GOD IS IN THE DETAILS

THE ROTHKO CHAPEL

For anyone with an appreciation of Mark Rothko’s melancholy colorfield paintings, the chapel devoted to his work in Texas offers a particularly poignant experience. It is easy to lose yourself in Rothko’s vast and brooding canvases wherever you are lucky enough to experience them, but here in Houston they take on an extra layer of meaning. Of all the places that have devoted space to his paintings, this seems the most profound – a designated non-denominational chapel for reflection and meditation that was only realized a year after Rothko’s death from suicide in his Manhattan studio in February 1970. Knowing what we know about the artist and his lack of tolerance for all but the most sedate and respectful environments in which to view his work, it may well be that, had he lived, he would have found in the chapel the kind of perfection of experience he had sought all his life.

The story behind the chapel is as compelling as the 14 works it houses. It began as the dream project of two fabulously wealthy art patrons, John and Dominique de Menil. The couple had arrived in Texas from Paris in the early 1940s, and were, according to Grace Glueck writing in the New York Times in 1986, “[a]lmost too interesting. Hewing to the European tradition of millionaire radicals, they came to be Houston’s most rewardingly subversive citizens, bringing maverick ideas to the provinces about art, politics and what to do with money.” They commissioned Philip Johnson to create a remarkable single-level modernist house, and filled it with incredible contemporary art. They supported Martin Luther King and hosted unsegregated dinner parties at a time when it was seen as scandalous. They also brought artists to Houston and put the city on the cultural map.

When the de Menils first had the idea for a space dedicated to Mark Rothko’s work, it was conceived “as a no man’s land of God,” according to Dominique de Menil, “for people in search of peace, meditation and a more intense consciousness.” There would be a broken obelisk sculpture – by Barnett Newman – in front of the main structure and a reflecting pool surrounding it, to express the patrons’ attitudes towards art, politics and religion. Philip Johnson would be drafted in to create the chapel itself, in collaboration with the artist whose work would be the focal point of the whole enterprise. Except things didn’t go to plan. Rothko bristled at Johnson’s attitude and aesthetic. Here were two cultural titans of the 20th century who could find no common ground. And Rothko’s uncompromising nature had been well established – he had already reneged on a deal to provide murals for the Four Seasons restaurant at the Seagram Building in Manhattan a decade earlier, giving the finished work to the Tate in London rather than have it be used as decoration for something as frivolous as a dining room.

Eventually, work in progress on the designs for the chapel was handed over to local architects Howard Barnstone and Eugene Aubry. The resulting brick octagon is the perfect milieu in which to experience Rothko’s dark art. It is hushed and sepulchral, but also uplifting in its way. The work it contains – executed in dark purple, maroon and black – comes from the most troubled part of someone’s psyche, but is also sublime. The artist once told a group of students that for all the darkness in his work, he always incorporated “10% to make the tragic concept more endurable.” Rothko was bleak, but offered optimism. It is why these works are challenging, but also so pleasurable to spend time with.

The refurbishment by Architecture Research Office brings the Rothko Chapel back to the pristine standard it debuted with, a year after Rothko’s death. There are new buildings in the vicinity, but the adjustments to the chapel itself are largely restorative and focused on the play of ambient illumination. The works are still lit by a single skylight, conceived to match the one in the studio in which Rothko died, but it has been reconfigured to take away obstructions. Less has given more. In a world where galleries are curated according to the most appealing way to share an experience on social media, the Rothko Chapel remains an all too rare place for genuine contemplation and introspection.

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The Rothko Chapel is a designated non-denominational space for reflection and meditation that was only realized a year after Rothko’s death.

Rothko was bleak, but offered optimism. It is why these works are challenging, but also so pleasurable to spend time with.

When the de Menils first had the idea for a space dedicated to Mark Rothko’s work, it was conceived “as a no man’s land of God.”

The brick octagon is the perfect milieu in which to experience Rothko’s dark art.

Rothko’s work – executed in dark purple, maroon and black – comes from the most troubled part of someone’s psyche, but is also sublime.

In a world where galleries are curated according to the most appealing way to share an experience on social media, the Rothko Chapel remains an all too rare place for genuine contemplation and introspection.

A broken obelisk sculpture – by Barnett Newman – in front of the main structure and a reflecting pool surrounding it, expresses the de Menils’ attitudes towards art, politics and religion.

In the newly refurbished chapel, realized by Architecture Research Office, the works are still lit by a single skylight, conceived to match the one in the studio in which Rothko died, but it has been reconfigured to take away obstructions. Less has given more.

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For anyone with an appreciation of Mark Rothko’s melancholy colorfield paintings, the chapel devoted to his work offers a particularly poignant experience.