A spaceship, a stage, a prison, a museum, a sanctuary: they call it a chapel. The midday Texas climate that consistently reaches over 100 degrees in summer temperatures sears the skin and engulfs the lungs with thick, hot air, making it hard to breathe. The gulf coast humidity stops when you walk through the solid black doors and into a small glass-walled foyer. I am sitting. Directly in front of me is a triptych of black paintings. The sweat that drips down my temples and my back cools my body at an accelerated rate in this air-conditioned space. The lighting is engineered by a skylight and the clouds that pass the bright sun outside. I am standing. Directly in front of me is a triptych of paintings that contain dark, purplish hues. The room is an imperfect octagon. The windows are huge canvasses—the largest 15 by 11 feet. The benches are minimal and informally, though neatly, arranged. Their deep brown color flows uninterrupted into the gray floor tiles and the black meditation mats. I am sitting. Directly in front of me is a triptych of paintings with subtle color differences that wash across every inch, undulating on the surface and into the expanse.
The gray stucco, the barren benches, and the soft greeting of the attendant all imbue silence as a value here. The space isn’t void of sound—an impossible task in a space whose function is to gather people. No, the value of silence the Rothko Chapel provides exists elsewhere, in thought, where waves and decibels cannot determine if one has succeeded in finding a state of silence. In his book Silence: In the Age of Noise, explorer Erling Kagge describes this silence as an “idea” or “a notion.”1 He says, “The silence around us may contain a lot, but the most interesting kind of silence is the one that lies within. A silence which each of us must create.”
The silence within is a state of being. It can be described as a daydream, a trance, a contemplation or meditation. It is a state of reverie. Kagge describes this while traversing the unexplored landscape. The Rothko Chapel hopes its visitors can reach this state while surrounded by the architecture and pigment washes of Rothko’s paintings.
Commissioned as a Catholic meditative space by philanthropists John and Dominique de Menil in 1964, the Rothko Chapel is designed expressly for quiet reflection. Rothko was selected for the project, in part, because of his insistence on the spiritual character of his work and, knowing that he had long desired a space dedicated to his paintings, the de Menils let him design the building himself. Rothko completed the paintings in 1967 although the building would not open until one year after his death in 1971. By this time, the character of the chapel had evolved, having been given an interdenominational designation. The precise nature of the space, as both an artwork and a chapel, as well as the narratives of its development mean that the Rothko Chapel has few, if any, equivalents. Its status is, in many ways, a kind of heterotopia. The space might be compared to a hospital garden where meandering paths enable one to wander and get lost among the foliage. Or to a university atrium, where one might sit and ruminate in the time between lessons. Inscribed in the architecture is an idea that reverie emerges not from distraction, but through introspection, and is a consequence of a psychical need.
While reverie connotes particularly romanticized forms of contemplation—the flaneur, the muse, decadence—its synonyms are comparatively stigmatized. To space out, vague out, daydream, or dissociate is in many ways an errant behavior. Consider the consequences of daydreaming in an office, in a classroom, or on the street. Here, one can reasonably expect rebuke. Reverie, then, while necessitating silence or solitude is an activity that also
needs its “place.”
Where I live, in New York City, there is little space and even fewer moments for this quiet reflection. The prolonged meditation of Kagge’s Antarctic explorations could not seem further away from the contentious engagement the New York urban landscape demands. For Kagge, the extended silence of his excursions are what blend moment and eternity into singular instants of inward presence and attentive distance. His idea is distinct from the ordinary concept of daydream in which we fortuitously fall into dissociation. Instead, in this kind of reverie is a plateau where thought is stable, concentrated, and long. The artist, like the explorer, can open doors to the unknown, to the unfamiliar, and to form narratives that are yet to be told. Reverie is one such door but, in the fogginess of everyday life, how does one contend with it? Artists, it seems, must devise strategies for reverie. They must produce their own heterotopias. As Sarah Jane Cervenak describes it, the moment of riding a bus is a proposition for anything, from philosophical desire to “a rare moment of privacy for someone whose experience of the world is never free from the trespassive enactments of others.”2
In the first chapter of Wanderlust, Rebecca Solnit describes a beguiling headland north of the Golden Gate Bridge. With the emergence of spring one year, she frequented the site, going there for long hikes among the abandoned military fortifications and new green growth. For Solnit, the headland was a place to both walk and work because, for a writer, “a desk is no place to think on the large scale.”3 She says, “I kept coming back to this route for respite from my work and for my work too, because thinking is generally thought of as doing nothing in a production-oriented culture, and doing nothing is hard to do.”4
Solnit finds in walking a way to cope with the idleness that accompanies thought, a way to write beyond the desk. She is sensitive to space, to the ways it makes demands of us. A studio asks for production. A desk asks for writing. But to enter the unknown—the unthought —the artist must, at times, negotiate these injunctions. They must cultivate space for reverie. For Kagge, it is deep in the Antarctic, in unexplored territory, where the unknown emerges. I find it through time in the Rothko Chapel.
In April of 2018, the artists and authors whose work forms the pages herein were invited to submit an idea about reverie. We were less concerned with reverie as a concept or discourse than we were with thinking through it as a “tool” or “method.” Our goal here was to cultivate projects that privilege quiet, reflective, and introspective forms of thought and, through them, play with the moments of desire, fantasy, speculation, and memory that such moments so often give rise to.
Reverie is inherently difficult to talk about, in part, because it is not intersubjective. It is undertaken in private, in isolation, and is not done for the sake of others. Nevertheless, reverie finds unique expression in a variety of cultural forms—whether in works of art, literature, music, dance or film—and in this way enters into conversation. This issue is developed with the simple and modest ambition to nurture these quiet conversations by engaging reverie deliberately, methodically, and by wielding it as an engine of thought.
Perhaps a good lens through which to think about this approach is the derive. The calculated drifting, prolonged meandering, and mischievous misuse of space was, for the Situationists, employed to force a shift in perspective, to make the familiar strange. Through the derive, one becomes sensitive not only to the features of life that are ordinarily passed over, but also to the structures, systems, and ideas that determine one’s orientation.
But where the derive investigates territory in space and time, reverie meanders a world that is introjected; so while streets and buildings delineate the arteries and organs of a city, the true pulse of any space is the people that inhabit it. The city’s sentience is dependent on the accumulation of human memories, decisions, and gesticulations. These terrains are only formed into places, homes, or destinations with the emotional and mental constitution of its occupants. Rebecca Solnit refers to the coalescence of citizen and city as a “living library.”5 She says, “each of us is an atlas of sorts, already knowing how to navigate some portion of the world, containing innumerable versions of place as experience and desire and fear, as route and landmark and memory.”6 Spaces may offer moments of reverie that in turn become metabolized by our imaginations.
With that in mind, we propose that this magazine and the works within be read, too, as an atlas of sorts. However, where an atlas gives pictorial form to spaces, terrains, cities, and architecture, these projects give form to the passages and contours of reverie. This is a site where ideas are not only contained, but from which they might also emerge.
Here in your hands is a landscape; a topography of pages, words, images, and ideas to traverse.
Erling Kagge, Silence: In the Age of Noise (New York: Pantheon, 2017), 25. ↩
Sarah Jane Cervenak, Wandering: Philosophical Performances of Racial and Sexual Freedom (Durham: Duke University Press, 2014), 2. ↩
Rebecca Solnit, Wanderlust: A History of Walking (New York: Penguin, 2002),19. ↩
Rebecca Solnit, Nonstop Metropolis: An Atlas of Maps Reclaiming New York’s Untold Stories and Unseen Populations (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2016), 1. ↩