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Rothko Chapel interior. Photograph by Paul Hester

Essays

Atmospheric Pressure

By Pamela G. Smart
Tuesday, Feb 23, 2021

This excerpt is published on the occasion of the Rothko Chapel's 50th Anniversary. The full version of this essay is included in the publication Rothko Chapel: An Oasis for Reflection, published by Rizzoli Electa, written by Pamela G. Smart and Stephen Fox, foreword by Christopher Rothko, introduction by David Leslie.

The “sense of atmospheric pressure” that artist and critic Elaine de Kooning attributed to Mark Rothko’s paintings is palpable in the Rothko Chapel. It was also evoked in Morton Feldman’s Rothko Chapel. Written for percussion, celesta, viola, soprano, and contralto solo, with double mixed choir, the work was premiered in the Rothko Chapel on April 9, 1972, having been commissioned by the Chapel’s patrons, Dominique and John de Menil, on the occasion of its dedication a little over a year earlier, on February 27, 1971. The conductor Maurice Peress, standing with his back to the wall, faced the chorus members arrayed around the periphery of the octagonal space to one side and the musicians to the other. The audience members, with the performers encircling them, found themselves engulfed in sound. [1]

The immersive performance fully resonated with Rothko’s plan for the Chapel, for which he had created fourteen paintings, arranged on three walls as triptychs, with each of the remaining five walls anchored by a single canvas. Among them are what are referred to as the “monochrome” paintings, their transparent purple surfaces alive with loose brush marks that create a field of shifting intensities, and the “black form” paintings, marked by the density of their black and plum pigments and their restrained, quiet surfaces. What the paintings all share is their massive scale; together with their creation in dialogue with each other and with the Chapel’s architecture, they constitute a total environment.

“I paint very large pictures,” Rothko wrote more than a decade prior to creating this ensemble of canvases, which range in size from approximately 15 by 9 feet to 11 by 6 feet. “I realize,” he explained, “that historically the function of painting large pictures is painting something very grandiose and pompous. The reason I paint them, however . . . is precisely because I want to be very intimate and human. To paint a small picture is to place yourself outside your experience, to look upon your experience as a stereopticon view or with a reducing glass. However you paint the larger picture, you are in it. It isn’t something you command." [2]

Rothko was acutely attentive to the relationship his work establishes with its viewer, and thus to the circumstances in which it is encountered. “A picture lives by companionship,” Dominique de Menil frequently quoted Rothko as saying, “expanding and quickening in the eyes of the sensitive observer. It dies by the same token. It is therefore risky to send it out into the world.” [3] To manage this risk, the artist anxiously sought to exercise control over the installation and lighting of exhibitions. His growing recognition of the demands of hanging any single work in relation to others is evident over the course of his career in his increasing preoccupation with not just presenting works in conversation with each other, but with creating suites of paintings that would together constitute an environment.

In the austere, still space of the Chapel, Rothko’s paintings, like Feldman’s music, contribute powerfully to producing an atmospheric intensity that attunes our disposition toward contemplation and that conjures proximity to the transcendent.

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World Premiere of Morton Feldman's Rothko Chapel, April 9, 1972. Photograph by Hickey-Robertson, Houston. Courtesy Rothko Chapel Archives

It is not only the paintings, but the entire Rothko Chapel project that is directed toward this end. Dominique and John de Menil long harbored the idea of building a chapel that, in its architecture and interior design, would create conditions conducive to spiritual experience. One might think it should go without saying that a chapel would draw the spirit close, but the Menils had long felt that the Catholic Church, in its unwillingness to engage contemporary architects and artists in the design of places of worship, had impoverished the ability of churches to draw people to faith. In this conviction, they were closely aligned with the intellectual architects of the French modernist renouveau catholique, [4] a Catholic revivalism that took hold in the interwar years and sought to reinvigorate Catholic faith through a robust engagement with the contemporary world, in marked contrast to the dominant Roman Catholic view at the time that regarded modernity with deep suspicion and instead looked to the past for conditions that would enable the Church to flourish. [5] Before leaving their home in Paris in 1941 to take up residence in Houston, John and Dominique de Menil had developed enduring relationships with protagonists of this movement, and especially with Marie-Alain Couturier, the Dominican priest who became the defining figure of the renouveau catholique’s Sacred Art movement and one of Dominique de Menil’s closest advisors until his death in 1954. They all shared the conviction that while the modern world had excluded religious belief, the Catholic Church had excluded the modern world, and they sought, in various ways, to reintegrate Catholicism into the fabric of contemporary social life, not to dilute religious faith, but to revive it.

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Dominique de Menil at the dedication of the Rothko Chapel, 1971. Photograph by Hickey-Robertson, Houston. Courtesy Rothko Chapel

The Church’s adherence to styles in which “there no longer is any sap” or “any seed of genuine rebirth,” [6] Couturier argued, compromised the vitality of the Church. Or, more emphatically, in his characteristically immoderate rhetoric, he is reported to have told his Dominican superiors, “Our church art is in complete decay. . . . It is dead, dusty, academic—imitations of imitations . . . with no power to speak to modern man. Outside the Church the great modern masters have walked—Manet, Cézanne, Renoir, Van Gogh, Matisse, Picasso, Braque. The Church has not reached out, as once it would have, to bring them in.” [7] Couturier sought the renewal of sacred art and, thereby, the revitalization of faith in part through his collaborations in the design of church architecture and in the commissioning of artworks for church interiors. There are four places of worship in France that have become centrally identified with his project.

In the summer of 1952, the Menils traveled with Couturier to these sanctuaries, visiting the churches of Assy (1950) and Audincourt (1951) and the recently completed Henri Matisse–designed chapel in Vence (1951), as well as the site in Ronchamp where Le Corbusier was preparing to build his chapel (1955). They experienced genuinely contemporary places of worship—not reproductions of established Church architecture and decoration, but sacred spaces that they felt were as alive as they were affecting. [8]

The design of churches, the Menils came to understand, is critical in the labor it might perform in creating an environment conducive to faith.

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Folio for the "Exploration Logs" written and circulated by John and Dominique de Menil, 1971–72. Courtesy Rothko Chapel Archives

Couturier’s chapel commissions had been sufficiently controversial to provoke a response from Rome. What offended the Church more than the look of the modern works that Couturier commissioned was the fact that, with the exception of Georges Rouault, none of the major artists was Catholic; indeed, among them were the Communist Fernand Léger and the Jewish Jacques Lipchitz. “We told ourselves,” Couturier noted, “that a great artist is always a great spiritual being, each in his own manner.” [9]

The Rothko Chapel commission, as Thomas Crow observed, thus drew Rothko’s work, long inflected with the gravity of existential struggle, into a strong current of twentieth-century activist Catholicism, notwithstanding his identification of himself as a secular Jew. [10]

On February 9, 1960, Dominique and John de Menil paid a visit to Rothko at his studio to look at the suite of paintings he had been commissioned to make for the Four Seasons restaurant in the Seagram Building designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Philip Johnson. Their visit had been occasioned, in large measure, by their regard for the painter’s principled refusal to go through with the installation of his works in a place where, Rothko had come to believe, they would serve merely to enhance an atmosphere of rarefied luxury and the pleasure of conspicuous consumption. But there was perhaps a more pervasive anxiety that had begun to gnaw at him—that his luminous, colored canvases might be regarded as merely decorative. [11] What the Menils saw in them was something much more consequential. They envisaged a chapel.

Recounting their studio visit to a friend, Dominique wrote of the particular force of seeing a number of the paintings together as an ensemble: “John and I had the privilege to see the paintings hung as they were to be displayed in the restaurant. They made for an extraordinary mystical environment, a mix of intimacy and transcendence that can be found in certain churches, certain mosques.” [12] The Menils could not help but think of the chapel that they had imagined for the University of St. Thomas, a small liberal arts college in Houston founded in 1947 by the Congregation of St. Basil. A chapel would complete the building plan for the campus that they had commissioned Philip Johnson to design, and they found themselves wondering if the Seagram murals might be repurposed for a project better aligned with the spiritual resonance of Rothko’s work. It was quickly agreed, however, that a chapel warranted paintings made specifically for the project. Though the Menils had long harbored an inclination to emulate Couturier’s chapel projects, the matter was left to rest for the time being.

It wasn’t until the untimely death early in 1964 of Dominique’s dear friend (and mentor in the art of exhibition making) Jermayne MacAgy that the couple’s impulse to build a chapel was reactivated. And they thought immediately of Rothko, in part because he and MacAgy had become friends when she curated a show of his work for the Contemporary Art Association in Houston in 1957, but also because of the qualities they had observed in the Seagram paintings, which, like much of Rothko’s work, as Peter Selz noted:

really seem to ask for a place apart, a kind of sanctuary where they may perform what is essentially a sacramental function. . . . Perhaps, like medieval altarpieces, [they] can properly be seen only in an ambiance created in total keeping with their mood. [13]
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Rothko Chapel interior. Photograph by Paul Hester

So, just eight weeks after MacAgy’s death, Dominique visited Rothko and asked him to consider making paintings for the planned Catholic chapel. He readily accepted the commission and soon after began an extended process of consultation and collaboration with Philip Johnson. Johnson and Rothko agreed early to an octagonal plan that would foster the experience of immersion within the paintings’ environment. Specifications for the interior dimensions were set in place almost from the outset and remained unchanged throughout.

By December, the artist had a full-scale mock-up of three of the chapel walls built in the studio he had rented for the purpose, since it was with the calibration of components that Rothko was particularly concerned. He also used a working scale model of the whole structure. Open at the bottom, the model was designed to enable one to put one’s head inside in order to approximate the experience of standing in the space. [14]

Dore Ashton described the process this way:

The huge studio with its central skylight shielded by parachute silk became a place as he imagined it, different day after day, and re-made each day. . . . A series of young assistants came to help him build the huge stretchers. . . . There were times when Rothko sat for hours in his canvas chair, contemplating the shape and size of the empty stretchers. His assistants would be called upon to change one or another as Rothko sought the absolute solution to his . . . scheme. Once the canvases had their “plum” grounds, they would be aligned in the replica of the chapel and Rothko would again sit and contemplate them. Finally, as Roy Edwards, one of his assistants, recounts, he would decide where to place a black rectangle and the assistant would dust it in with charcoal. These interior shapes were then contemplated for days, singly and in relation to others. Rothko would sometimes decide to change the distance of the dominant shape from the border by a quarter of an inch, or, if he had already painted the dark interior, he would put the canvas away and substitute another. Months went by with this elaborate procedure, with Rothko inching toward his vision. [15]
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Rothko Chapel exterior with Barnett Newman's Broken Obelisk. Photograph by Paul Hester

The plan and its exacting execution owe much to Rothko’s experience of the octagonal late twelfth-century Byzantine Church of Santa Maria Assunta in Torcello, Italy, and particularly of the pair of mosaics therein that he found so moving. He had been, as his friend Robert Motherwell recalled, “deeply shaken by the mosaic of the Last Judgement over the altar, but, his fears were soon swept away by the sight of the gold-background Madonna and Child opposite the altar in the apse. This was precisely the tension, between condemnation and promise, ‘tragedy and hope,’ he sought to recreate in Houston.” [16]

Rothko’s exacting rigor in calibrating that tension, in modulating its pulsating effects, no doubt informed his quiet insistence that he prevail over the architect with respect to two deeply fraught issues: the height of the building and the manner in which it was to receive light. [17] In the Chapel, he wanted the paintings to enjoy the same lighting conditions that prevailed in his skylit studio, and he sought a similar sense of volume, too. As Dominique de Menil recounted, “Rothko categorically rejected Johnson’s idea of surmounting the chapel with a truncated pyramid that would diffuse light onto the walls.” [18] It must be said that Johnson was right to recognize that sunlight entering directly into the windowless octagon from a central skylight would overwhelm Rothko’s canvases, and thus his proposed central spire—to be built in white concrete—was designed to admit light only through its constricted oculus. That light would reflect off the widening walls of a 66-foot-tall shaft rising above the 18-foot-6-inch interior walls, creating a softer, more diffuse illumination within the Chapel itself. [19] But Rothko was appalled by the structure’s height and mass, and the Menils reacted strongly, too. On seeing Johnson’s scale model in 1965, Dominique objected immediately. “It was awful. It looked like a crematorium.” [20] And there were other reasons to object. The structure, at almost eight stories tall, would have dominated the skyline of the two-story campus in a largely single-story neighborhood. Moreover, the Menils saw in the design a triumphalism that had just been renounced by the Second Vatican Council. Johnson made some modest effort to resolve the issue but eventually withdrew from the project, leaving its completion in the hands of Howard Barnstone and Eugene Aubry, who had worked as supervising architects on a number of Johnson projects in Texas and served more or less as the Menils’ in-house architects.

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Rothko Chapel Guest Book, 1980-82. Courtesy Rothko Chapel Archives

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Visitors' comments from a Rothko Chapel Guest Book. Courtesy Rothko Chapel Archives

It was Barnstone and Aubry’s task to complete the building in consultation with Rothko. All the plans, including the materials—the asphalt floor tiles meant to mimic the surface of the path that he walked in Central Park, the plaster surface of the interior walls—the exact specifications for the low steel barriers to assert a protective distance from the paintings, the austere wooden benches, and, not least, the precise placement of each canvas in relation to the others and to the walls themselves, were of intimate concern to Rothko. All these elements, he knew, would shape the conditions of encounter.

Quiet room
Humming . . . cool air
Mother singing a chant to her child
My eyes adjusting and
patterns emerge from the
dark canvases
like shimmering reflections on smooth water.

Rothko Chapel Guest Book

To enter the Chapel is to find yourself utterly elsewhere. Attention does not immediately land on the canvases that loom in every direction. Indeed, it’s difficult to know where to look, and in any case, in the first instance, looking doesn’t seem to be the point. Instead, the paintings infuse the atmosphere, dense and still, enveloping visitors in its weather. As quiet washes over and eyes adjust to the diminished light, a slowed receptivity takes hold, and the paintings begin to reveal themselves.

Endnotes
  1. Thomas Crow, “Illuminations Past and Present in the Painting of Mark Rothko,” in Mark Rothko: Toward Clarity, ed. Sabine Haag and Jasper Sharp (Vienna: Kunst Historisches Museum, 2019), 55.
  2. Mark Rothko, “How to Combine Architecture, Painting, and Sculpture,” in Mark Rothko, Writings on Art, ed. Miguel López-Remiro (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005), 74.
  3. Dominique de Menil, “Inaugural Address at the Rothko Chapel,” Rothko Chapel, Houston, February 26, 1971. Rothko Chapel Archives. Rothko said this in “The Ides of Art,” Tiger’s Eye, December 1947, reprinted in Rothko, Writings on Art, among other places.
  4. See Stephen Schloesser, Jazz Age Catholicism: Mystic Modernism in Postwar Paris, 1919–1933 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2005); and Pamela G. Smart, Sacred Modern: Faith, Activism, and Aesthetics in the Menil Collection (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010).
  5. As recently as 1910, Pope Pius X had required that all priests having pastoral charge sign the “Oath Against Modernism,” as Stephen Schloesser notes; see Schloesser, Jazz Age Catholicism, 56.
  6. Marie-Alain Couturier, Sacred Art (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1989), 52.
  7. Marie-Alain Couturier quoted in “Religion: Art for God’s Sake,” Time, June 20, 1949, 65.
  8. See William Rubin, Modern Art and the Church of Assy (New York: Columbia University Press, 1961); La Chapelle de Vence: Journal d’une création/ Henri Matisse, M.-A. Couturier, L.-B. Rayssiguier, ed. and introduced by Marcel Billot, foreword by Dominique de Menil (Paris: Cerf, 1993); and Smart, Sacred Modern.
  9. Marie-Alain Couturier quoted in “Father Marie-Alain Couturier, O.P., and the Refutation of Anti-Semitism in Vichy France,” in L. Ehrlich, S. Bolozky, R. Rothstein, M. Schwartz, J. Berkovitz, J. Young, eds., Textures and Meaning: Thirty Years of Judaic Studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2004), 140.
  10. Crow, 49.
  11. See Katharine Kuh, “Mark Rothko: A Portrait in Dark and Light,” in My Love Affair with Modern Art: Behind the Scenes with a Legendary Curator (New York: Arcade Publishing, 2006).
  12. Dominique de Menil, quoted in William Middleton, Double Vision: The Unerring Eye of Art World Avatars Dominique and John de Menil (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2018), 476.
  13. Peter Selz quoted in Susan J. Barnes, The Rothko Chapel: An Act of Faith (Houston: Rothko Chapel, 1989), 43.
  14. Middleton, 477.
  15. Dore Ashton quoted in Middleton, 478.
  16. Interview with Robert Motherwell by Dominique de Menil and Susan J. Barnes, May 10, 1980, Menil Archives.
  17. Barnes, 81.
  18. Annie Cohen-Solal, Mark Rothko: Toward the Light in the Chapel (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015), 188.
  19. In its built configuration the inner ring supporting the skylight is 25 feet 2 3/8 inches and the tip of the present skylight is 31 feet 2 3/8 inches. The exterior parapet wall is 27 feet high.
  20. Dominique de Menil quoted in Middleton, 478. The quote is from an interview with Paul Winkler and Carol Mancusi-Ungaro. Susan Barnes observes in The Rothko Chapel: An Act of Faith that the proposed shaft recalls the tower of the nuclear reactor that Johnson had built in Rehovet, Israel, in 1960. Barnes, 80.
Essays — Atmospheric Pressure: Pamela G. Smart on the Rothko Chapel, Feb 23, 2021