Living Institution

At 50, the Rothko Chapel Is as Relevant as It’s Ever Been

Christopher Rothko talks the golden anniversary celebrations, the sanctuary's future, and his father’s legacy.

By Catherine Wendlandt February 24, 2021

When you walk through the doors of the Rothko Chapel, you’re hit with a sense that you’re someplace other. For five decades now, the nondenominational sanctuary, famously named for the acclaimed late artist Mark Rothko, who created the art and helped design the space, has stood in opposition in of the bustling and growing Museum District neighborhood, forcing visitors to sit and reflect. And that’s the point, says Rothko’s son, Christopher, who sits on the chapel’s board of directors.

“It’s cool; it’s quiet; it’s darker, and if the world around you is filled with noise and stimulation, in the chapel, everything stripped to the bare minimum,” says Christopher Rothko. “It’s requiring that you make sense of the sanctuary that you’ve just walked into.”

Dedication of the chapel, February 26, 1971: An interfaith service signified the official opening, and the space’s ongoing mission, as a sanctuary for all.

Back in the 1960s, renown art collectors John and Dominique de Menil wanted to create a contemporary space that could inspire spiritual conversation and religious tolerance. So they commissioned Mark Rothko to create the interior of the chapel as something that could speak to a second-half-of-the-20th-century audience and beyond.

“They believed in the power of art to really communicate with the soul, to facilitate that religious experience they were hoping to generate in the chapel,” says Christopher Rothko.

And through that religious experience, in that quiet, contemplative space that seems other worldly in Houston, Mark Rothko’s art and the de Menils’ chapel have become an international haven for tolerance, education, human rights, and social justice.

Dedication of the “Broken Obelisk,” February 27, 1971: Chapel patron Dominique de Menil speaks at the dedication of Barnett Newman’s sculpture, which honors the life of Martin Luther King, Jr.

Since the chapel’s dedication on February 26, 1971, it’s hosted foreign dignitaries and U.S. presidents, human rights activists, religious ceremonies from all faiths, symposiums—anything that sparks a conversation about the “commonality of all human beings,” says Christopher Rothko. It’s seen Houston through wars, economic recessions, hurricanes, and now, after being closed for 19 months as part of a $30 million restoration, a pandemic.

This week the Rothko Chapel is celebrating its 50th anniversary. Over the weekend, the chapel is holding a series of online events to discuss its history and its future. And while a virtual celebration is not what they would’ve planned a year ago—or 50 years ago, for that matter—Christopher Rothko says they’re doing everything they can to make it meaningful.

“It’s really going to be a joyous celebration,” he says.

Events include a discussion with the restoration design team on Friday; a panel on the chapel’s history, featuring the writers and photographers for the new book, Rothko Chapel: An Oasis for Reflection, on Saturday; and a rededication of the chapel and community celebrations, replete with Sufi whirling dervishes and other interfaith services, on Sunday.

But before the celebrations kick off, we sat down with Christopher Rothko, to discuss his father’s legacy, and the chapel as a “living institution,” and what’s to come in its next 50 years. 

Whirling Dervishes, 1978: In Sufism, a type of Islamic mysticism, whirling dervishes are a form of active meditation. One of Rothko’s most popular events, whirling will be included in the chapel’s 50th anniversary celebrations.  

Can you explain why your father chose to do those specific paintings for the space?

[The de Menils] commissioned him in 1964. He actually took a new studio space just for the chapel project, where he could mockup the three walls of the chapel. To emphasize, he didn’t just paint the paintings, he really designed the interior of that chapel. So, the paintings are the size they are because the walls are the size they are. And the walls are the size they are because the paintings are the size they are. It’s really one space, one composition. He came up with this octagonal design based on an ancient Byzantine model that he had seen. He set aside the next four years of his life to work on this project—it was really his dream commission.

And it fits hand-in-glove for, “Why this sort of painting?” He’s better known for much more brightly colored, although very minimal, canvases. Here, he moves darker, into an even more minimal form … People were going to be there for an extended period; he didn’t want something that was going to necessarily grab their attention. He wanted something that was going to seep into them over time.

With the chapel, it was the idea that this was going to be a meditative space where people would come and reflect for an extended period of time. So he reduces the palate, he makes the paintings quite dark, because he wants this to be something, again, that unfolds with time, rather than something that grabs you right away.

So how does that impact people’s reactions when they come into the space and sit in front of his work?

By doing that, he takes a gamble, right? There are people who walk in, and he doesn’t engage them right away, and they walk out. People walk in and say, “Where are the paintings?” But for the people who do stay, they find it, I think, a typically very rewarding experience because he creates a space that’s incredibly quiet—and I mean that both to the ear and to the eye—and really lets you wipe the slate clean and reflect. If you’re a religious person, perhaps it’s a religious reflection; if you’re a spiritual person—you can go anywhere you need to with this. But he really gives you the opportunity to put aside whatever you had when you walked in the door, and really think deeply about where you are, why you are, who you are, and, honestly, especially in 21st-century America, that’s a rare experience. It’s really Rothko’s gift to you: to get out of your usual mode, and think about things a little more deeply.

The Dalai Lama, 1979: The 14th Dalai Lama, the highest spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism, first visited the Rothko Chapel in 1979.

How does Barnett Newman’s “Broken Obelisk” sculpture fit in with your father’s work?

This was installed by the de Menils around the time of the opening of the chapel. We see the chapel and the Newman sculpture as two poles of the same conversation. The chapel invites conversation, and the Newman sculpture, which is dedicated to the memory of Martin Luther King, is a call to action. And Dominique de Menil was very clear in her writings that one without the other is not complete. To contemplate without then moving to action from there is not sufficient, and to jump to action without first having deeply thought through what your intentions are is also problematic. We love that we have these two poles of the same conversation built into our campus.  

If you could, how would you direct the conversation people have here?

I’m going to give you a non-answer to your question: I think one of the central aspects to the chapel is specifically being non-directive in allowing conversation to happen. And it starts with the artwork, it starts with the octagonal room my father chose for what was initially going to be a Catholic chapel. There’s no pulpit where’s somebody’s talking at a room full, stretching out in front of him or her. It’s in the round. From the beginning the concept was to have a much more democratic, much more egalitarian, conversation. Yes, we have speakers in there, and we have learned people who are educating us about subjects we may not know, but I think it’s all in the spirit of learning together and of all bringing something to the conversation.

How does the chapel, as a place of peace and reflection, fit into the pandemic and all the vitriol that’s out in the world right now?

The good news and the bad news is that we reflect all the time on how the chapel remains so relevant. I can’t remember how many times over the last 20 years, I’ve said, “More than ever, we need the chapel.” And it’s true. The chapel fills this tremendous function of bringing people together and providing a place of solace during difficult times.

And the bad side of this is we keep having really terrible tests for our community and for our society as a whole. Whether it was Hurricane Harvey or 9/11, whether it was during Black Lives Matter and all the unrest this summer, there have been so many times where the chapel has provided that function: that people come together, talk about things, reflect about things, and also a place where people can safely talk about things. Even if they come from very different points of view on what are the problems facing us, it has consistently been a place for open dialogue where people, I think, have felt safe to express themselves and know that they’re going to get a respectful response.

So as I said, the chapel feels more relevant than ever. The pandemic has obviously taken a huge toll on us—the fact that we haven’t been able to gather for so long. We were keenly aware during those months that we were closed how much the chapel was needed. The fact that we’ve been able to be open, at least on a ticketed basis, since the fall has been extremely meaningful, and we feel like we’re back to fulfilling at least a significant portion of our mission.

Martin Luther King Day celebrations, featuring the Boys Choir of Harlem, 1985: The Rothko Chapel has been celebrating MLK Day since 1979, four years before it became a federal holiday.

What does it mean to you to reach 50 years?

Clearly 50 years is a major milestone. I feel like not only are we still so relevant to the world we live in, but the chapel, 50 years on, still feels remarkably modern. It still feels a little bit like a cold slap across the face when you walk through that door. It’s bracing, and I think that’s a wonderful testament: My father was always after something that was timeless.

Fifty years is not timeless, but it’s certainly something that has stood the test of time, and it’s not something that you go to that’s historical. It’s something that is fresh and something that still engages you. I’m tremendously proud of that.

Are there any moments in its history that most embody the chapel’s mission?

In terms of some of the high points, and there’ve been a lot, we’ve had some very famous names at the chapel. Nelson Mandela visited, actually shortly after he was released from prison, the Dalai Lama has been twice, Bishop Desmond Tutu has been there. We’ve had awards co-granted by the de Menils and President Jimmy Carter.

These are very high-profile events, but we have dozens of programs a year that bring thousands of people to the chapel every year. Speakers on every possible topic concerning human rights and social injustices around the world. Every year we celebrate Martin Luther King’s birthday with a luminary—somebody’s who’s been involved in the Civil Rights Movement and teaches us how far we’ve come and how far we still have to go.

So the fact that we are what I call a “living institution,” that every day the chapel is not just simply a place of contemplation but also a place that sparks action, is really what we really are.

(From left to right) Nelson Mandela, Dominique de Menil, Jimmy Carter, Ann Richards, and Sebastian Suy Perebal, 1991: The Óscar Romero Award is given to an activist on the front lines of human rights. In 1991, the award was given to South African anti-apartheid legend Nelson Mandela.

Is there a day that stands out in your memory?

Every two years we give the Óscar Romero award, for somebody who is fighting on the front lines for human rights … (In 2017) for the first time, we decided to give not just an award to an international figure, but also a local Houstonian. We gave it to Kathryn Griffin Griñán, who had been working in the prisons in and around Houston, largely with women who had been sex trafficked. She was working with them, helping them with their transition to the world outside prison, and she had been incredibly influential in the lives of many, many women who had been through the prison system in Texas.

And when she came us to get her award, there was a group of about eight women in the back of the chapel who all of a sudden shot up, jumped to their feet, and started screaming their approval and cheering her on. Now you have to understand this is in context of the chapel being a very silent, reverential place. It was just the most joyous, wonderful moment, and I realized that yes, this encapsulates, in that moment, of the chapel as a place of action, of the chapel as a place that touches people’s lives.

Your father didn’t live to see the chapel open. What would’ve been his reaction if he knew it would still be standing 50 years later?

I think he would’ve been incredibly grateful and really deeply satisfied. This was his magnum opus. All of his work of the previous 40-plus years had been leading to this kind of in-depth interaction with his viewer. And the fact that it bears his name, which was not planned before it was opened; and it attracts more than 100,000 visitors a year; that people not only greatly respect the space, but individuals come there from all over world to commune with the space and interact with the people—this is what he painted his whole life for.

New Year’s Day Crystal Bowls Meditation, 2014: The Rothko Chapel has hosted its monthly series, Twelve Moments: Experiencing Spiritual & Faith Traditions, since 2005. The crystal bowl meditation on New Year’s Day is one of the most popular events. 

At the 100-year anniversary, what do you hope the overall legacy of the space is?

Well, first of all, I hope to be there. I’m already booking my tickets.

No, I think there are two answers to that. One is, I think in some ways the chapel works its magic one soul at a time. I think if only one person came to the chapel and had a transformative experience there, the chapel will have fulfilled its mission. I’m very glad that there’s been more than one, but I hope that we still have the impact on the individual.

It’s a great place to be alone together. It is ultimately, one some level, a solitary journey you make in the chapel—it is your own spiritual, soulful journey—and yet it is one that invites community. So, I’m hoping we have both that solitary aspect and the community aspect to the chapel.

Again, I would like to think that 50 years from now, all of those social challenges, all those questions of injustice that we’re addressing every day at the chapel will have been addressed to the point where they no longer are problems, but I am realistic enough to believe that’s not in fact the case, and we will continue to need to provide a forum where people can learn and exchange and understand one another.

You’ve told me one of your goals in the coming decades is to expand the Rothko Chapel’s international reach. How do you think the chapel fits into other great spiritual spaces of the world?

I think my father as an artist was always very conscious of the fact that he was not breaking tradition, but he was just another evolutionary step in a great tradition of artists and, I think in the case of the chapel, artists in the tradition of being commissioned to create spaces that touch the human soul. …

I think walking into that building, walking into that sanctuary, it does take your breath away for a moment and engages you in a conversation immediately. I won’t say it’s without parallel in the world by any means, but it’s unique and it is quite powerful. I think that it’s among the more powerful experiences of its type in the world.

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