but Nippon is traditional, Japanese owned and has the best fish in this part of Houston. No sense in ordering omakase here, though the chefs are more than willing to recommend the freshest fish of the day if you ask.

 

9pm: The Houston Press has the most reliable events calendar in town. Improvise.

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