A New Sacred Space: Michael Somoroff’s Illumination I by Donald Kuspit

This is what Somoroff’s Illumination I does in the optimal condition of perception that is the Rothko Chapel.   Like Notre-Dame-du-Haut, it is a pilgrimage chapel.   Rothko’s dark paintings and Johnson’s simple architecture for a naive unity compared to Somoroff’s sophisticated archisculpture—the total installation is in effect a paragone of the three traditional major arts—which stands apart as the one truly transcendental experience the Rothko Chapel aspires to.   The open aspirational archisculpture is the emotional center of the cosmos that the closed chapel symbolizes.  It implicitly fills the void at the Chapel’s center with pure spirit embodied in pure art.  Illumination I makes what was always implicit in the Rothko Chapel—the absolute, unconditionally revelatory light that Rothko’s paintings lack and withhold—explicit and concrete, thus completing the Chapel, and indicating that the long voyage to it is not only a pilgrimage to Art but to the living spirit that transcends it.


(1)Evelyn Underhill, Mysticism:  A Study in the Nature and Development of Man’s Spiritual Consciousness(New York:  Meridian, 1955), p. 381         

(2)Quoted in Rainer Funk, Erich Fromm:  The Courage to Be Human (New York:  Continuum, 1982), pp. 62-63

(3)Markus Bruderlin, “Introduction:  Archisculpture,” Archisculpture:  Dialogues between Architecture and Sculpture from the 18th Century to the Present Day (Basel:  Fondation Beyeler, 2005), p. 15 remarks that “Sculpture has always adopted elements from architecture, and architecture has always utilized the forms and structures of sculpture....

‘Borderline cases emerged,” Dietrich Clarenbach observes, ‘whose outward appearance is so similar that buildings can be called modeled entities and sculptures constructed entities.’

Today, one is tempted to say that the sculpture of artists like Per Kirkeby has actually become architecture, while the buildings of Frank O. Gehry have become sculpture.” Somoroff’s Illumination I is clearly a work of architecture and a work of sculpture in one entity, or, if one wants, simultaneously and indistinguishably “sculptural architecture” and “architectonic sculpture,” which is why it is best called a work of archisculpture.

(4)H. H. Arnason, History of Modern Art (Upper Saddle River, NJ:  Prentice-Hall, 2004; 5th ed.), p.425

(5)Rudolf Arnheim, Entropy and Art (Berkeley:  University of California Press, 1971), p. 52

(6)Charles Jencks, The Language of Post-Modern Architecture (New York:  Rizzoli, 1984; 4th ed.), p. 15      

(7)Robert Pincus-Witten introduced the term “maximalism” in his collection of essays Entries (Maximalism) (New York and Milan:  Out of London Press, 1983).  It is an apt term for the emergence of “Constructionism”—“real sculpture in the scale, methodology, and iconography of real architecture”—as well as the “neo-Primitivism and Expressionism (p. 15) that superseded the “refrigerated abstraction” of Minimalism (p.14), which had become formulaic by the seventies.  Illumination I is constructionist and expressionist in character, and thus doubly maximalist.  Multivalent archisculpture is  maximalist by definition.

(8) Arnheim, p. 55

(9)Quoted in Herschel B. Chipp, ed.,Theories of Modern Art (Berkeley:  University of California Press, 1968), p. 548.  The next sentences state the reason for doing so:  “Both the sense of community and of security depend on the familiar.  Free of them, transcendental experiences becomes possible.”

(10)Daniel Bell, The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism (New York:  Basic Books, 1976), pp. 28-29 writes:  “The real problem of modernity is the problem of disbelief.  To use an unfashionable term, it is a spiritual crisis, since the new anchorages have proved illusory and the old ones have become submerged.  It is a situation which brings us back to nihilism; lacking a past or a future, there is only a void.” Modern art presents itself as one solution to the problem.  As Bell says, it become a “substitute for religion” (p. 29). 

The question is whether it is in fact a reliable substitute for religion, that is, whether it can offer a safe new anchorage for the spirit.  Rothko and Somoroff suggest that it can, although there notions of religion are at odds.  I think that modern artists in general, and Rothko in particular, articulate the spiritual crisis of modernity, rather than resolve it.  (Science and technology are the real substitutes for religion in modernity, that is, we have invested what faith and hope we still have in them, and expect them to be charitable.)  Modern art can be understood as the art the soul makes in its darkest night, which seems the point of the Rothko Chapel paintings.  In contrast, Somoroff is “postmodern” in that he sees the light at the end of the tunnel of disbelief that is modernity, that is, he believes in spiritual consciousness rather than despairs of it.  If, as William James writes in The Varieties of Religious Experience [1902] (New York:  Modern Library, n.d.), p. 47, in a religious state of mind “the hour of our moral death has turned into our spiritual birthday,” then Rothko depicts the hour of our moral death and Somoroff celebrates our spiritual birthday.  Or, to put this in religious terms, Rothko’s obscure paintings convey the darkness of the deus abscunditas while Somoroff’s archisculpture conveys, with a kind of revelatory joy, divine light in all its spiritual glory and intensity.  One might say that Somoroff has insight into the spiritual, while Rothko waits in the darkness for it.

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