Approaching Taggart chapel

Ritual, Rothko, and poetic form

Detail from the cover of a French translation of Taggart’s ‘Le Poèm de la Chapelle Rothko’ (Editions Royaumont, 1990).

We in the West, Lou Reed once complained, are denied our ritual, a complaint which is itself a kind of ritual, within art culture and perhaps more broadly, that has been practiced with dramatic results throughout the recent history of poetry and art in the West. Admittedly, the ritual Reed mourned the lack of was a particular one, that of hari-kari, so spectacularly performed, in what was then recent memory, by the Japanese novelist Yukio Mishima, having just addressed members of his private army from a banner-draped balustrade. But Reed’s was only a late adumbration of a lament that is at the heart of many of the enduring monuments of modernism: we in the West are denied our ritual. This could be the founding myth of more than one twentieth-century art culture: there was a ritual world, it no longer is, or if it is, it is in bits, alive among the mad and the preliterate, and could be reimagined, and this is what art could do, what art culture could be: a fully operative symbolic system for an elite if not the full cast of social life. And at the heart of this ritual world, its words, practices, and shiny objects, was magical thinking. There is of course an immense range of analysis and speculation attending the word “ritual,” a word crucial to twentieth-century critical thought. Here, beginning my approach to the entrance of Taggart chapel, I can only attempt to work with the simplest sense I can find, the notion that highly organized repeated symbolic actions can effect events.

For poetry written in the emerging world of the modern, the analysis of ritual, of the beliefs that make ritual possible, of the form by which rituals make themselves felt, of what that feeling might be, and most especially of the transformation within the participants that ritual practice could provoke, could not help but be of deep interest, crucial concern, really, for practitioners of an art form with tradition running deep into the pre-Copernican world of cosmic correspondences, not to mention the renewed authority granted by anthropology, psychology, and occultism to word-magic. Moreover, with the restructuring of daily life accompanying the rise of urban secular life, with the shaping of selfhood that has been said to attend the birth of the modern, where else so much as in a sophisticated grasp of what a ritually informed artistic practice might mean, could one see, and dramatize, the full arc of incarnation, from birth to death and whatever might once have been or still be beyond? Behind romantic, symbolist, and modern poetry’s interest in the theory and practice of ritual, spurred by the discoveries of archeology, lay the tantalizing possibilities of the full force of ancient drama, recovered, including the choral poetry Nietzsche describes in The Birth of Tragedy: “The virgins who proceed solemnly to the temple of Apollo, laurel branches in their hands, singing a processional hymn, remain what they are and retain their civic names: the dithyrambic chorus is a chorus of transformed characters whose civic past and social status have been totally forgotten: they have become timeless servants of their god …”[1]

1. The temple

While much might be said about the presumed power of poetic cadence in this quotation, about the radical schism between the everyday and the divine which incantation might be seen as able to momentarily overcome, even more might be said about the promise of inner transformation of those who chant dithyrambically as one, a promise fervently reiterated in the twentieth century across a range of arts. For now I simply want to note the fact that a temple is mentioned, a temple towards which the celebrants proceed. The columns, the open, geometric spaces, perhaps like what might still be seen in Turkey, at the temple of Apollo in Dydima, once the prophecy vortex of the ancient world, mark a socially sanctioned space for acts of ritual magic. The temple orders earth and sky to reflect meaning on a human scale. In a temple, pillars and squares are all heights and all horizons. At a key moment in modernity’s pondering of the repurposing of outmoded forms of ritual the link between ritual thought and shape became a matter of artistic abstraction. Matisse knew his Mallarme; Mondrian, Kandinsky, and Malevich developed an idiom of pure shape and color through which abstraction could show the presence and power of the unseen world. In the middle of the last century Abstract Expressionism brought this ambition into the art culture of New York. The paintings of Mark Rothko, a lifelong devotee of The Birth of Tragedy, illustrate the path from the mythic to the abstract, from Surrealism’s deep interest in the worlds of classical ruins and modern fetish dolls, to an art free of all vulgar mimesis, where might finally be brought to reside “the Spirit of Myth which is generic to all myths of all times.”[2]

Rothko explicitly presented his work within the conventions of the evolving literary aesthetics of the thirties and forties as spiritual, as if his basic materials, canvas and paint, could be the exact meeting place of the finite with the infinite. Recalling his debt to Arshile Gorky, we can imagine this meeting as suffused with the glamour of immense suffering. “I have been painting Greek temples all this time and didn’t know it,” Rothko remarked on a tour of Pompei in Italy.[3] And we might add, given the dark tone his painting would take in later years, he has been imagining Greek theater, and the dramas performed there, all that time, though he was too prone to dread and despair to say he didn’t know it. The opportunity came to Rothko, late in his career, to design a Catholic chapel. It was a challenge artistically and architecturally, but also spiritually. The murals for the Rothko chapel would become a massive theological undertaking, done exclusively in shape and color and architecture, aiming to do nothing less than shift the spiritual orientation of Houston, Texas, from Rome, to Basel, and to points beyond. Through his warring with the architect Philip Johnson, he reshaped the walls and roof and floor into a structure that could be a place for secular, or should we say post-secular, ritual. Rothko forced Johnson off the project, and the chapel, no longer on the grounds of a Catholic college, in its final version more closely resembled a structure in Israel that holds the Dead Sea scrolls. It would be filled with panels that Michel Butor likened to the Ka’ba. Though the result is hardly an interfaith center. The Rothko chapel was to be first and foremost an omphalos for midcentury existentially minded art cultures, set, almost perversely, in Houston, a city of oil and space technology, and opened, with the chapel’s completion, to a current of thanatos pouring down from an artist’s studio on the upper east side of Manhattan. Rothko’s true commission was to make palpable in line and color what a devotional space might look like for a belief system built upon fundamental colors, red and black, colors recalling for one critic “the blood and fire purification of old ritual.”[4] The series of panels inside, distinctive within the span of all Rothko’s work for their sharp clean delineation of his squares and for their monochrome color scheme, were designed to transform the inner world of the art pilgrim who had fled the Babylon of 57th Street in a craving for tragic exaltation.

But the modern pilgrim will not find the Rothko chapel paintings arranged to reflect any meditative progress like stations in a traditional pilgrimage, though some have read them, in that there are fourteen panels, as reminiscent of the Catholic stations of the cross, as if Rothko were nodding towards his fellow abstractionist, rival, and Jew, Barnett Newman. John Taggart, a poet I take to be exceedingly mindful of the vast project of reinventing devotional practice in the bright world of nihilism that follows Nietzsche, finds in the Rothko chapel a perpetual but imperceptible crucifixion, one with no lash, crown, cape, ridicule, hammer, nail, or bereft mother, no overt sign of the death of God, except, we might suppose, in looking at the paintings, the red blood streaming from the wounds of Christ and the black, the sky at the moment of his expiration. No cross is seen in the Rothko chapel, though Taggart finds them in the gaps between canvasses. The icon persists within its own absence. Perhaps simply so we can feel without mediation how we are, in Merleau Ponti’s phrase, “grafted to the universal by that which is most our own.”[5]

Taggart’s evocations of Rothko, both poetic and critical, are a liturgical drama for a world where Christianity is over (though perhaps Nathaniel Mackey’s phrase “liturgical ambush” might be more accurate). The texts in his “The Rothko Chapel Poem” are scripts for a total artwork built on the story of the dissolution of the needy, quotidian self in an exceedingly dark ecstasy. Both the poem and the chapel itself are a highly ordered art experience that connive with fanatical focus and bring about to all who enter what Dore Ashton would call, in her book on Rothko, the “psychological conditions for religiousness.”[6] That is what the magical practice of art might bring about. This art experience offered to us in the Rothko chapel is not undifferentiated intensity (for visitors who might experience their own unworthiness as boredom) but comes to us in stages, or in Taggart’s term from the poem, movements. For Sheldon Nodelman, in a work that could stand as a visionary exegesis of the entirety of the chapel, every blueprint, every work order, every pour of concrete argues that the viewer is led through three stages of aesthetic perception where, to crudely summarize here, the play of verticals and horizontals between the black figure paintings on the four directional walls of the chapel and the monochromes on the angle walls, and the complex progress of perception of red and black (and the undisclosed blue, the traditional color of the eternal, added to the red for the shades of violet in the monochromes), of seeing both vertically and rotationally, constitute a fully coherent meditation on fundamental axes of existence, the eternal and the temporal.[7] While I will not be entering the full text of Taggart’s “The Rothko Chapel Poem” today, I can’t help but think the play of scale, direction, and the intense mirroring of Taggart’s stanzas draw not simply on the chapel and its paintings, but also on an exactly worked-out ritual practice Rothko devised for his own vernacular religiousness. Certainly the final text of “The Rothko Chapel Poem,” with its vision of leaving the chapel and seeing earth and sky suffused with fiery blood, lends credence to the suggestion that Taggart, too, is rethinking the possibility of ritual experience, and that the process of reading the poem is meant to initiate us into a world of Dionysian anguish and ecstasy.

2. Slow song

In reading Taggart’s Rothko texts one could disavow all notions of fate and yet feel driven to ask, could such a poet as John Taggart ever not answer the call to sound out the hollows of the Rothko chapel? In Taggart’s account of the birth of his own style, he is careful to tell us that Rothko looms not as a formal exemplar, or as the iconographer of purest angst, but as a figure who appears almost haphazardly, naively beckoned as the result of the poet’s concern with the properties of stained glass. A telling remark that locates Taggart at the intersection of craft and devotional cultures, and of course the difficult relation of modern art cultures to the aestheticized Medievalism of the symbolists and the pre-Copernican cosmology embedded in European, Arabic, and Persian poetic traditions. The glass is “a mystery, it glows without fire or heat, it proves the power of light as embodied spirit.”[8] Rothko, according to Taggart, manages to create the effect of a “hidden light source,”[9] and here we sense Taggart’s own allegiance to the light mysticism embedded in the English Metaphysical tradition. A statement of Rothko’s will provides something of an essential dogma for the poet to shape into song: “it is really a matter of ending this silence and solitude, of breathing and stretching one’s arms again.” With this line Taggart fashions perhaps the earliest and the fullest first achievement of his signature reiterative method. In “A Slow Song for Mark Rothko” Taggart strikes a decidedly ritual and devotional stance towards reality, and as we are momentarily here in the neighborhood of projective verse, it’s worth noting how Rothko’s statement embeds and revises, through contextualization, projectivist poetics. (Or am I alone in hearing the quick breaths of Olsonian recitation in the phrase “it is really a matter … of breathing and stretching one’s arms” in which Taggart has noticed crisis “ending this silence and solitude” and repetition: “again”?[10])

In “A Preface” collected in Songs of Degrees (where he discusses the writing of “A Slow Song for Mark Rothko”), Rothko steps into the evolving world of Taggart’s poetics as the avatar not just of embodied light, or even of music (Messiaen and Grosseteste are soon mentioned), but of ritual itself. Famously adverse in later years to theorizing his art, Rothko falls silent here, and Stephen Reich speaks. For both Taggart and Reich, working in the postmodern moment, transformation is nonetheless still the goal of art. For Reich, as it will for Taggart throughout all his reiterative works, that transformation begins with the slow shifting of attention. Note in Reich’s statement the emphasis on the power of a slow song to rearrange the mental universe: “Listening to a gradual musical process,” Reich says, “one can participate in a particularly liberating and impersonal kind of ritual. Focusing in on the musical process makes possible the shift of attention away from he and she and you and me outwards (or inwards) towards it.”[11]

That “he or she” Reich imagines is most likely not a couple that has decided to get married in the Rothko chapel, though the method of Taggart’s poem might suggest exactly that. And the wedding waltz Taggart stages in the Rothko chapel could hardly be the music Reich imagines, which works like a form of tantric practice, to purify and elevate the attention of an isolated listener. A wedding waltz is to move a group of unfocused celebrants into a dance, but of course it is a part of the intense, dare one say Kierkegaardian, irony at work — that the true music to be heard in the Taggart chapel, which through the magic of ritual form comes to exist within the Rothko chapel, is that of blackest solitude and wandering, exile, death, and anguished rebirth. For Reich, whose notion of a slow song here could stand as a gloss for Taggart’s poetic ambition in his reiterative structures, the musical process occurs simultaneously within and without. The goal of the ritual is, for Reich, the contemplation of its own process, its own organized, symbolically rich path which offers the listener liberation. For Taggart, such a liberation, as it occurs within “The Rothko Chapel Poem” as nowhere else in his work, comes as a perpetual Calgary, a Passion, a hymn of divine suffering. But as readers only just climbing the steps of the textual temple, we might be forgiven for not noticing that the multiple reiterative epigrams for the poem are taken from Fear and Trembling, from an author, that is, dear to both Rothko and Taggart, and for having no real clue that the agonized coming to be is the ritual process the poem has in store for us, for who among us would willingly take up an agony? After all, we are welcomed guests, guests at a wedding.

3. Wedding guests

The opening three sections of Taggart’s poem set before us the most traditional of functions to be performed in a chapel: a wedding. While the origin of this wedding tableaux may be an overheard remark rich beyond measure in suggestion about wedding pictures taken in the Rothko chapel where the paintings all appear black, Taggart’s foregrounding of nuptials is an immediate comment on a space that seems designed for the single contemplative. (The model for the chapel’s interior, it has been argued, is the artist’s studio.) Taggart’s choice to stage a wedding speaks specifically as well to the poet’s own interest in forms of ritual, as is evident to anyone familiar with his poems about gospel music, soul, and jazz. Taggart needs to write at some proximity to actual communal practice.

Taggart’s remarks on “A Slow Song for Mark Rothko” reveal his early concern with ritual. In “Were You: Notes & A Poem for Michael Palmer”[12] Taggart pursues his thinking on this issue, moving beyond the matter of the effect upon consciousness of ritual practice, to the matter of ritual communities, in this instance, to American Protestant ceremonial culture. He frets about the nature of the group, and the place of dissenting individuals within it. Taggart finds in the example of gospel music severe polarities that recall Nietzsche’s opposition of the Apollonian lyric with the Dionysian dithyramb. An irresolvable conflict lies at the heart of Taggart’s musings about gospel music, about the relation of the many to the one, and about what conditions of belief must be present for the choral singer to enter into the song without doubt. Those familiar with Taggart’s other works may suspect that this conflict goes beyond this particular subject, that Taggart is an agonist, drawn to imagining and overcoming fundamental oppositions. “You can’t doubt and sing with abandon,”[13] the poet tells us. And what kind of musical structure must exist that can accommodate a “diversified assembly”?[14] There is a severity in Taggart’s distinctions between the individual and the group that resolve themselves in his notion of the gap. This gap is both, it would seem, a part of musical structure and a way to contain multiplicity within unity. In various descriptions of his poetic method in regard to his reiterative poems Taggart has noted what must be a fraught moment in his compositional practice: the appearance of a gap, and the addition of an anomalous word within the gap, within the tightly controlled repetitions. Taggart clearly, at least at the time of the composition of the poems in Loop, invested considerable hope in the possibility of a structural relation between poetic form and ritual efficacy.

 In the Rothko chapel poem, however, Taggart pursues the severity at the heart of his either/or conception of ceremonial culture. As the wedding triptych itself demonstrates, Taggart is in the grip of an immense drama that compels him to examine the fate of those disinvited from the wedding, a disinvitation which retains all the allegorical implications that might be expected, though it goes on to tell a tale of death and rebirth.

4. The welcome

Ultimately, Taggart draws our attention not so much to the bride or groom, but foremost to the greeting, the welcoming. It is within the logic of minimalist reduction that both Rothko and Taggart share the single moment of human contact, of human warmth, connectivity, and evocation of living ritual form. Humanity enters to the touch of welcome. Given Rothko’s early and possibly playful statement that the relation between painting and viewer should be nuptial as well, citing nothing less than Shakespeare’s “Let me not to the marriage of true minds / Admit impediments,”[15] we might almost be in the world of color and mystery of Rothko’s pre-chapel work. One can sense in those earlier paintings an erotics embedded in perception itself, but the poem is careful, in keeping both with the formality of the place and the severity of the idiom Rothko devised in planning out his chapel, to distance us from the loving embrace of bride and groom. We are not ever one embraced by the other, but touched by them both, taken in hand. One might almost say that this welcoming is the very protagonist of the poem as it proceeds down the via dolorosa of the contemporary post-secular moment. We are cordially taken into a communal gathering, though we will soon feel ourselves become merely the occasion of the greeting, an occasion that calls up an immense nostalgia in the depths of the poem proper, a moment of a union not of bride and groom with each other but of bride and groom with us. We are implicitly threefold, for as long as the welcome lasts.



1. Friedrich Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy and The Case of Wagner (Vintage Books, 1967), 64.

2. Jacob Baal-Teshuva, Rothko (Taschen, 2003), 34.

3. Dore Ashton, About Rothko (New York: Oxford University Press, 1983), 147.

4. Ibid., 155.

5. Merleau-Ponty, quoted in ibid., 123.

6. Ibid, 177.

7. Sheldon Nodelman, The Rothko Chapel Paintings: Origin, Structure, Meaning (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1997). Chapter 3, “The Meaning of the Chapel Instillation,” is especially helpful for thinking about Taggart’s poem. In particular, see Nodelman’s description of the “phenomenal structure of the installation,” 324–331.

8. John Taggart, Songs of Degrees: Essays on Contemporary Poetry and Poetics (Tuscaloosa and London: University of Alabama Press, 1994), 71.

9. Dianne Waldman, quoted in ibid., 71.

10. Mark Rothko, quoted in ibid., 71.

11. Steven Reich, quoted in ibid., 73.

12. Taggart, Loop (Los Angeles: Sun and Moon Press, 1991).

13. Ibid., 80.

14. Ibid., 83.

15. Baal-Teshuva, Rothko, 7.