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Rothko Chapel – In Search For A Meaning

The Rothko Chapel (photo:

20th century

Rothko Chapel – In Search For A Meaning

The Rothko Chapel is a non-denominational chapel in Houston, Texas, founded by John and Dominique de Menil. We wouldn’t be interested in it if it wasn’t a major work of modern art – it is quite interesting architecture-wise, as it’s an octagon inscribed in a Greek cross,  looking a little like an Egyptian tomb from the outside.

Rothko Chapel with Broken Obelisk (artist: Barnett Newman, 1967), Houston, TX

Rothko Chapel with Broken Obelisk (artist: Barnett Newman, 1967), Houston, TX. (photo: kewing/Flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0)

But the most important thing is, that on its walls you can find fourteen black but color hued paintings by Mark Rothko.

In 1964 Rothko was commissioned by de Menils to create a meditative space filled with his paintings. The works are site-specific, one of the requirements of the program. As Rothko was given the creative license on the design of the structure, he clashed with the project’s original architect, Philip Johnson over the plans for the chapel.

Rothko Chapel, 1409 Sul Ross, shown Tuesday, Dec. 13, 2011, in Houston had its 40 anniversary this year. ( Melissa Phillip / Houston Chronicle )

Rothko Chapel inside, (photo: Houston Chronicle)

The plans went through several revisions and architects. Rothko continued to work first with Howard Barnstone and then with Eugene Aubry, but ultimately he did not live to see the chapel’s completion in 1971. After a long struggle with depression, Rothko committed suicide in his New York studio on February 25, 1970.

Rothko Chapel, Central Triptych

Rothko Chapel, Central Triptych (photo:

Black Rothko paintings remind me of Goya’s Black Paintings – I know they are completely different in form but both Rothko and Goya have that gloominess and present some kind of darkness of the soul. In Rothko Chapel there are three walls display triptychs, while the other five walls display single paintings.

A typical question raised by visitors viewing the massive black canvases which adorn the walls of the chapel includes some variant of: “Where are the paintings?” Rothko said, that the subjects of his paintings were ‘‘basic human emotions,’’ expressed in the color values he wrested from layered pigment. The results are visceral, charged, provocative. Despite, or because of, their simplicity, Rothko’s paintings have been known to bring viewers to tears. Rothko was proud of that; it was a sign of his success.

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