If you wanted to conjure a world of mystery, what better instrument to lead the way than one that possesses neither the brightness of the violin nor the darkness of the cello?
Morton Feldman, Rothko Chapel (1971), live, Houston (Rothko Chapel), 2011; Kim Kashkashian (viola), Brian Del Signore (percussion), Sarah Rothenberg (celeste), Maureen Broy Papovich (soprano), Houston Chamber Choir (Robert Simpson, cond.)
Another take? Here.
The Rothko Chapel is an interfaith sanctuary, a center for human rights — and a one-man art museum devoted to 14 monumental paintings by abstract expressionist Mark Rothko. The Houston landmark, commissioned by John and Dominique de Menil, opened its doors 40 years ago, in February 1971.
For the past four decades, the chapel has encouraged cooperation between people of all faiths — or of no faith at all. While the chapel itself has become an art landmark and a center for human-rights action, the sanctuary’s creator never lived to see it finished. Rothko committed suicide in 1970.
Approaching the chapel from the south, visitors first see a steel sculpture called Broken Obelisk by Barnett Newman in the middle of a pool — it appears to be floating on the surface of the water. The chapel itself is a windowless, octagonal brick building. Solid black doors open on a tiny glass-walled foyer. (The foyer was walled off from the rest of the interior when the Gulf Coast’s notorious humidity began to affect the paintings.)
The main room is a hushed octagonal space with gray stucco walls, each filled by massive paintings. Some walls feature one canvas, while on others, three canvases hang side by side to form a triptych. A baffled skylight subdues the bright Houston sun, and the surfaces of the paintings change dramatically as unseen clouds pass outside. There are eight austere wooden benches informally arranged, and today, a few meditation mats. A young woman brings the meditation hour to a close by striking a small bowl with a mallet, creating a soft peal of three bells in the intense silence of the room.
Concerts, conferences, lectures, weddings and memorial services all take place in the chapel throughout the year, but on most days you will find visitors — about 55,000 annually come to see, to meditate, to write in the large comment book in the foyer, to read the variety of well-thumbed religious texts available on benches at the entrance.
These paintings do not feature the luminous color fields that made Rothko famous. The paintings in the chapel are dark, in purplish or black hues. And there’s a reason for that, says [chapel historian Suna] Umari.
“They’re sort of a window to beyond,” she explains. “He said the bright colors sort of stop your vision at the canvas, where dark colors go beyond. And definitely you’re looking at the beyond. You’re looking at the infinite.”
At first glance, the paintings appear to be made up of solid, dark colors. But look closely, and it becomes evident that the paintings are composed of many uneven washes of pigment that create variations in every inch. Stepping back, waves of subtle color difference appear across the broad surfaces — leading to an unmistakable impression of physical depth.
Though Mark Rothko didn’t live to see the sanctuary he created, Christopher Rothko says his father knew what it should be.
“It took me a while to realize it, but that’s really my father’s gift, in a sense, to somebody who comes to the chapel. It’s a place that will really not just invite, but also demand a kind of journey.”
—Pat Dowell, “Meditation and Modern Art Meet In Rothko Chapel,” NPR, 3/1/11
Our lives are Swiss –
So still – so Cool –
Till some odd afternoon
The Alps neglect their Curtains
And we look farther on!
Italy stands the other side!
While like a guard between –
The solemn Alps –
The siren Alps