Leaving the Rothko Chapel

Dedicated in 1971 as the Ecumenical Chapel for Human Development, but rarely referred to as such, the Rothko Chapel stands conspicuously in an inconspicuous Houston neighborhood. My guidebook compares its exterior to that of a nuclear bunker, which, though rather uncharitable, is not entirely off the mark. From the outside it could be almost anything: a low-slung gymnasium annex, a tiny ordnance, a telecommunications hub.

On the inside, the chapel suggests both austerity and excess. Sparsely but strongly lit, with grayish walls and a grayer floor, fourteen large canvases stand staggered around the perimeter of an octagonal room. Formidable triptychs to the north, east, and west are spelled by four intervening single canvases; all thirteen bear down on a lone canvas centered upon the south wall. This last, styled as an image of damnation, counterbalances the opposing triptych to the north, said to be an image of salvation.

Image is a loose term here, since they’re not images—not really. The single canvases are entirely black, and the salvation triptych constrains itself to a deep and subtly modulating purple that seems to fade into its own shadow. The damnation canvas consists of a field of black bleeding into a field of blood red. Taken together, they are the darkest of all Rothko canvases, in every sense of the word dark. For some reason, I had imagined a space full of Rothko’s color field paintings, which are sometimes dull, but often almost bright—each and every one a trademark symbol of existential defiance, lingering in poster form upon the walls of dorm rooms and studio apartments.

I had seen Rothkos before, and I had seen Texas before, but never in the same place at the same time. It wasn’t a pilgrimage, but I did expect the Chapel to be a quasi-religious experience, and it was—merely one in a weekend full of them, from the consumer mecca of Houston’s teeming Galleria Mall to the uncanny relics of the minor San Antonio Missions, all the way back to the drab sublimities of Houston’s endless twelve-lane interstate highways.

Houston is one of the few cities that runs daily flights between its own airports. Once you’ve arrived, it surrounds you and keeps coming at you, no matter where you turn. If you manage to escape it, Texas presents you with an even grander encompassment. As such, it provides the perfect location for the Rothko Chapel—a Lone Star space if ever there was one.

Even from the foyer, I could tell that the chapel, like the surrounding neighborhood, would be virtually deserted. The greeter was disarmingly casual—not exactly disabusing me of my loftiest expectations, but not quite reinforcing them either. For a moment I thought that I might be in the wrong place.

As I stepped into the chapel proper, I realized that entering would be like entering any other chapel. It inspired excitement—even nervousness—at the threshold. I sat down and collected my thoughts, adjusting more quickly than expected to the changed light and the imposing surroundings. My best intentions notwithstanding, I grew bored rather soon, rallied gradually, and inevitably faded again.

The chapel is an abstract space, and as such I found myself slightly offended by its stated concerns for “peace, freedom and social justice throughout the world”—as though its interest in such laudable goals might somehow render them abstract by association. Like any shrine, it inspired its fair share of scoffs and reverent gazes from the few seekers I encountered there. For very different reasons, the skeptics and converts marveled the chapel’s detached majesty, wondering how it managed to transform a modicum of evidence with such flat focus into something very considerable indeed.

As I approached it, I wanted to believe in it, and at certain points in the course of my brief visit I think I almost did. Yet, after further reflection, I must own myself to be an apostate of the church of Mark.

There is something telling in Rothko’s 1940s notion of “objective impressionism,” first formulated as he began his aesthetic transition from figuration to abstraction. Here is a paradox suggesting a strained confidence in a pair of unforgiving worldviews: positivism and relativism. For if only the observable is verifiable, and all observation is variable, what, in the end, can be verified? We seem to be left with a remainder that verges upon nothing.

Is the Rothko Chapel, then, a monument to nothing? Not quite. Does it stand on its own? No, not really—or, rather, not usually. But Barnett Newman’s Broken Obelisk (1963-67) had been removed for conservation just prior to my visit, and so for me the Rothko Chapel was just as singular as it could possibly be. And perhaps that was as its maker had intended.

Initially planned in 1965 as the crown jewel in the campus of the University of St. Thomas, a small Catholic university in Houston, the prospective chapel became too significant for its own proposed setting, shifting, while still in disputed blueprints, to the Texas Medical Center, and finally, less than a year after its dedication, establishing itself as an institution and a corporation in its own right.

The original architect, Philip Johnson, withdrew from the project at an early stage, citing irreconcilable differences with Rothko. Johnson’s proposed ceilings were too high—they needed to be the height of Rothko’s 69th Street carriage-house studio in Manhattan, since the paintings needed to be arranged precisely as they had been arranged within the mock-up chapel Rothko had erected there. Moreover, the Houston skylight, the Houston floors and the Houston walls needed to appear exactly as they appeared in the New York studio—to the exact dimensions, with the walls, as Rothko suggested, cast to approximate the color of his own skin.

But Houston light is not New York light, and the result has never been entirely satisfactory.

Composer Morton Feldman, who wrote a score about the Rothko Chapel called The Rothko Chapel (1972), explained that Rothko was free to do but a single thing—to make a Rothko, over and over again. Such is the fate of all artists, to a greater or lesser extent, for even the most capacious artist begins a drawn-out process of self-replication beyond a certain level of success. In Rothko’s case the replication seems particularly acute—but does that suggest a greater or lesser achievement? Dominique de Menil, heiress to the Schlumberger fortune and benefactress of the Rothko Chapel, attested to Rothko’s “absolute certitude of having created the greatest religious monument of his time.” She herself did not see fit to confirm or deny the conviction.

The Rothko Chapel does stand apart from those monuments that immediately preceded it and to some extent inspired it, most notably Matisse’s Chapelle du Rosaire des Dominicaines, at Vence (1947-51), and Le Corbusier’s Notre Dame du Haut, at Ronchamp (1950-54). Such works, like Rothko’s, bear the unmistakable mark of their designer. Yet at the same time, however imperfectly and idiosyncratically, they manage to honor the tradition that brought them into being.

Rothko, it might be objected, had no religious values in particular—and thus no tradition to honor. As such, the chapel simply tries to conjure the spiritual without favoring any religion in particular. But due to its ecumenical mission, all signs of the chapel’s Catholic origins have been effaced, even though Rothko understood his paintings to be destined for a specifically Catholic setting.

This buried fact raises an important question: why would Rothko, born into Judaism and evolving into atheism, jump at the chance to adorn what was intended for the chapel of a Catholic university? After all, he had forsworn all interest in any commission remotely related to a synagogue. In this respect he stands distinct from Marc Chagall, whose stained-glass windows at the synagogue of the Hadassah-Hebrew University Medical Center, at Jerusalem (1962) serve as a testament to Chagall’s artistic autonomy in the context of his religious fidelity.

The answer usually holds that Rothko saw the opportunity to practice his craft in an unfamiliar religious setting as a chance to come to terms with his ultimate beliefs. But in what, then, did Rothko ultimately believe? In nothing, I submit, but himself and his art. The Rothko Chapel is, finally, evidence of a spiritual quest consisting entirely of—and devoted entirely to—his own creation. As such, it is appositely known as the Rothko Chapel, less a monument to human development than a monument to its own existence.

Like any apostate, I began to feel cranky, guilty, and perplexed about my errancy. Preparing to leave the Rothko Chapel, I noticed a middle-aged man wearing a Texas A&M t-shirt and denim shorts as he approached the docent on duty, a prim, elderly woman dressed in a black sweater, blue shirt, and black skirt.

“What’s the point?” he asked in a tone at once arid and dripping with contempt.

I wasn’t able to catch the entirety of her reply, though it seemed courteous enough, involving matters of the “philanthropic vision of the Menils,” of an “ecumenical approach to religion,” and of “a quiet place for reflection.”

Reflecting upon her remarks, the Aggie nodded his head, smiled, and swiveled his hips toward the exit, concluding, without a word of thanks—

“I came—I saw—I go.”

I followed. Thick and hot though the Houston air was, it came as a kind of relief.

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