By Dennis Raverty
Upon entering the Rothko Chapel in Houston, one is immediately aware of a quiet, contemplative ambience unlike either the noisy city outside or the typical atmosphere in a gallery or a museum, where paintings by the mid-century abstract artist Marc Rothko (1908-70) are more likely to be seen. Dimly lit by a concealed skylight and entirely without windows, the space has the hushed air of a sanctuary. It is only after your eyes have adjusted to the lower level of light that you notice the huge monolithic black paintings that dominate every wall of this octagonal space.
The building had originally been planned by members of Dominique de Menil’s family as a functioning Roman Catholic chapel that would have served the nearby campus of St. Thomas University. But as the idea for the chapel evolved under three successive architects and as Rothko became involved, it turned out to be nondenominational, thereby aspiring to universal appeal, in accordance with the wishes of Rothko, who was Jewish.
Lacking the central focusing element of an altar (Christian), bemah (Jewish), or mihrab (Muslim), the visitor is surrounded on all sides by huge, imposing black paintings lacking any hierarchy of importance. This lack of orientation is furthered by the way neither of the entrances to the interior is positioned toward any one of the walls. As with the Byzantine Church of San Vitale in Ravenna (also an octagonal structure), the visitor must reorient in the transition from the narthex to the interior, which suggests that to seek the Eternal, one needs to change orientation or perspective.
Fourteen canvases, some hung in clusters of three like traditional triptychs (as in a Christian altarpiece), tower over the visitor, yet without any one of the triptychs dominating the interior. The other walls have single canvases. All of the paintings are large, and all of them appear to be painted black.
Upon careful observation, however, the viewer begins to notice that the surface, which appeared at first glance to be just flat, matte black, has very subtle nuances of cooler and warmer blacks. Within a few minutes of sustained, careful looking, vague, rectangular, cloud-like shapes emerge out of the blackness, and you realize that these paintings are in the same style as Rothko’s mature work, his often brightly colored signature paintings, but with the color saturation turned down so low as to be nearly imperceptible. You cannot really see these paintings until you slow down and look at them deeply. The subtlety of the nuanced, extremely muted color contrast renders these paintings virtually unphotographable.
Beneath layers and layers of dark color lies a smoldering, saturated Venetian red underpainting, almost imperceptible in the final work but muted behind stained and scumbled veils of colors that render the final reductive surface as essentially black, a strangely luminous darkness that seems to be faintly lit from deep within.
These works could easily be mistaken for minimalism, fashionable at the time. Minimalist paintings, like those of younger artist Frank Stella, were described by that artist as What you see is what you see, indicating absolutely no message, no hidden significance, no romantic search for the sublime or sense of mystery and awe.
These paintings by Rothko, on the other hand, although superficially resembling the work of Stella, are their almost complete opposite. “There is no such thing as a good painting about nothing,” Rothko quipped. The cycle of paintings in the Rothko chapel are no exception; they are not about nothing, but rather, address the nothingness at the core of our existential situation, void of intrinsic meaning.
These paintings are often interpreted as a solemn meditation on human loneliness and suffering — the void, as alluded to in Sartre’s Being and Nothingness, in which all are free but tragically alone and set adrift in a meaningless universe. As in the traditional Catholic sacramentalism of the Stations of the Cross, Rothko’s 14 dark icons seem to focus exclusively on suffering, that sense of abandonment and betrayal evident in the desperate cry of Jesus from the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
In his 60s during the years he worked on the cycle, Rothko suffered from bouts of severe, clinical depression exacerbated by prescription tranquilizers and alcohol abuse. With his health failing, he hired assistants to execute the work under his direct supervision. He separated from his wife and moved into his studio in 1969. The work for the chapel ended up being both his final series of paintings and his swansong. After completing that work, the artist committed suicide in his New York studio. The chapel was completed and opened to the public the next year.
Twelve years earlier, in 1958, at the height of his fame and artistic powers, Rothko delivered an address at Pratt Institute and laid out seven principles that guided his art. Foremost among them was the artist’s awareness of his mortality: “Tragic art, romantic art … always deals with our knowledge of death.” But the seventh and final principle was “10 percent hope” to “make the tragic endurable.” Ultimately, these imposing, black canvases may be iconographically empty in the same hopeful sense with which Christians regard the emptiness of the tomb on Easter morning.
Dennis Raverty is an associate professor of art history at New Jersey City University, specializing in art of the 19th and 20th centuries.