Pace Live

A Monday Meditation at the Rothko Chapel

Virtual Guided Meditation

Recorded on May 10, 2021

In honor of the Rothko Chapel’s 50th anniversary, we hosted a virtual guided meditation led by Tibetan meditation teacher, Dr. Alejandro Chaoul. Following the broadcast, Chaoul joined Marc Glimcher, President & CEO of Pace Gallery, and David Leslie, Executive Director of the Rothko Chapel, for a discussion on the Rothko Chapel as a place for inspiration and contemplation, the importance of sacred spaces, and the value of a solo meditation practice.

Learn more about the Rothko Chapel.

Marc Glimcher (MG): My name is Marc Glimcher and I’m the President and CEO of Pace Gallery. At Pace Gallery we have had the great pleasure and honor of working with the Rothko family for over forty years, but, we’re here to talk about an even older anniversary for the legacy of the great Mark Rothko, and that is fifty years of the Rothko Chapel and its reopening after a beautiful renovation. We are here today to experience a wonderful meditation—something that many of us have as an extremely important part of our lives. Many of us in the art world feel a strong intersection between the way we experience art and the way that we work towards an expanded consciousness in meditation. Before I take up all of our time I want to introduce the Director of the Rothko Chapel, David Leslie, to tell us more about the program.

David Leslie (DL): Marc, thank you so much for your kind and timely introduction for this very, very important program. I want to say a special thanks to you, your colleagues at Pace, and my colleagues here at the Chapel who made this program possible today. It’s just great to have us together in this virtual space. I just want to let everybody know that this is a very exciting year for the Chapel as we celebrate our 50th anniversary. Central to the observances and festivities is a vision that the Chapel’s founders, John and Dominique de Menil, and the artist, Mark Rothko, had that led to the creation of this really transformative, sacred space in Houston, Texas. Of course, their vision, collectively, is captured in one art installation featuring the fourteen magnificent Rothko paintings that grace the Chapel sanctuary. The programs that we’ve planned through the year have been developed in honor not only of the de Menils and Rothko, but we also remember the original architect, Philip Johnson, and his team that followed, Howard Barnstone and Eugene Aubry, as well as everybody who has contributed and been supportive of this wonderful institution.

For many of you all, it’s going to be a staggering number if you think about this little place in Houston that on a “regular year,” which would be a non-COVID year, we host more than 100,000 people—and that’s the counted heads—that come to the Chapel from over 100 countries. They find their way here for pilgrimage, for renewal, for respite, and for inspiration. In addition to the work that we do hosting visitors for meditation, prayer, and just being, we also have a very robust group of programming and commitments we make on the human rights and social justice front. This is very important to the Chapel and for those that are here and come here, or get the chance to visit, what you’re struck by when you first arrive is Barnett Newman’s—who is a contemporary of Mark Rothko’s, another great artist—Broken Obelisk, which stands above the reflecting pool on the plaza in front of the Chapel, complete with a small dedication plaque that’s on the northeast corner of the pool that reads, “Broken Obelisk by Barnett Newman dedicated to Martin Luther King, Jr.” Now it’s really important to note that this dedication to Dr. King is no accident because John and Dominque believed firmly that King’s life and ministry could inspire the type of courageous action needed to challenge the injustices and divisions in society. Like the timeless ability of art to foster spiritual exploration and growth, the de Menils strongly believed that spirituality and justice were linked together, inseparable, and in transformative ways.

While we’re celebrating the past and engaging the present, we’ve also had a great opportunity this year and over the last couple of years to really look at the future of the Chapel as we get ready for our next fifty years. Starting in 2016 and then launched in 2018, we developed what we’re calling the Opening Spaces Master Plan and along with the $30 million plus capital campaign that’s also chaired by Christopher Rothko, the son of Mark Rothko. This monumental project includes the restoration of the Chapel, which we just completed, and we were able to reopen in September of last year, and the building of several new facilitates that will help us serve a growing public, including the recently opened Suzanne Deal Booth Welcome House. In the years ahead, we will be adding a new administrative and archives building, a new programming center, and a meditation garden. Again, all of these elements and these new facilities are allowing us to use our campus fully to be able to serve the public both here in Houston and those that come to visit from all parts of the globe. With that background, just a little bit about the Chapel, I want to turn our attention back to the here and new and introduce you to an essential part of the life of our Chapel. That is the practice of meditation. For the Chapel, meditation is an important way to focus attention on both the transformation and support of the individual and the larger community. Meditation also provides a unique opportunity to learn about and experience a wide array of meditative practices found in Houston and throughout the world. This afternoon we’re going to enter into a time of contemplation. A time to slow down and get away from the demands and cacophony of the day, and this is going to be done through a virtual meditation. Leading this meditation is a good friend of the Chapel and an advisor, Dr. Alejandro Chaoul. Let me say a little bit about him.

Alejandro is the founding director of the Jung Center’s Mind Body Spirit Institute here in Houston. He holds a doctoral degree in Religious Studies from Rice University. He’s currently an Adjunct Member of the University of Texas Medical School MD Anderson Cancer Center, where since 1999 he has been leading people with cancer and their family members through Mind, Body, Spirit techniques aimed at reducing stress and facilitating healing. He’s a writer and author of the recently published, Tibetan Yoga for Health and Wellbeing and the Chöd Practice in the Bon Tradition. He studied Buddhist practices and traditions with His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Yongdzin Tenzin Namdak, and Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche. He brings twenty years of experience as a teacher on Buddhism and Tibetan yoga and has taught classes and led retreats around the world. You’re in for a real treat. We’ve spent a lot of time, many hours together, and Alejandro is a deep friend and practitioner at the Chapel and beyond. We’re really grateful, glad to have him with us today, and then we’ll enter into conversation after his presentation.

[Meditation Recording]

Marc Glimcher (MG): Thank you, Ali. Thank you so much. That was a beautiful meditation. Just what we need during the day. I think that as we breathe ourselves back out it's an interesting time to have a conversation about the connection between meditative practice and art and specifically how institutions play a role in the growth of these practices today and the growth of the community benefit of meditation. I know at Pace Gallery, we have an active meditating community here and it's something that we have encouraged––and we just had our afternoon meditation––that's something hard to do in most businesses. But I think, of course, the Jung Center obviously has probably done a lot of thinking about this, as has the Rothko Chapel. What is an institution's role and responsibility in the practice of expanding consciousness? What do you think?

Dr. Alejandro Chaoul (AC): Yes, thank you. Thank you, Marc. I think there's a big responsibility on the institutions because institutions can really provide that space. And what I mean by space is not just, well at the Rothko Chapel, for example, there's a great space there, but for the employees, we could meet in one of the adjacent buildings and just do something for the employees. At the Jung Center, every staff meeting, we start with a short meditation so that what we share comes from that place of connectedness, both to ourselves and others. Now and even actually before COVID, for example, my teacher, Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche, did what he calls CyberSangha, so this sense of expanding that meditation doesn't have to be necessarily in one physical space, as now we all know. I think that is very, very powerful, and at the Jung Center Mind Body Spirit Institute, we do this thing called The Power of Community, and we do these free meditations and sometimes they're just fifteen minutes, sometimes half an hour, sometimes an hour, so we allow—we give—the opportunity for people to find what is useful for them and join and be the presence of others that could be in so many different places and even countries. I think that becomes a beautiful opportunity, and I have to say that these fifteen-minute meditations, sometimes I find they become incredibly useful. I do a lot for the medical center and at the beginning, I thought only fifteen minutes? And now I love those because it does give an opportunity, as you were saying, a break during the day to center and continue.

MG: David, obviously, you have a very strong meditation program going on at the Chapel. How does the art world respond to that? I know you obviously have people from all over the world, from all walks of life, I'm interested in hearing how our community, which spends so much time with so many meditative objects, but on the other hand, is so frantic and busy.

David Leslie (DL): Right. Well, I mean, I think a little bit of my introduction was designed to remind us exactly why the Rothko Chapel came into existence. Beginning its genesis. And its genesis was a proposition of inviting people, really an invitation, to really think about meaning, purpose, why we're here, what's our relationship to one another? What is it that enhances life complementary, and what is it that gets in the way of someone recognizing their fullness as a human being? And maybe we can say now fullness of the cosmos. Right. I think that embedded in that in the early days, it would have been prayer. We probably would have used prayer, meditation. There are different ways that we express this, but this idea of really taking time and I think that's the notion of sacred. What is a sacred space? It's a space that's carved out from the norm, the day-to-day. Meditation is a way that you build that sacred space for these encounters. I think what is incredible, Marc, and Ali knows this, is that you might have in the Chapel, let's just say fifteen random people all gathered at that moment in time you walk in. You might think it's fifteen people doing their own thing but, you know, deep down, it's a connective tissue that says, in fact, there's a community being built here at this moment.

I think what's been amazing to me in my almost six years now of having the privilege, really, of seeing the breadth of the chapel activated, and in so many formal and informal ways, is that the common need that I think we all have, even though we may not know how to articulate it, to get off of that treadmill, to get off of that cacophony of the city, to build that sacred space, and then to see how many wonderful ways it's done. It's like art, right? I mean, we all, I think, have some creative element inside of us, but we don't know where it is sometimes. We have to be invited. We have to be pulled in. The Rothko paintings or your gallery or museum is a way to create a conversation to get that insight. Well, so too is meditation. I'll just say, if we were in the Chapel doing this on our regular programs, we would then have a conversation like we're doing now with Alejandro and we'd be asking a little bit about the tradition. How did it come about? What are the particularly unique practices of Zen Buddhism or whatever, and then suddenly people are saying, “Well, my tradition does that” or “I speak that language, too,” right? Suddenly you're finding a common connection and I think part of the institution's role is to build that intentional space.

AC: Yeah, and following on that, that program that David is referring to, we call it the Twelve Moments, right, because we have a moment every month and we bring different traditions. Some could be a Christian tradition of meditation, a Buddhist tradition of meditation, an Islamic tradition of meditation, and as David was saying, we ask them to say a little bit about the tradition to share a practice and then there's time for questions and reflections and that part is so enriching. Both the engagement of the practice itself that the person is sharing, but the views and saying, “Oh, I can connect from this way because this was my training,” or “this is what I do,” and that is really incredibly enriching. In addition, we are at the Rothko Chapel, and then we go out and, as David was mentioning, the Broken Obelisk, the reflecting pond, and now all the trees that surround that you just recently planted just creates such a great environment, both for contemplative practice and then how we bring it into daily life through dialogue and other interactions.

MG: I think it is a moment for institutional leaders who have been reassessing how much does your message and your mission statement match your internal culture? We go to the Rothko Chapel, we have a very special moment, and it's our job to bring that back. Not just to our audiences, but also to our internal cultures. I think your internal cultures of businesses are being asked to reconsider. Oh, we love meditative, contemplative moments, but we work everybody ten hours a day, no lunch break, et cetera, et cetera. I think that's another challenge that businesses and institutions are facing, is to try and find that balance, because without it, we're certainly not reaching our potential and we're not really letting our people reach their potential. I'll say one more thing, one more topic, which is very near to my heart, which is that I think the artists have been telling us this and we have to listen. When Rothko and the de Menils came up with this amazing space, obviously the tradition of sacred space just goes back so far, but contemporary artists, starting with people like Rothko and Reinhardt and continuing on with artists like James Turrell and Robert Irwin, who took their lessons, are starting to say in the ‘60s and the ‘70s, the artist's job is not just to create an object, it's to create a space, a place, and trigger an experience. As we see this evolving in the art world, we have our new initiative, Superblue, where we're creating just experiential space for just experiential art, I think we need to remember how prescient Rothko and the Menils were to connect the ideas of contemporary art, abstraction, expressionism, to the creation of space where people can reconnect.

AC: Oh, go ahead, David, sorry.

DL: No, I think it's interesting as we sit on a half-century of existence in service here at the Rothko Chapel, how contemporary those ideals that you articulate, Marc, are today. I mean, I think that in one way, what the de Menils were exploring, I think of the canvases in the Chapel as icons without imagery, somewhat in iconography, but they're still the same thing. They work in the sense of inviting you into a conversation, but it's not prescriptive. I think in a world where we're told so much and it's so much of what we have is being told what you believe, what you should do. It's nice to be able to have a place where you're to some extent the driver of that conversation. You're responsible for that conversation. Now, the artist I mean, Rothko definitely had intent. He had intent as part of the intent, and that's part of his radical intent. And it's very unnerving to a lot of people. Right, because it's a little bit of a void there. But again, that, I think is what we really need to discover so often and I think what the other part of our responsibility here, and I think artists do this all the time, they invite you into this conversation not only with yourself but with someone else, with another person. Right? How to have a conversation. Maybe we're having to relearn some of that again, about how even how to even be civil, how to even appreciate the brushstrokes and the mark, and what is it that drove that artist to create what they created? That's that spiritual part of the connection between the product to some extent, and the process of making, that process of creativity. I think these are just part of what the de Menils were exploring, and it's so needed today. I just say that... and it's not just a parochial comment. It's what I think we're all experiencing so much all around us.

AC: And I think that sacred space part is so important, both having the support externally and an artist in general, as you say, they're kind of, I feel, they're provoking us or they're giving us opportunities. You go into the Rothko Chapel, and I know many people get in there like, what is this? Right.

MG: What am I supposed to look at?

AC: Right. And that's what I was reading in the meditation. Look inside! Rest! Have that as a support. Marc, you mentioned Turrell. There's a number of Turrell art pieces in Houston, actually, and there's more and more public art in general, for example, in Houston and I think in many cities, and that also supports those moments of connection. But also, as you said before, this aspect that we are asking people to work so much, asking them, can you have this moment? Can we allow you, as institutions, to give you the opportunity, invite you to take that moment to connect? That is so important both for yourself and others, even if we're doing it as a group in an organized environment, as David was saying, it could be in that same Chapel or it could be in the same office and just allow ourselves to take the moment.

MG: Well, I think we're getting to the end of our program, and I think that it's very inspiring to see people dedicating so much time and energy to this incredible metaphysical pursuit. There are so many physical pursuits in the world. I don't know, David, if you just want to have any last comments or... I'm going to be a very good Zoom moderator and try to actually be done in an hour.

DL: Now, my comment is, is something that's a word that we don't use very often, but it was really so central to the de Menil’s vision of the world and this place. It's ecumenical. What that simply means is that we're all part of the same household of creation, and the other part of it is that we all have an opportunity and obligation to work across those divisions, divides, however, we differentiate ourselves. I think today was an excellent example of that connective tissue and doing our work intersectionally. I just think that that is part of what is the birth of this particular place and I think that's why it's so essential for what we see in the minutes, if not years, ahead. Oh, I’ve got to do the parochial thing, and I’ll echo Ali, you’ve got to come to Houston. I think people are back out again and when people feel safe at the end of the day, there's no way you can do it and really experience it unless you're here. We hope that people will make the pilgrimage to Houston. To the Chapel.

AC: Yeah, and the Chapel, when I actually teach a class called Sacred Spaces in Houston, the Chapel is not only one of them, but the place to start. Do come on that “pilgrimage,” as David calls it, but I also want to thank Marc. I mean, that the Pace Gallery is joining and putting so much into this area because I'm very much in touch in the Rothko Chapel and nonprofit organizations, but to have organizations and companies like you and Pace Gallery, is fabulous. I really appreciate the putting together of this program. Thank you.

MG: It's our pleasure and it is our honor to be part of this amazing experience. Thank you both. Thank you to the entire team of the Chapel who does such an amazing job. I was just there two weeks ago. You don't even have to go to the Chapel, like you said, the pool, the Welcome House, you’re already feeling it, it's unwinding. And your team is just incredible. Thank you, Kate and Christopher, and the de Menils, for everything that they've done for Houston and for the world. Of course, great thanks to the master, Mark Rothko, who really did center us in his work. Thank you all.

DL: Thank you.

AC: And thank you all the team of Pace Gallery as well.

MG: OK, well, here's to the next Monday meditation. Thank you, everybody.

AC: Thank you.

MG: Have a beautiful day.

Pace Live — A Monday Meditation at the Rothko Chapel: Virtual Guided Meditation, May 25, 2021