The Rothko Chapel: A ‘Living Institution’ of Art and Human Spirituality
The 1960s and 70s were decades of social change, characterized by protests and movements for better human conditions. But these pursuits do not always require vehement calls and demands. People contribute to their causes in ways they can, whether it be on the streets, in papers, or through their artistic visions.
For John and Dominique de Menil, patrons of art and human rights advocates, among these projects was the Rothko Chapel: a non-denominational institution that got its namesake from modern artist Mark Rothko, whom they commissioned for its construction. It opened in 1971 and had stood since as a spiritual space for people of all kinds of faith — or lack thereof.
“It is a living institution in many different ways,” said Christopher Rothko, Ph.D., former Chair of the Rothko Chapel Board of Directors and son of Mark Rothko himself. “That’s a tradition that we carry on and keep very active here.”
The chapel was also a personal pursuit for the philosophical Rothko, who longed to display his creative work meaningfully. The chapel houses fourteen large panels — murals that he’d conceptualized and created himself. He wanted people not only to admire his paintings but also to be moved by them:
“I’m interested only in expressing basic human emotions — tragedy, ecstasy, doom, and so on… The people who weep before my pictures are having the same religious experience I had when I painted them. And if you, as you say, are moved only by their color relationships, then you miss the point.”
Christopher believes that the project was perfect for his father. “From the earliest time in my father’s career, he imagined creating a space where he could really set the tone and have a very direct interaction with his viewer,” he said. “The Rothko Chapel was really the dream commission he had always waited for.”
Although Rothko didn’t live to see its completion, the ecumenical center has proudly stood in the heart of the Houston Museum District for 50 years since its opening in 1971. And it extends its legacy beyond its aesthetic merit as an art center. In the words of Christopher: “It’s a place to remember that you’re human in the midst of all the chaos.”
“A Dream Commission”
Aside from being human rights champions, John and Dominique de Menil were deeply enthusiastic about art. The couple recognized it far beyond its aesthetic purpose: They were inspired by its spiritual value.
In 1964, they officially commissioned Mark Rothko, whom they already knew for his previous works that they’d so admired. In Double Vision: The Unerring Eye of Art World Avatars Dominique and John de Menil, a biography on the couple, author William Middleton reported that John found his works comparable to other modern artists like Henri Matisse.
“[Rothko’s] paintings are pure color and through color, he conveys joy or concentrated meditation,” John had written to his fellow art patron Alice Brown. “They create a multi-denominational feeling of religiosity.”
Dominique felt the same way about Rothko and his art. “We saw what a great master can do for a religious building when he is given a free hand,” she said. “He can exalt and uplift as no one else.”
While his work is generally classified as abstract art, Rothko disliked being limited to the title of being an abstract painter: “I’m not an abstractionist. I’m not interested in the relationship of color or form or anything else,” he said.
He found little value in industry titles at a time where art was heavily commercialized. Rothko shunned the “noise” of art at the time — from the emerging popular styles and the way the industry is run. In 1969, when Rothko accepted an honorary doctorate from Yale University, he spoke:
“When I was a younger man, art was a lonely thing. No galleries, no collectors, no critics, no money. Yet, it was a golden age, for we all had nothing to lose and a vision to gain. Today it is not quite the same. It is a time of tons of verbiage, activity, consumption. Which condition is better for the world at large I shall not venture to discuss.
But I do know that many of those who are driven to this life are desperately searching for those pockets of silence where we can root and grow. We must all hope we find them.”
Although Rothko was born and raised in a Jewish family, he was not particularly religious. But his views — which ran parallel to those of the de Menil couple — revealed some level of his metaphysical reverence for art. “My father was not a religious man, but I do think he was a spiritual man and he reacted to their spirituality,” said Kate Rothko, his daughter. “If it were not for that, I am not sure that he would have undertaken the chapel.”
Rothko spent weeks meticulously conceptualizing his murals for the chapel, which, as Christopher had said, was “a dream commission.” Kate added: “It was impossible not to be in tune with their sincerity. He believed they were undertaking this project because it was something they loved and were committed to.”
But he was extremely perfectionistic about his work — and intensely private, too. The de Menils themselves never got to see his paintings until 1967, three years after the commission. When they encountered it for the first time, Dominique spoke of the experience: “I had expected bright colors! So, I just looked. Oh, miracle, peace invaded me,” she said. By this time, Rothko had preferred shadowed hues over light: dark purples and black over yellows and reds.
“I felt held up, embraced, and free. Nothing was stopping my gaze,” said Dominique. “There was a beyond.”
The canvasses were large, with triptychs that spanned up to 20 feet. Even before witnessing their full completion, John had again written to Brown that Rothko’s works were “deeply moving in a quiet yet powerful way.
It was a two-way street, that deep, profound feeling. It moved not only the viewer but also Rothko himself. A year before he revealed the panels to the couple, a grateful Rothko had written to them:
“The magnitude, on every level of experience and meaning, of the task in which you have involved me, exceeds all of my preconceptions. And it is teaching me to extend myself beyond what I thought was possible for me.”
Modern Art, Modern Architecture
Rothko’s paintings may be the chapel’s magnum opus, but his task went beyond the murals — he also planned its architecture. He’d worked alongside different architects during the tenure of the project, including Philip Johnson, Howard Barnstone, and Eugene Aubry.
The process wasn’t entirely smooth and some contentions were encountered. For instance, Johnson had envisioned a tall roof to allow the proper filtering of natural sunlight, which Dominique believed was inspired by the Pantheon.
But she and Rothko disliked the initial octagonal and high-spired cone layout, which was compared to a crematorium. After withdrawing from the project in 1967, Johnson was succeeded by Barnstone and Aubry.
According to Aubry, Rothko was “extremely concerned with every detail” of the building. Rothko loved the asphalt paving stones flooring — a suggestion made by Aubry — because it reminded him of his walks to Central Park.
Rothko’s Final Years
Even with his passion for the project and the craft, Rothko’s mental state was beginning to deteriorate during the latter years of the chapel’s construction. Dore Ashton, writer and friend to Rothko, described him as “highly nervous, thin, and restless.”
Kate herself told The Guardian: “No one would deny that my father was very depressed towards the end of his life. I used to be very engrossed with that idea, too.”
She describes the paintings, especially the ones in the chapel, as “darkening, becoming less accessible emotionally, more hard-edged.” Although Kate has become a witness to her father’s final works — which didn’t seem as somber as the previous ones — she couldn’t deny the emotional toll that the paintings seemed to convey. “I had a hard time separating them from his depression,” she said.
On February 25, 1970, two days after the construction contract was finalized, Rothko had committed suicide. He left no note.
But Kate holds on to the hope that people see her father’s creative work for what it was: a revolutionary mission in the name of modern art and spirituality. A year later, Rothko Chapel officially opened its doors. It’s a living testament to that mission.
Art, Culture, and the Human Spirit Lives On
In recent years, the Rothko Chapel had undergone some major restoration efforts. Rothko had reportedly intended the chapel to be filled with sunlight, which should properly illuminate the nuances of his dark-hued panels. But the result was far different from this idea: In the hopes of “preserving” the art by limiting light exposure, a dark roof overshadowed the interior and made the work look bleaker and more obscure.
The Architecture Research Office (ARO), a New York-based firm, sought to renovate the chapel according to Rothko’s original vision. “There are subtleties to the brushstroke, to the color, to the reflectivity of the paint, that you really didn’t see in the inadequate light,” said Stephen Cassell, co-founder of the firm. “I think the paintings will have more subtle depth to them and more to discover over time.”
After the renovation, Rothko Chapel re-opened in 2020 (with protocols following the pandemic), fresh and filled with sunlight. But even before then, it was an oasis for just about anyone of any background, regardless of faith and belief.
Aside from offering a quiet space for reflection, it was also a cultural center, a place where thought leaders, meditation teachers, and even performers hold various interactive programs. “We offer musical and cultural events — events that we feel captures some of the spirit of the chapel and let people re-experience the space in a new way,” said Christopher.
Thousands of people attend these programs and they represent people of all walks of life — from Houston to countries outside the United States.
“My father spent his entire career looking for a universal language in this artwork, one that could speak to everyone,” Christopher said. “I think the fact that we have more than 80,000 visitors a year — people from every possible country in the world who come here — attested that he found that language.”
Rothko’s Chapel, in and of itself, embodies the human spirit through its art and mission. It’s, as Christopher had described so perfectly, “a living institution.” Hopefully, it continues to be the beating heart of that universal language for posterity.