Stillness is the Move: Material and transcendental space in Tess Jaray and Mark Rothko’s paintings

It was very late on a Friday night in July 2011. I climbed off a Greyhound bus in downtown Houston, at the end of a journey from New Orleans that was so long it felt biblical. The next day I was going to visit the Rothko Chapel, my primary reason for being in Houston during a six-week travel stint in the US.

John and Dominique commissioned Mark Rothko to create several site-specific paintings for the chapel in 1964. Rothko was also given full creative licence over the architecture of the chapel, to the extent that the original architect, Philip Johnson, bowed out from the project over Rothko’s demands. The paintings were completed in 1967, but Rothko would never see the chapel’s completion. After a lifelong struggle with depression, Rothko committed suicide on 25 February 1970. The chapel was opened on 28 February 1971 with a dedication by Dominique de Menil attesting to the transcendental aims of Rothko’s work: “We are cluttered with images and only abstract art can bring us to the threshold of the divine.”

Rothko Chapel, Houston, Texas. Photo by Hickey-Robertson.

When I arrived at the chapel, the first thing that struck me was its size. I was expecting a building about the area of a modernist Dutch Reformed Church like those typically found in suburban South Africa. Instead, the chapel is composed of a small reception entrance and its (roughly) 4,000 square-foot octagonal atrium. The interior is suitably austere: plain wooden benches arranged in rows facing north-south and east-west. A baffled skylight served as the atrium’s only light source, dramatically changing the surface and mood of the fourteen canvases as the clouds passed overhead. At the entrance, books of prayer and meditation were laid out – Psalms, the Bhagavad Gita, the Bible, the Quran – to emphasise the chapel’s ecumenical spirit.

When I began looking at the canvases, their sheer scale was enough to physically overwhelm me. The fourteen canvases measure between 180 x 105 inches and 180 x 297 inches. Rothko denied speculation that their number was meant to echo the Stations of the Cross, despite that the chapel was originally intended as a Catholic place of worship. It’s impossible to contain an entire painting in your gaze; instead, you scan the canvas piece by piece, perennially searching the dark, oceanic surface. It is in this act of scanning each area over and over that you begin to lose sense of the physical surrounding. The material world dissolves in a meditative gaze, and you begin to feel outside of time.

Rothko Chapel, Houston, Texas. Photo by Hickey-Robertson.

Rothko had always aimed to create work that transcended the material world. The chapel therefore functions as a space to facilitate that meditation – a kind of body for the soul – and although the paintings were created for the chapel as Rothko envisioned it, it is equally clear that the paintings are not meant to represent the space or any objective material. Which brings me to the work of another abstract painter whose work clearly reflects the subjective experience of the material world.

On a cold ‘spring’ morning in May 2019, I boarded the number 2 bus bound from West Norwood to Marylebone station to begin a much shorter pilgrimage. I was heading from London to Birmingham to see the work of an abstract painter I had only discovered a week before. I don’t know how I’d not previously seen or heard about Tess Jaray’s work, but when I read her interview with Charley Peters on Instantloveland about her exhibition From Outside, I felt a similar compulsion as with the Rothko Chapel to make the 250 mile round trip to see Jaray’s six paintings hanging in the Barber Institute of Fine Arts.

Tess Jaray, From Outside (installation view), 2019 © Tess Jaray, 2019. All rights reserved. Courtesy of Karsten Schubert, London.

For the exhibition, Jaray meditated on the architecture of the Barber Institute and created six site-specific paintings responding to the museum’s Art Deco facade, originally designed by Robert Atkinson and completed in 1939. Approaching the Lady Barber Gallery, I once again felt surprised at the small area of the gallery housing the paintings. Each painting is identical in size: 178 x 142 cm (about 70 x 56 inches), not large enough to create the corporeal effect of Rothko’s chapel canvases, but then Jaray’s abstractions do something altogether different.

Each painting is remarkably simple in its representation of the geometric forms and patterns inspired by the Barber Institute. Jaray reduces the material world to its most essential form. The simple yet stark colours, uniformly applied to the surface, draw your gaze in a manner that dissolves the space outside the canvas. I found myself concentrating on the simplicity of the patterns and harmony of lines that Jaray used to balance each composition. I can’t say they in any way reflected the architecture of the Barber Institute for me, but I felt a strong relation between her use of colour and my subjective experience of the space.

Tess Jaray, Crossing, 2017 © Tess Jaray, 2019. All rights reserved. Courtesy of Karsten Schubert, London.

Tess Jaray, Revue, 2018 © Tess Jaray, 2019. All rights reserved. Courtesy of Karsten Schubert, London.

Tess Jaray, Fez Green, 2017 © Tess Jaray, 2019. All rights reserved. Courtesy of Karsten Schubert, London.

As a recent graduate of Slade in 1960, Jaray visited Italy on a scholarship trip that would leave an indelible mark on her painting practice. Her ensuing work in that decade was “a reflection of the kind of emotion that I had experienced in those great architectural spaces,” she explained to Rachel Campbell-Johnston in 2012. Severely restricted yet highly contrasted colours redolent of nostalgia and memory, Jaray’s paintings embrace rather than transcend the emotional, subjective experience of space. She acknowledges it as part of our lived experience, like logic and reason – also represented by the strict and careful arrangement of line and form in her compositions.

The exhibition’s title is a nod to the modernist idea of being ‘outside’ our subjective experience: transcending the material world to dwell in a spiritual one. It also refers to being a pedestrian: the view of the world from the street, experiencing life as it is and not looking to transcend but only to experience in common. Jaray’s paintings are a reduction of the material world. They reflect on its physical essence and our relation to it. To me, it seems very much grounded in the present, in this reality, rather than as a portal beyond our reality. The viewer is a pedestrian, contemplating familiar shapes of the material world from outside.

Abstraction reduces form to offer only the critical details of our subject. Both Rothko and Jaray created site-specific abstract paintings that respond to their surroundings. Rothko sought to transcend the material world and access the spiritual by removing all external references to the physical: his canvases were intended as wholly subjective planes of spiritual reflection, facilitated by the meditative atmosphere of the chapel. Jaray’s paintings, by contrast, acknowledge the material world and seek to represent the space in its most essential form, reducing the objective and physical to approach the subjective emotional experience.