Saturday, January 14th, 2012
Thoughts on the Rothko Chapel
A few days ago I was invited to speak to some students about my experience last month, when I visited the Rothko Chapel. Before visiting the Caravaggio show in Fort Worth, my family and I flew to Houston expressly to visit the Rothko Chapel.
My husband and I feel like Rothko would have approved of our pilgrimage to Houston. Before he had even received the commission to make the chapel paintings, Rothko had considered the idea of wayside chapels or one-man museums spread across the country. He liked the idea of having a person travel to a specific place (and even better, a place that was difficult to access) to see a work of art.1 That way, it seemed likely that the viewer would be more invested in seeing the specific art that was on display – as opposed to say, if the viewer happened to see some art within a gigantic museum or on the wall of a restaurant (cough – The Four Seasons in the Seagram Building – cough).
One of the main things that struck me about the exterior of the Rothko Chapel was the heavy masonry of the structure. I was immediately reminded of Byzantine churches and mausoleums in Ravenna like San Vitale and Galla Placidia. Only after visiting this chapel did I learn that Rothko wanted to have the structure of the chapel be a merge between architecture of the East and West. In fact, Rothko was particularly impressed with the Byzantine church S. Maria Assunta (near Venice). San Vital and S. Maria Assunta both have octagonal floor plans, too, similar to the Rothko Chapel.
Upon entering the Rothko Chapel, I was confronted with an environment that was a little bit unique and unexpected. I was planning to be in a place that looked serene (like the image above) or perhaps even see someone meditating in front of Rothko’s purple and black canvases. That evening, though, the chapel was preparing to host a Christmas concert. There were a lot of instruments and chairs covering the chapel floor – and there was a piano tuner. For the whole time that my family and I were in the chapel (about fifteen minutes), the tuner played the same high-pitched note over and over and over. It was very distracting and frustrating, although there was something horribly ironic in hearing the repeated note and looking at fourteen large-scale canvases that have little variation (at least upon first glance).
I felt like the environment was both peaceful and oppressive – something that definitely was influenced by my friend the piano tuner, but I think that the paintings also contributed to this environment. Likewise, I also felt like the chapel both embraced and rejected history/context. The austere white walls and clean lines of the chapel fit well within the modern aesthetic, but other aspects of the chapel were very reminiscent of historical traditions. Even some of the panels were hung in a triptych form, which gave the suggestion of history and context. (In fact, this commission originally was intended for a chapel on a Catholic university campus.)
It was a rather interesting and yet somewhat conflicting experience in the chapel for me. But I suppose that is what Rothko would have liked me to experience. He was interested in the conflict created by the human condition, wasn’t he?
Have you ever been to the Rothko Chapel? What was your experience?
1 James E. B. Breslin, Mark Rothko (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993), 464.