50th Anniversary Of The Newly-Restored Rothko Chapel Calls For Contemplation

  • February 23, 2021 13:01

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Rothko Chapel interior and new skylight. © Elizabeth Felicella. Courtesy Rothko Chapel.
Rothko Chapel from south campus.© Paul Hester. Courtesy Rothko Chapel.

The light-dappled peace of the Rothko Chapel, a non-demonitional sanctuary in Houston, resonates today as it did 50 years ago upon openingif not more so. From Feb. 26-28, 2021, the Rothko Chapel's golden anniversary will be commemorated with a number of virtual programs. The first phase of its $30 million restoration, completed late last year, finally features a huge skylight that illuminates large-scale paintings, as originally intended. 

Mark Rothko’s 14 subtly-variegated, dark-hued abstract canvases were commissioned in 1964 by founders Dominique and John de Menil. Honoring a friend who had died, the couple, well-known as art patrons and philanthropists, created the space for art, spirituality, and social justice to intersect, with the Rothko works as the centerpiece. The New York-based artist worked very closely with the building's architects to design the eventual hexagonal space. Rothko committed suicide in 1970, one year before the chapel opened, never seeing the finished project or its ongoing issues with a skylight under the blazing Texas sun. 

Suzanne Deal Booth Welcome House in the new north campus across Sul Ross St. © Elizabeth Felicella. Courtesy Rothko Chapel
Barnett Newman's "Broken Obelisk" in front of the Rothko Chapel.

"The Rothko Chapel is really the dream commission he always waited for," says Christopher Rothko, the artist's son, in a video. "It's a place to remember that you're human in the midst of all the chaos."

Some 100,000 international visitors (pre-pandemic) trek to the Rothko Chapel each year for meditation, contemplation or myriad events such as cultural offerings or speakers that have included the Dalai Lama and Nelson Mandela. (Free, timed-entry tickets are currently required.)

“On a day that’s partly cloudy, you could be there 30 minutes or an hour and there could be several different experiences in just that time,” said David Leslie, the Rothko Chapel’s executive director, to the Houston Chronicle. “Central to Rothko’s intent was this engagement with the elements. Light and how light shifts, sometimes in a matter of seconds. And that’s just from the physicality standpoint. There’s also the life circumstances standpoint. Somebody who’s 16 who comes here...might come back 30 years later and experience it differently. It’s a consistent place of being, but not a consistent place of experience.”

The grounds and building restoration, led by Adam Yarinsky and Stephen Cassell of Architecture Research Office (ARO), sought to expand the campus, improve greenspace and actualize Rothko's original vision of the artworks subtly lit from above (with a new skylight that carefully filters sunlight). Artist Barnett Newman’s steel “Broken Obelisk” sculpture, dedicated to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., still welcomes visitors outside in a reflecting pool, as Dominique de Menil had installed it.

The draw of this welcoming spiritual space and calming art site is enduring, yet feels especially meaningful during current challenges of global pandemic and justice issues. “We live in a time when opening one’s eyes and hearts—and opening up to new ways to see one’s self and history—is critical,” Leslie told Texas Highways.

Rothko Chapel interior at dusk. © Elizabeth Felicella. Courtesy Rothko Chapel.

For the 50th anniversary, virtual events will be livestreamed for free on Vimeo. Info: rothkochapel.org/experience/50th

The discussion “Rothko Chapel & the Journey of Its Restoration” is on Feb. 26. The new book, “Rothko Chapel: An Oasis for Reflection” will be discussed with architectural historian Stephen Fox and Binghamton University professor Pamela Smart, on Feb. 27. A 50th Anniversary Interfaith Service and Community Celebration will take place on Feb. 28.

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