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).

My little boy outside the Rothko Chapel (dedicated February 1971)

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.

Interior of Rothko Chapel. Paintings created between 1964-1967

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.

  • LeGrand says:

    Did someone say, “Holbein?” 🙂

    I’m jealous you got to go to the chapel. Jaime and I even considered driving down and crashing your trip…until we looked it up on google maps! I haven’t been, but this made me think of the trip we took to DC with Marian. I hadn’t really thought much about Rothko before visiting that room in the phillips collection. It was a pretty intense experience in there. When people learn I studied at history, they often ask, “if money wasn’t an issue, what work of art would you buy?” (i think it’s their creative way of asking who is my favorite artist…which I don’t have, sorry Holbein) and since DC, I’ve always said I’d buy a Rothko, hang it in my living room and never leave the house!

  • Val S. says:

    I have to add an addendum to my comment. Now that I read the essay in Three Pipe Problem, I realize the mausoleum of Constantina is round – I thought it was octagonal (it looks that way on the interior).

  • Ben says:

    Nice post! I’m married to a native Houstonian and so am lucky enough to have paid repeated visits to the Rothko chapel. I’m impressed by how it feels different each time I visit, partly because different things are happening in the chapel, and partly because the light changes and this alters one’s perception of the colours in the space. Yes, colours!

    A digression (?): I’m sorry you had to endure the piano tuner’s repeated note, but your story reminded me of a nice anecdote about Whistler, which I quote below. (Sorry, it’s fairly long.) What especially interests me is the connection between music and (1) abstraction, and (2) the tradition of the monochrome.


    “In the “Symphony in White No. III.” by Mr. Whistler there are many dainty varieties of tint, but it is not precisely a symphony in white. The Saturday Review, June 1, 1867. P. G. Hamerton. One lady has a yellowish dress and brown hair and a bit of blue ribbon, the other has a red fan, and there are flowers and green leaves. There is a girl in white on a white sofa, but even this girl has reddish hair; and of course there is the flesh colour of the complexions.

    How pleasing that such profound prattle should inevitably find its place in print! […]

    Bon Dieu! did this wise person expect white hair and chalked faces? And does he then, in his astounding consequence, believe that a symphony in F contains no other note, but shall be a continued repetition of F, F, F.?… Fool!” [Quoted in “The Gentle Art of Making Enemies.”]

  • Thanks for the comments! Val, the idea of a wayside chapel is really appealing. I wish that there were more of them. (I’d love a Holbein chapel, myself!)

    Josh, that Rothko Room in the Phillips Collection is amazing. I still think back to the few times I have visited that room. Really, I think that the Rothko Room was more of a poignant experience for me than the chapel, but I am drawn to Rothko’s use of intense colors combinations. On the other hand, though, I really loved visiting a chapel to see paintings, instead of just a white cube.

    I loved the Whistler anecdote, Ben. I bet that piano tuner would have liked it, too!

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This blog focuses on making Western art history accessible and interesting to all types of audiences: art historians, students, and anyone else who is curious about art. Alberti’s Window is maintained by Monica Bowen, an art historian and professor.