For about the past year and a half, the Rothko Chapel has been closed for a $30 million restoration ahead of its fiftieth anniversary, in 2021. Those involved with the project are careful to call it a restoration, not a renovation, because the goal is to realize painter Mark Rothko’s original intentions for the space, which were never properly executed.
Completed in 1971 and located on a tree-lined block in Houston’s Montrose neighborhood, the Rothko Chapel is a modernist icon that is on the short list of any tour of must-see art or architecture in Houston. But describing the structure itself is oddly difficult. It’s a stand-alone octagonal building whose one room houses a permanent collection of paintings created specifically for the space. But it’s not exactly a chapel, a gallery, or a museum, although it’s partly all of those things.
So why all the fuss? To its devotees, the chapel is sublime: a darkened cosmos that facilitates powerful spiritual experiences. The space, which features fourteen dark paintings by Rothko, is famous for being dim and moody. It’s a sensory deprivation chamber that also functions as a theological deprivation chamber. Many customary signifiers of religion—statues, altars, stained glass—have been stripped away. It is, as Houston architectural historian Stephen Fox puts it, “a space that seems sacred for a post-religious world.”
Enthusiasts have long described how, if given a chance, the chapel’s stark minimalism can pull you out of your day-to-day mundanity and force you to turn inward. As Carol Mancusi-Ungaro, a conservator for the Whitney Museum of American Art, in New York, wrote in 2007, “The Chapel . . . leaves you alone with yourself, your thoughts, your emotions, your vulnerabilities. . . . The artist did not want the paintings to come out to you; he wanted them to draw you in.”
The idea underlying Rothko’s art, especially the chapel, is that you sit and stare and stare and stare, and after a while you enter a heightened state of—hallucination? Soul-baring interiority? Boredom? Or all of the above, because no two single experiences of the chapel are the same. The nature of every encounter with the chapel, its supporters say, depends on what you bring to it.
But the same minimalism that some people love has also made the chapel an easy punching bag for critics. The space is dark. It has a facade only a mother could love. It offers nothing to hang on to beyond inchoate experience, which could also be said about a lot of pretentiously vacuous art made in the decades since. Texas artist Seth Alverson bluntly said of the chapel, “It’s a place where art and life and imagination go to die.” Even New York art critic and artist Brian O’Doherty, who was a great defender of Rothko, referred to it in 1973 as “at worst a well-designed crematorium.”
The critique often extends to the paintings themselves. Gallons of ink have been spilled about their color subtleties and their many restorations. But regardless of how perfectly lit they are or how well they’ve held up over the decades, the fact remains that they are essentially black monochromes. Dominique de Menil, who, along with her husband, John, commissioned Rothko to create the chapel, reportedly said of her first impression of the paintings, “Frankly, I expected color.” Rothko, for his part, noted that it had taken him a year to decide what he wanted the paintings to be: something you don’t want to look at.
Admittedly, it may be facile to draw a direct correlation between light colors and happiness and dark colors and sadness. But many people find the chapel to be depressing. Personally, I have visited the chapel many times since I was a child, and I have yet to be transported by it. What’s interesting is that Rothko himself probably would have been unhappy with the way the chapel has looked all these years. Although he envisioned the space as muted and meditative and made paintings to achieve that effect, it has never looked as he imagined it.
In the sixties, Houston art patrons John and Dominique de Menil offered the New York–based Rothko the opportunity to design a chapel for the city’s University of St. Thomas, a private Catholic college. A Russian Jew by birth, Rothko did not practice religion in any conventional sense. But he jumped at the chance to design a Catholic chapel with modernist sensibilities—“not another church filled with crucifixes,” as his son Christopher says, “but something that would speak to a contemporary mind and a contemporary spirit.”
The project encountered difficulties from the start. The architect Philip Johnson was initially commissioned to design the chapel where Rothko’s paintings would be installed. But the chapel wasn’t big enough for those two colossal egos, and Johnson walked off the project early on when it became clear that Rothko’s ideas for the building had no room for Johnson’s. (Looking at Johnson’s design now, it’s hard to imagine the triumphal building with its sixty-foot spire as the Rothko Chapel. Johnson wanted showy architecture, which could not be further from the low-ceilinged brick structure that Rothko envisioned.) Rothko now had total design control over the chapel, which is exceedingly rare for artists.
Rothko rented a large carriage house in New York City where he could experiment with a scale model of the room. The building had a big skylight that he loved, and he decided his chapel would have one, too. He had regarded the studio as a place to model the chapel, and he ended up modeling the chapel on the studio: it would be an octagonal space with a single large skylight, its most important architectural element and the primary source of light. His dark paintings would exist in a soft glow of natural light that would reflect the changes in season, weather, and time of day.
It was beautiful—in theory. But there were practicalities to work out, and in early 1970, three years after completing the paintings but before construction of the chapel began, Rothko committed suicide. In the wake of his death, the de Menils were left to parse out his intentions: What Would Rothko Do? Dominique de Menil must have keenly felt the onus to fulfill the late artist’s wishes, given the monumental solemnity of the chapel, his final commission. To further complicate things, the de Menils had a falling-out with the University of St. Thomas, moved the chapel off campus, and made it nondenominational, with an interfaith mission of uniting people from different religions. (It’s unclear if Rothko ever knew that the chapel would not be Catholic. After his death the de Menils stuck to his design as envisioned, which is why the chapel retains echoes of Catholicism: its fourteen paintings likely correspond to the number of the Stations of the Cross, and one of its triptychs has a raised central panel that plainly suggests an altarpiece.)
Finally, construction moved forward. When the chapel was completed, however, a new problem emerged: the skylight. Rothko never visited Houston, but Philip Johnson knew Texas light, having already designed the de Menil house and other buildings in the state. He’d warned that a large skylight in Houston wouldn’t achieve the soft, ambient, Upper East Side light that Rothko wanted. He was right.
People who visited the chapel when it first opened, in 1971, spoke of a “column of light” that blazed into the room, simultaneously damaging the paintings and obscuring them, cast as they were in relative darkness around the perimeter of the space. All the subtleties of the paintings vanished in the intense Texas sun.
And so began years of attempts to try to get the lighting right. First, the curators installed a scrim over the ceiling. This proved insufficient, and in 1976 the decision was made to install a giant baffle that blocked much of the skylight. The baffle worked, sort of, in that it successfully dimmed the light. But it also exacerbated the chapel’s gloominess. Most visitors have never seen the chapel without this black spaceship (as Christopher Rothko puts it) hovering above their heads. Many people don’t even realize the chapel has a skylight.
The baffle didn’t just lower the ceiling and darken the space excessively. It also meant that the windowless chapel’s single connection to the outside world, its “pressure valve,” in the words of Christopher Rothko, was gone. Ancient sacred buildings often had an aperture in the roof that could symbolize a connection to the transcendent (think of the Pantheon in Rome). Perhaps because we think of Rothko as a gloomy figure, we assume that he intended for the chapel to be an intensely somber space. But while he meant for it to be dark and contemplative, he surely didn’t want it to feel like a cave of despair.
Given the skylight’s importance to the chapel, no effort has been spared to get it right. The new skylight was designed by the Washington, D.C., lighting firm George Sexton Associates, which has worked on prominent museums and houses of worship around the world. The skylight it created is made up of multiple layers of UV-resistant glass screened by louvers—essentially large venetian blinds—to mitigate Houston’s harsh daylight.
In addition, the space’s glass doors, added to the interior of the chapel in 2000 to ward off excessive humidity that damaged the paintings, have been removed; this restored an entry foyer that feels more spacious and elegant. There’s also a smart new visitors center across the street. In a second phase of construction (the timing of which has been thrown into uncertainty by COVID-19), a new archive building and a programming center will also be built, allowing for more events and for the memorial services, weddings, receptions, and bar and bat mitzvahs the chapel has always hosted.
Perhaps the most significant change for some visitors will not be the chapel itself but the area outside. The Houston office of the Virginia-based landscape architecture firm Nelson Byrd Woltz has taken a forgettable patch of land—who knew the Rothko Chapel had a side garden?—and made it inviting, with long, pleasant allées of birch trees. They’ve also replaced the forbidding wall of bamboo around the chapel’s reflecting pool with a more porous and attractive border of tall Savannah holly.
Enormous thought, effort, and money have gone into this project. The chapel’s many fans should be pleased. But will the changes also change the hearts and minds of its critics?
I recently visited the chapel, still under construction but with the skylight installed, on an overcast afternoon. The light in the room was more even, ambient, and brighter than I remembered. It was still gloomy, but more pleasantly so—pensive, rather than melancholy.
Still—and with the caveat that I have not seen it with the paintings reinstalled—I remain unmoved by the chapel. While I have grown to appreciate the sincerity of Rothko’s ambition, which I think was to deliver no less than the experience of a different plane of existence, two things prevent me from joining the ranks of worshippers: my personal taste and my approach to faith. To love the Rothko Chapel, you have to love modernism, a historic movement that pushed abstraction, both in art and architecture, to its logical dead end. The modernist architect Le Corbusier said that a house is a “machine for living in,” and I think the Rothko Chapel is a machine for worship. I have always found it to be a little too dry and puritanical, although perhaps it’s not the sparseness I object to so much as the zealous sanctimony it inspires in some people.
As for faith, there is the art of religion, and there is the religion of art, and the Rothko Chapel aspires to embody both. With the art of religion, you don’t have to buy into the religion to love the art. By contrast, the chapel is a religion unto itself—it demands that you believe in it. Without any theology at its core, however, that belief is unfixed and open-ended.
To put it another way, all religions tell stories, and the Rothko Chapel has no stories to tell. Whether this is an asset or a flaw depends on your point of view. Like any religion, the chapel comes down to a question of faith. You either believe in it or you don’t.
The Rothko Chapel is currently closed due to the coronavirus pandemic. Visit their website for more information.
This article originally appeared in the July 2020 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “Let There Be Light.” Subscribe today.
Update 07/16: This article has been amended to reflect that the total cost of the Rothko Chapel campus’s restoration and expansion is $30 million. A previous version of this article stated $16 million (the cost of phase one).