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Artist Mark Rothko's Sanctuary For Contemplation, Congregation & Humanity

March, 2023
The Rothko Chapel, Houston, Texas © Photo: Hickey Robertson/The Rothko Chapel

The Rothko Chapel, both a chapel and contemporary work of art, contains 14 monumental paintings by American artist Mark Rothko — initiated by a commission (by John and Dominique de Menil) in 1971 — as a sanctuary for meditation, personal contemplation and a space for human rights. Atypical to Rothko’s notable use of vibrant hues in his colour-field paintings, the works are unequivocally dark in shades of rich ruby and black, presenting an endless and all-encompassing depth as a ‘window to the beyond’.

The rectangular, abstract expressionist paintings sit within a custom-designed octagonal room — as requested by Rothko — as if enveloped within and removing all unnecessary distractions. Over extensive time and patience, viewers can witness an otherworldly calm and the paintings true complexity, revealing layers of uneven washes of pigment and subtle colourings that result in an infinite depth.

For those who enter the space, the chapel instills an immediately compelling and unanimous feeling of a ‘holy space’ — free of religious expectations and rather united by the pure nature of human connection. Founder Dominique de Menil desired for it to be more than an art gallery and rather viewed The Rothko Chapel more of a meeting point — a gathering place “of people who are not just going to debate and discuss theological problems, but who are going to meet because they want to find contact with other people. They are searching for this brotherhood of humanity.”

With a humble presence yet imposing form, the largest of the 14 canvases inside The Rothko Chapel stands at 15 by 11 feet. Exactly as intended. Rothko once quoted, “We favor the simple expression of the complex thought. We are for the large shape because it has the impact of the unequivocal. We wish to reassert the picture plane. We are for flat forms because they destroy illusion and reveal truth.”

Although Rothko himself never lived to see the completion of the space (he committed suicide one year prior), the space could be described just as melancholic and contemplative as the artist himself. Yet although being the darkest murals he ever painted, their only purpose was to evoke existential wonder. “He wanted us to really engage with the big questions: not to be afraid of them, but to revel in them,” noted the artists son, Christopher Rothko.

When Christopher visited the site himself, he ended up spending an hour and 15 minutes inside. Although being just a child when the chapel was first complete, he returned again only as an adult at 33 years of age. Noting the impact of the visit, he detailed, “The time just sort of stopped running. I can’t even tell you where I went at that point. I just know it was a Rothko experience unlike one I’ve had before.”

1409 Sul Ross Ave,
Houston, Texas

This feature was originally published in Ala Champ Magazine Print Issue 8.

Discover more extraordinary art destinations around the world, here.
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March, 2023