One of the first attractions I heard about when I moved to Houston was the highly revered Rothko Chapel. But back in 1987 I regrettably knew little about Mark Rothko; I was green enough to stick in the ground and grow. I studied up on Rothko a bit and looked forward to the excursion. So imagine my chagrin when, for the first time, I walked into this esteemed sanctuary and wondered where all the paintings were.
But I did find the paintings, they were right in front of my face, and I have been back for many visits…
“But nobody is visually naive any longer. We are cluttered with images, and only abstract art can bring us to the threshold of the divine.” Dominique de Menil
My mother passed away last week resulting in a funerary week diet of fried meats and alcohol; coupled with stress I was owner of an unrelenting week-long headache. Back in Houston I tried riding my bike to relieve some tension—and one afternoon it popped into my mind to bike to the Rothko Chapel. Not only is the Rothko a top tourist destination, it is truly one of the most serene spaces one might ever visit.
“It is a place where a great artist, turned towards the Absolute, had the courage to paint almost nothing—and did it masterfully. It is a place blessed by the many people who gather there to meditate, to find themselves, and to go beyond themselves.” Dominique de Menil
Mark Rothko (1903 –1970) was an American painter categorized as an Abstract Expressionist. Along with the likes of Jackson Pollock and Cy Twombly he changed the landscape of American art and is regarded as one of the most famous painters of the 20th century. He became known for applying thin overlapping layers of paint with fast brushstrokes onto raw canvas creating a build-up of color and shape. As his fame and success grew he became increasingly eccentric and protective of his work. He developed a fear that he was misunderstood and that his works sold because they were fashionable; he truly wanted to be understood by the public and by academics.
Rothko increasingly emphasized the spiritual aspects of his paintings in his later years.
Dominique and John de Menil came to Texas by way of France after World War II; Dominique was a Schlumberger. They were active pioneers for civil and human rights in Houston and greatly influenced the city culturally and artistically. Familiar with the churches featuring paintings by such luminaries as Fernand Leger or Henri Matisse they understood what a master could do for a religious building; that given a free hand he could “exalt and uplift.”
They offered Rothko a commission for the chapel in 1964; Rothko intended it to be his most important statement.
With architecture by Philip Johnson, Howard Barnstone, and Eugene Aubry is not only a non-denominational chapel but a work of modern art. The octagonal building encases fourteen massive canvases that appear dark—in fact if one did not know they were paintings, it might just seem like purple/black walls. But that is the drama Rothko intended, effectively surrounding the viewer with imposing visions of darkness. He often sought to overwhelm the viewer with massive vertical compositions.
“I also hang the pictures low rather than high, and particularly in the case of the largest ones, often as close to the floor as is feasible, for that is the way they are painted.” Mark Rothko
The Rothko Chapel opened in 1971 but the artist never saw his masterpiece completed. Just a year prior an assistant found Rothko dead on his kitchen floor; he had committed suicide with a razorblade. And despite prevalent rumors, he did not kill himself on one of the chapel canvases; nor is it established that painting black canvases for so many years depressed him to the point of suicide.
The Menils possessed remarkable vision—almost clairvoyance. Today interest is greater than ever in Rothko’s work as evident by the incredible market for his pieces. In 2012 a painting from the estate of clothing manufacturer David Pincus (poor little Pincus) entitled Orange, Red, Yellow sold at Christies in New York for $87 million; it set a new record for a postwar painting at auction. Rothko is red hot and arguably the greatest manifestation of his genius is the chapel.
“It would be good if little places could be set up all over the country, like a little chapel where the traveler, or wanderer, could come for an hour to meditate on a single painting hung in a small room, and by itself.” Mark Rothko
A striking and magnificent ornament outside the Rothko Chapel is Broken Obelisk by Barnett Newman. The monumental sculpture is ensconced by the Philip Johnson designed reflecting pool and is dedicated to Martin Luther King, Jr. (I heard that the Menils originally bought the sculpture and brought it to Houston to stand in front of city Hall; but the gift was declined so it was installed at the chapel.)
I remember the time period when I lived in one of the Menil properties that surround the complex and I would take Penny Lane to play in the reflecting pool. At that time, in the day before dog parks, the Rothko Chapel was a meeting ground for the neighborhood doggy set. That activity is, I’m sure, more than frowned upon today. But oh how Penny Lane loved splashing through that pool on a hot summer day!
In 2000 the Rothko Chapel was added to the National Register of Historic Places; and it is listed as one of National Geographic’s Sacred Places of a Lifetime. It is not only a tourist attraction as an art installation but it is a marvelous place for reflection, meditation, prayer, mourning, or nurturing a broken heart.