It is, by design, dark, obscure. Some people, upon entering, feel uneasy, claustrophobic, creeped out. Others walk in, look around, shrug their shoulders, and ask, “Where are the paintings?” Some, however, fall rapturously in love with the space; its silence — its very darkness — draws them in and keeps them there, even after they’ve exited, back into the sunlight.
Many works of art and architecture elicit such an array of subjective reactions, but the Rothko Chapel seems to make puzzlement an intent. It is at once a site-specific art installation containing 14 enormous paintings by Mark Rothko and a consecrated interfaith chapel with a mission of promoting civil rights — but neither of these “programs” is made explicit. The abstraction that characterizes Rothko’s mature and later work is carried through in the architecture of the chapel, which was designed by Howard Barnstone and Eugene Aubry in collaboration with the artist and the de Menils, who provided the money and the impetus. If it weren’t for the fact that it sits in a plaza, on axis with a reflecting pool anchored on the far end by Barnett Newman’s Broken Obelisk, one might mistake the unassuming, windowless, beige brick building for a mechanical plant serving chilled water to nearby University of St. Thomas.
Abstract, but not without references. The chapel is interfaith, but its allusions are Roman Catholic, the faith of the patrons. The octagonal plan is said to be inspired by Byzantine churches. Many of the paintings are presented as triptychs, based upon images of the crucifixion that Rothko studied in Italy. This sort of appropriation and whittling down of ancient, mytho-religious sources was not uncommon among Rothko’s abstract expressionist contemporaries. In much of modern art and literature in general it was seen as an antidote to the emptiness of modern life. Many modern architects did the same thing, a fact that challenges the view of modernism as being a total break from everything that came before.
Death and the contemplation thereof are invited by the chapel (this is true even if you don’t know that Rothko killed himself before it was completed), death and, considering the Christian underpinning, resurrection. The paintings, though intimidatingly big, looming, and dark, are not black, as many people think. They’re multi-colored: blacks and browns and purples and reds. They sort of resemble what it looks like when you close your eyes. There is prevailing darkness, but there are also splotches of light and color, like sunlight passing through skin and blood vessels. They maybe picture the moment between sleeping and waking, when consciousness is just becoming aware, but is not yet sure what exactly it is aware of.
Broken Obelisk, out in its reflecting pool, is also a sort of monument to death and rebirth. Newman’s reference was, of course, ancient Egypt, whose monuments were all about death and the afterlife. The de Menils purchased it with the idea of gifting it to the City of Houston to be used as a memorial for the recently assassinated Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The city turned it down, so here it sits.
It is said that one of the chief reasons Rothko was so excited about this commission was that it was for a place far from the center of the art world, a.k.a. New York City. A Russian Jew of Latvian origin, he grew up in Portland, Oregon, and had a life-long commitment to left wing politics. As a result, his relationship with his fame and success was an uneasy one, and he openly despised many of the wealthy patrons who paid increasingly lavish sums for his work. There is some irony, then, in the fact that Houston is now jockeying for a place in the international art circuit — consider the new Steven Holl buildings at the Museum of Fine Arts, the Drawing Institute at the Menil, and, yes, the recently completed work that Architecture Research Office has done on the Rothko Chapel itself (look for more in-depth coverage in a forthcoming issue of Texas Architect) — but surely, by the end, Rothko knew that his aspirations for social justice and an art based solely upon spirituality were, for the most part, hopeless.
For the most part. As in Rothko’s paintings in the chapel, some light gets through, eventually. Houston may have turned down a monument to the slain Dr. King in the late ’60s, but just in September, Harris County Commissioners Court approved transforming Quebedeaux Park in downtown into a memorial for victims of lynching and racial injustice. Has the Rothko Chapel had any appreciable effect on this change in attitude? It’s hard to say. It certainly hasn’t hurt.