Mark Rothko was known to be a perfectionist, but even by his own standards, creating the iconic abstract murals that now appear in a chapel in Houston, Texas, was a laborious process. Collectors John and Dominique de Menil had commissioned him to do the works in 1964, and according to some accounts, he dedicated a month to half an inch of canvas for the paintings for the chapel. He asserted so much control over the murals that, according to a 2018 biography of the Menils by William Middleton, his patrons never even got to preview Rothko’s work until 1967, when the painter invited them to see his paintings in progress.
By his daughter’s telling, Rothko was not a religious man, which may have made the Abstract Expressionist a strange pick for the Menils’ chapel. But it’s clear that the Menils found transcendence in his work, and Rothko even spoke about his process in terms that recall a religious struggle. In a 1966 letter to the Menils, Rothko wrote that the chapel commission “is teaching me to extend myself beyond what I thought was possible for me.” What resulted was one of Rothko’s greatest works. Now termed the Rothko Chapel, the structure has become a major art destination for people from Texas and far beyond it. After a closure lasting more than a year, the chapel will reopen following a $30 million renovation this September.
The path to creating such a masterpiece was a long time coming, however. In 1972, Dominique described her planned chapel as a haven “of people who are not just going to debate and discuss theological problems, but who are going to meet because they want to find contact with other people.” The idea for a spiritual center came from seeing religious spaces filled with art abroad—the Menils had been very taken with the Matisse Chapel in Vence and Le Corbusier’s Notre-Dame du Haut in Ronchamp. “We saw what a master could do for a religious building when he is given a free hand,” Dominique said. When the couple came up with the idea to create a nondenominational spiritual space during the ’60s, they knew they wanted an artist to fill the space with work—which they felt was an appropriate way to honor the death of Dr. Jermayne “Jerry” MacAgy, an influential curator and museum director in Houston and frequently collaborator with the Menils.
By then, the Menils, known as the “Medicis of Modern Art,” had established themselves as scions of the Texas art scene. Under their tutelage, the Menils helped foster a contemporary art scene in Houston, which would later become home to a Renzo Piano–designed museum that now houses their rich holdings. Every project the Menils undertook was informed by their signature aesthetic: airy modernism with a classical finish.
The Menils had been ardent admirers of Rothko since purchasing two of his paintings in 1957. His abstractions, often filled with expansive color fields, appealed to the collectors for their introspective quality. After approaching Rothko in 1964, they financed his New York apartment. On one visit, Dominique arrived to find it bare, barring one monochromatic plum painting, his equipment, and a small bed. Rothko didn’t say a word to his patron when she arrived. Instead, he simply placed an empty chair about 20 feet from from the canvas and bade Dominique to sit. Of the experience, she wrote, “He just looked at me. I felt instantly that not one muscle of my face should betray a surprise. I had expected bright colors! So, I just looked. Oh miracle, peace invaded me. I felt embraced, and free. Nothing was stopping my gaze. There was a beyond.”
There was nothing nearly so sublime about the chapel’s construction, however. It took seven years and a procession of architects to complete the site—a process Dominique described as “a long succession of deaths and failures and disasters.” Rothko oversaw every facet of the windowless interior, from its octagonal shape to the width of the doors, even the floor, which was inspired by the paving in Central Park. Rothko insisted the skylight mimic the light of his New York studio, but architect Philip Johnson, who was brought on to oversee the structure, was concerned by the aging effects of strong, direct daylight on the paintings. (And rightly so—curators have since worried about the effects of light and humidity on the canvases.) To accommodate Rothko’s request, he proposed a broad chapel topped with a white 80-foot-tall, spire-like concrete roof. Just about everyone involved abhorred the decision, however, and by 1967, architects Howard Barnstone and then with Eugene Aubry were brought in to complete the construction. The location was also changed from St. Thomas University’s campus to a suburban neighborhood southwest of the city’s downtown area.
Rothko didn’t live to see his painting installed in 1971; he committed suicide in his Manhattan studio in February 1970. It was a devastating loss, but the chapel would still open as planned, and his massive canvases—the largest measures 15 feet wide—were transported to Houston in a temperature-controlled truck. Because of their size, they had to be lowered into the chapel via a crane through its skylight. The day was windy, and the paintings flapped dangerously like sails. Many feared for the works’ safety.
In the end, the paintings survived, and the chapel became a space for powerful contemplation. As it exists now, three of the gray, stucco walls display triptychs, while the other five display a single painting. Wooden benches face each mural. Nearby the chapel, there’s Barnett Newman’s sculpture Broken Obelisk.
Almost immediately, the Rothko Chapel was perceived as a major artwork. On February 26, 1971, the day of its opening, dealers, artists, and institutional figures such as Alfred H. Barr, Jr., the founding director of the Museum of Modern Art, arrived for the commencement. A song composed for the occasion by Morton Feldman played over the crowd. Rothko, who died almost exactly one year before, was not present, but Dominique made sure his voice was heard. At one point, she took the mic and quoted Rothko: “A picture lives by companionship, expanding and quickening in the eyes of the sensitive observer. It dies by the same token.”
She followed with her own assessment of their long realized dream: “Rothko wanted to bring his paintings to the greatest poignancy they were capable of. He wanted them to be intimate and timeless. Indeed, they are intimate and timeless.”