On the threshold of the divine with Mark Rothko

It is forty years since the Rothko Chapel opened as a lasting memorial to the eclectic vision of one of the great painters of the 20th century, obsessed by art that expresses “more of what one thinks than of what one sees.”

Mark Rothko (1903-70) is closely identified with the New York School, a circle of painters that emerged during the 1940s as a new collective voice in American art. Rothko’s work is characterized by rigorous attention to formal elements such as colour, shape, balance, depth, composition, and scale, together with a unique approach to content. He once said, “It is a widely accepted notion among painters that it does not matter what one paints as long as it is well painted. This is the essence of academicism. There is no such thing as good painting about nothing.”

The non-denominational Rothko Chapel in Houston, Texas, is a space for meditation founded on the initiative of art collectors John and Dominique de Menil. The interior serves not only as a chapel, but also as a major work of modern art. On its walls are fourteen black, colour-hued paintings by the Latvian-born American painter Mark Rothko. The shape of the building, an octagon inscribed in a Greek cross, and the design of the chapel was largely influenced by the artist.

The Rothko Chapel was the world’s first broadly ecumenical centre, a spiritual place open to all religions and belonging to none. It became the focus of international cultural, religious, and philosophical exchanges, colloquia and artistic performances. And it became a place of private meditation for individuals of all faiths.

For the artist himself, the Chapel was intended to be a place of pilgrimage far from the commercial centre of art (in his case, New York), to which seekers of Rothko’s newly awakened religiosity could journey. Initially, the Chapel was to be specifically Roman Catholic, and during the first three years of the project (1964-67) Rothko believed it would remain so. Thus Rothko’s design of the building and the religious implications of the paintings were inspired by Roman Catholic art and architecture, although its octagonal shape is based on the Byzantine church of Santa. Maria Assunta, Torcello, Italy.

The Chapel paintings consist of a monochrome triptych on the central wall (three 5-by-15-foot panels), and a pair of triptychs on the left and right made of opaque black rectangles. Between the triptychs are four individual paintings (11 by 15 feet each), and one additional individual painting faces the central triptych from the opposite wall. The effect is to surround the viewer with massive, imposing visions of darkness that, paradoxically, invite the viewer to peer inside them.

The Chapel was opened just one year after Rothko committed suicide. At the dedication on February 28, 1971, Dominique de Menil, noting the artist’s courage in painting what she called “impenetrable fortresses” of colour, put forward the interesting notion that modern life is “cluttered with images and only abstract art can bring us to the threshold of the divine.” We don’t know if the enigmatic Rothko would have agreed.


One comment on “On the threshold of the divine with Mark Rothko

  1. Casey Klahn says:

    This is the only place I’ve read about the initial Roman Catholic purpose of the Rothko Chapel. Pretty interesting.

    There is an experience that comes form viewing Rothko’s work that makes it obvious why a chapel should be decorated with them. Depth. Meaning. Participation. Incarnation. These are words that come to mind.

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