For a certain type of person, the Rothko Chapel, one of the city's treasured institutions, is an insult. After all, they say, 100,000 people every year are lured into the space expecting an overwhelming collision of artistic achievement and spirituality—Houston's humble response to Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel, perhaps. Instead, they find some benches and a bunch of purplish squares by an artist named Mark.
You could substitute "a certain type of person" for "my mother" or "my contrarian friend who definitely voted for Gary Johnson but won't admit it." You may even be this type of person yourself. Consider a particularly cranky TripAdvisor review for the Rothko Chapel from a user called "Matt M":
"Art". It's giant canvases painted black and hung on the walls. You're supposed to sit in silence and stare into them until you're enlightened. Some say you'll see your future. My buddy claims he saw blue jeans, so we had to go buy blue jeans that day.
Matt M has many opinions. His other TripAdvisor entries include a hot take on Hugo's ("Way too much hype") and a takedown of the local Dave and Buster's franchise ("Great but ruined by the Clientele"). Regardless of the quality of his opinions, let us use Matt M as an illustrative example for a much larger group of people. Why is Matt M angry? What did Rothko's color fields do to him? How is it possible to be so incensed about an ecumenical center for spiritual refuge? Is Dominique de Menil rolling over in her grave?
While it doesn't address these questions directly, a new podcast can help you work through those mixed feelings about art like Rothko's. It's called A Piece of Work, hosted by Abbi Jacobson, of Comedy Central's Broad City, in partnership with New York's Museum of Modern Art and WNYC Studios. The series takes shape as a well-informed, highly-entertaining crash course on how folks without an art history degree should approach the puzzling world of contemporary art. Along with celebrity guests including Hannibal Buress, Tavi Gevinson and RuPaul, A Piece of Work is a 10-part journey to discover the deceptively simple pleasures of monochromes and pop art and dancers rolling around in their underwear on film.
Why should you listen to this person? Jacobson's bonafides include a BFA from Maryland Institute College of Art, with artistic achievements including an illustrated book where she imagines the contents of famous women's purses and an Instagram "Where are they now?" series for various '90s touchstones, such as the koosh ball or Crystal Pepsi. She's also a comedian, obviously, which leavens what could be a dry or pretentious conversation.
But on each episode, Jacobson is joined by a MoMA specialist (and sometimes the artists themselves) to help puzzle through the topic at hand. Each episode is broken down into a specific genre of contemporary art—from readymades to emoji and beyond. Refreshingly, the conversation isn't about epic histories or decoding arcane symbolism. A lot of the experts say it's much simpler: spend time with the work, contemplate how it makes you feel, and draw conclusions from there. If you feel angry, that might be the point. If all you feel is a moment of serenity, that also might be the endgame. A Piece of Work argues that artwork doesn't have to be complicated, a message entirely in sync with Houston's own Rothko Chapel.
And even if the podcast doesn't change your mind, there is one redeeming quality we can all agree upon: The Rothko Chapel makes people like Matt M shut up, at least for a moment.
A Piece of Work, available via wnyc.org, iTunes, and wherever you find podcasts.