Rothko Chapel Celebrates its 50th Anniversary

Artwork(s) In Focus

February 26, 2021

The American art scene of the late 1940s and early 1950s is marked by the dominance of the new set of stylistic tendencies that made a huge impact on the further development of abstract painting. A group of New York City-based artists, inspired by the legacy of European modernism and affiliated with Abstract Expressionism, defined what has been recognized as the Color Field, a painting style characterized primarily by large fields of color covering the entire canvas and creating a flat picture plane, and using different minimalistic geometric patterns.

The lead figure of the Color Field was of course Mark Rothko, who is saluted for his astounding canvases covered with regions of pure color that touched upon the philosophical and spiritual. The contemplative nature of his works and the scope of possible interpretations came to a climax after this prolific painter executed fourteen black paintings for the interior of an architectural site by John and Dominique de Menil that was eventually titled the Rothko Chapel.

This non-denominational chapel based in Houston, Texas has been operating not only as a modern art pavilion but also as a space that gathers different communities. It was created in 1971 at the time the United States was passing through numerous social changes, and its founders embraced inclusiveness as the guiding line for communicating the function of the chapel.

In 2021, the Rothko Chapel celebrates its 50th anniversary as an incredible architectural and modern art feature, but also as a space that played an important role in the social transformation as it hosted scholars and religious leaders from around the globe debating about human rights, racial, environmental and economic justice.

The anniversary will be hosted over the weekend with a dense online program of conversations, concerts, and sermons.

Rothko Chapel interior. Photograph by Paul Hester. Courtesy Pace

The History of The Rothko Chapel

Namely, in 1964 John and Dominique de Menil (also the founders of the nearby Menil Collection) reached Mark Rothko with an idea to establish a meditative space filled with his paintings. The artist was given the freedom to take part in the design process of the venue; however, he disagreed with Philip Johnson, the initial architect involved with the project. Rothko continued working first with Howard Barnstone, and then with Eugen Aubry, but in the meantime, after years of suffering from depression, he committed suicide in 1970, just one year before the completion of the chapel.

Only two years after the opening, the Rothko Chapel became a center for colloquiums aimed at debating on issues affecting justice and freedom on a global scale. In 1981, The Rothko Chapel Awards to Commitment to Truth and Freedom was established, and in 1986, a second award was established honoring the Archbishop of San Salvador Óscar Romero who was murdered in 1980. These awards were given to individuals and organizations who fought against the violations of human rights.

The 20th anniversary of the Rothko Chapel in 1991 was marked with a joint award with the Carter-Menil Human Rights Foundation, with Nelson Mandela acting as the keynote speaker. In 1999, it closed for a major renovation, and in 2000 it was reopened with Rothko’s paintings newly restored. The same year, the Rothko Chapel was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Barnett Newman - Broken Obelisk, permanently installed in the reflecting pool on the grounds of Rothko Chapel in Houston, Texas, USA. Photo by Ed Uthman via Flickr

Celebrating The Place Of Coming Together

The Rothko Chapel is an irregular octagonal brick building with stucco walls and a skylight, furnished with eight simple, moveable benches with holy books from several religions available. At the core of the chapel stand fourteen of Rothko's paintings; three walls feature triptychs and the other five display single paintings.

In 1970, an impressive sculpture titled Broken Obelisk by Barnett Newman got installed in a reflecting pool designed by Philip Johnson outside of the chapel. The sculpture honors the leading social activist of the 1960s, Martin Luther King Jr., who was assassinated in 1968.

The prominent musician and the pioneer of indeterminate music, Morton Feldman, produced a musical piece simply title Rothko Chapel (1971) inspired by the chapel. The venue also hosted the performance of Tibetan Gyuto Tantric monks in 1986, and the opera called Some Light Emerges about this prolific venue was commissioned and performed by Houston Grand Opera in 2017.

Artists and the Rothko Chapel: 50 Years of Inspiration

Five Decades of The Rothko Chapel

The upcoming 50th-anniversary program will also present the recent completion of the first phase of the Opening Spaces master plan that will enable the Rothko Chapel to conduct better its dual mission - to offer a space for spiritual devotion and contemplation, as well as to continue addressing the critical social issues.

The comprehensive restoration of the Chapel that was part of the first phase was conducted to follow up on the original vision of Mark Rothko and John and Dominique de Menil. The lighting design, entryway, and skylight were reconfigured in sync with the original concept for the space to obtain the most adequate illumination and the Rothko panels.

The program will start on 26th February with the conversation titled Rothko Chapel & the Journey of Its Restoration to follow up on the process of eighteen-month restoration; the release of the first monograph on Rothko Chapel in more than two decades, titled Rothko Chapel: An Oasis for Reflection, will take place the following day 27th February; Sunday is scheduled for the 50th Anniversary Interfaith Service & Community Celebration, with two more events to follow (Rothko in Jazz with Maris Briežkalns Quintet; and a two-part Rothko Chapel Symposium that will discuss the current state of civil and human rights in the United States.

Editors’ Tip: Rothko Chapel: An Oasis for Reflection

A first look at the recently restored Rothko Chapel, a world-renowned destination for spiritual renewal, with all-new photography and scholarship of the renovated building and campus, published on the occasion of its 50th anniversary. Through photographic testimony and the insights of scholars, this large-format volume gives an intimate look at this sacred space, where visitors seek solace and inspiration within this truly ecumenical sanctuary featuring Rothko's iconic paintings. Pamela Smart discusses the spiritual side and Stephen Fox puts the architecture in the context of Houston.

Featured image: Rothko Chapel interior. Photograph by Paul Hester. Courtesy Pace.

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