When Houston philanthropists, art collectors, and activists Dominique and John de Menil commissioned the American artist Mark Rothko to create the paintings for the Rothko Chapel, the artist was at the height of his career. He had arrived at the style we recognize him for today by about 1950 and was widely recognized for his work. It was the mature artist who received his first commission, murals intended for the Four Seasons restaurant in New York City’s Seagram building, in 1958. In 1960, the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C. gave him a small one-man exhibition, acquired two of his paintings, and subsequently dedicated a room for their Rothko paintings. In 1961, the Museum of Modern Art gave him a major one-man exhibition, and that year he also received a commission for murals for Harvard University. It was just after these important events, in 1962, when the de Menils met Mark Rothko for the first time. In 1964, they visited him at his New York studio where they saw the Four Seasons paintings and asked him to create murals for a chapel for the University of St. Thomas, a Roman Catholic institution, in Houston.
Born in Russia in 1903, Mark Rothko had immigrated with his parents to the United States when he was a child and grew up in Portland, Oregon. As a high school student in Portland, then at Yale University, which he attended on scholarship for a year, he developed an interest in drawing. In New York, where he moved permanently in 1925, he began to study, to teach art to children (1929-1952 at the Center Academy at the Brooklyn Jewish Center) and to show his work in various exhibitions.
Throughout the 1940s, his work moved from stylized, content-driven canvases to arrangements of abstract forms, and by 1950 he had developed the essence of what he would explore for the rest of his life: one or more rectangular forms floating on a field of color.
The de Menils gave Rothko an artist’s dream—the opportunity to create a total environment. As Mrs. de Menil’s described when the Chapel opened, “In the summer of 1952, we visited…the churches where Fernand Léger and Henri Matisse, two towering artists of their time, had contributed their greatest work. We visited also the site where Le Corbusier was going to build his famous Chapel of Ronchamp. We saw what a master could do for a religious building when he is given a free hand. He can exalt and uplift as no one else.” Rothko had free rein to create a modern, meditative space. Rothko worked intensely for three years to create the fourteen panels, which he completed in 1967, all the while believing he was creating art for a chapel at a Catholic university, Houston’s University of St. Thomas, whose master plan Philip Johnson was designing.
The Chapel project was the first one in which Rothko was to have a role in determining the architectural environment that was to house his paintings. In the previous commissions, for the Seagram Building and for Harvard, he had created paintings for spaces that were already designed. It was, apparently, Rothko’s idea to use an octagonal footprint for the interior, and it was only after Rothko and the Chapel’s architect, Philip Johnson, agreed upon the octagonal concept and the specifications of the interior walls, that the artist began to work on the paintings. Those discussions took place in the fall of 1964.
For Rothko, working within the dimensions of the finished space was important, so in his 69th Street New York studio he recreated part of the interior—three of the chapel walls built to the exact dimension of the finished chapel. The mock-up was completed in mid-December 1964.
From then until the spring of 1967, when Rothko finished the murals, he worked exclusively on the project. Over the course of the project, three men assisted him. William Scharf was a personal friend and a painter; he worked with Rothko in the first year. After he left, Rothko hired Roy Edwards and Ray Kelly, two young art students, as his assistants. These three men have provided some information of how Rothko worked in his studio and how the project progressed. (Typically, Rothko was quite secretive about his work, and never painted or revealed his technique to anyone.)
The art critic Dore Ashton also provides insight. She followed the project, and conversed with Rothko as he began the commission. She said, “There were times when the cast stretchers—wooden carriers without their canvas—were leaned against the walls and contemplated for days. Times when the entire canvas on one of those stretchers had to be given up because the scale was not quite right. For months he measured and measured with his eye.” Every measurement was critical: the size of each canvas, the relation of each canvas to one another, the distance from the floor, and the distance from the ceiling.
There are also a number of preparatory pencil drawings, thoughts on paper, that show alternatives Rothko was considering.
Primarily, though, decisions about the murals were made at full-scale. The canvases were enormous, so large that it took two men to move them. Once they were hung on the walls, Rothko used a pulley system to lower or raise them to his liking. According to Scharf, in addition to measurements and sizes, in the first year of the project Rothko also experimented a great deal with color and technique.
Ultimately, Rothko settled on a triptych for the north wall, black-form triptychs for the east and west walls, a single black-form painting for the south wall, and four broad single paintings on each of the diagonal walls. In An Act of Faith, Susan J. Barnes says, “As we view the Rothko Chapel and its seemingly perfect balance of interlocking elements—seven canvases with hard-edged black rectangles on maroon ground, and seven plum-colored tonal paintings—it is important to note that both were unprecedented in Rothko’s oeuvre. In all the mural series, he diverged from his customary soft-edged rectangles floating against a background. The paintings for the Seagram Building and for Harvard have open, loosely-brushed rectangular forms. For the chapel, on the other hand, he took his usual approach to two opposite extremes: in some of his paintings he eliminated form altogether, leaving only a thin evanescent ground; in others he consolidated form into a single, large rectangle whose taped, hard-edged limits are as absolute as its impenetrable blackness.”
At the dedication of the Rothko Chapel in 1971, Mrs. de Menil remarked that the paintings Rothko had created in the ten years before the Chapel commission were preparatory to his great work, and said, “The deep brownish and purplish red had appeared already in large canvases painted in 1958 and 1959. From this time on, it became his basic and recurrent color, the color elected to bring his paintings to the maximum of poignancy, as he said. As he worked on the chapel, which was to be the greatest adventure of his life, his colors became darker and darker, as if he were bringing us to the threshold of transcendence, the mystery of the cosmos, the tragic mystery of our perishable condition.”
Later, she said, “The dark paintings of the Rothko Chapel have startled many visitors who associate darkness with gloom. Those familiar with Rothko’s earlier paintings miss the bright oranges and yellows, the pinks and greens. Most people are unprepared for the monumental gravity of these vertical panels, for the brooding solemnity of their somber colors. They feel plunged into the night. Indeed it is the night—but not quite. Even in the dim light, purplish color slowly emerges from the darkness…it is predawn. The Chapel paintings are a supreme achievement of Rothko’s life. They are the expression of an artist deeply moved by the tragedy of the human condition. They are an endeavor to go beyond art. They are an attempt to create a timeless space.”
As for the architecture, as planning progressed Rothko and Johnson disagreed and ultimately came to an impasse. The major sticking point was the way in which the paintings were to be lighted. When the de Menils were asked to take sides, they supported the artist, and Philip Johnson withdrew from the project. Howard Barnstone, who was working with Johnson on some of his other Houston projects, assumed the position of lead architect and enlisted his partner, Eugene Aubry, to complete the project. In 1970, when Barnstone became ill, Eugene Aubry turned back to Philip Johnson, who consulted and helped to complete the project.
Since its opening in 1971, the Rothko Chapel has been open every day, welcoming visitors to meditate, reflect, and immerse themselves in the transformative power of art. It observed its 40th anniversary in calendar year 2011 with special programs and events that celebrated its mission as a forum to explore human problems of worldwide concern.
In its 40 years, the Rothko Chapel has achieved international recognition as one of the greatest artistic achievements of the second half of the twentieth century. In 2001 the Chapel was listed in the National Register of Historic Places. The Chapel regularly makes top ten lists of places to visit, and is a featured entry in National Geographic’s Sacred Places of a Lifetime: 500 of the World’s Most Peaceful and Powerful Destinations. Locally, the Chapel has received numerous awards, including the Peace Award from The Houston Baha’í Community (1998), The James L. Tucker Interfaith Award from Interfaith Ministries (2004), an Urban Greenery Award from The Park People (2005), and recognition from the Houston Peace and Justice Center (2008).
The Chapel’s diverse programs engage audiences intellectually, artistically, and spiritually. It has stressed the importance of human rights by issuing awards to exceptional individuals or groups of people not generally well known who have distinguished themselves by their courage and integrity. Events at the Rothko Chapel have brought leaders, heroes, artists, musicians, scientists, and scholars from all over the world including Amiri Baraka, Mustafa Barghouti, President Jimmy Carter, the Dalai Lama, Steve Reich, Nelson Mandela, Rigoberta Menchú, Raimon Panikkar, Nelofer Pazira, Jonas Salk, and Susan Sontag. Its plaza, dominated by Barnett Newman’s powerful Broken Obelisk, is alive with conversation and dialogue. Annually, the Chapel hosts over 60,000 visitors from as many as 85 countries from around the world.
Note: For further information about the making of the Rothko Chapel, Susan J. Barnes’s Act of Faith is an excellent resource, and the public writings of Dominique de Menil are presented in The Rothko Chapel: Writings on Art and the Threshold of the Divine.