About ten years ago I took a survey art history course at CU Boulder as a part of my degree. The course took each student through a Marilyn Stokstad art history tome, a 1000+ page book that spanned from clay dolls to Andy Warhol. It was the kind of book that you couldn’t throw away and you couldn’t give it away without being a jerk, since it weighed around 20 pounds.
Near the end of Stokstad’s book, we reached modern times, and the abstract expressionist artists of the mid-20th century. I remember seeing a photo of three brilliant orange panels standing in a chapel with low benches. This was the Rothko Chapel, and it was the last page in that monstrous Stokstad book.
The caption said the Rothko Chapel was in Houston. This was brilliant! Part of my family lived in Houston and we visited them once per year. Growing up in Colorado, there weren’t many great artworks that I could see consistently. Van Gogh and impressionist exhibitions passed through like Wild Bill, but there weren’t any great anchors of art in Denver at that time. The next time we went to Houston to see my Grandpa and cousins, I asked my Mom if we could drive to the chapel. There were other museums around there, so we decided to make a day of it.
I had been waiting to go to this chapel for about a year. I was anxious to see those tall brilliant orange panels. This all happened before the internet was big, so all I had was that picture in the Stokstad book, and the rumors that people told me about the chapel.
“People often break down and cry when they go there,” said one art history teacher.
“I thought it was a little overstated,” said a drawing teacher.
“My printmaking teacher met Rothko when he was alive, and he was horrible.
After going through about an hour of Houston traffic, we arrived in the shady park that contains the Menil collection, including the Cy Twombly Gallery, and the Rothko Chapel. Most people probably don’t think of Houston as an art city, but it has this little grove of 20th century power painters alongside its larger art museum, the MFAH.
We walked into the chapel and the orange towering panels were nowhere to be seen. We were surrounded by 20-ft high panels of mostly black, but not true black, paint. A small ceiling skylight in the center of the octagonal chapel let an array of natural light fall across the canvasses.
What was this? I thought. Where were the magnificent colorful panels? Was this a visiting show and the real paintings somewhere else?
After several minutes of internal confusion, it dawned on me that the picture in the art history book had been taken during a sunset, where the colors from the sky were cast across the receptive black paintings. Being in the Rothko chapel on a typical partly-cloudy Houston day left them black, a deep violet, and grayish blue. If you hadn’t seen the photo in Stokstad, the Rothko Chapel would probably be the most depressing and boring thing you’d ever seen in your life. Stokstad, you liar!
Each visitor at the chapel was different, but everyone there was lost.
I sat down on a bench and started looking at the paintings. How did he do these? They were massive. The amount of paint, strength, and space needed to make something so empty baffled me. The reasoning behind it baffled me further.
As I continued to look into the paintings, shapes gathered across the dark panels. For a moment, there seemed to be people and animals, or faces. But, this wasn’t Rothko putting hidden messages in his paintings, it was just me and my brain trying to understand, trying to hang onto something.
Some of the paintings were more attractive than others, even though they were all virtually the same monumental black painting. How did that happen, I thought. If they are all the same, why is one better? It had to be my own internal biases, which I realized were arbitrary and stupid.
In the end I could see how these paintings work in a meditative space. The paintings don’t make demands on your thought patterns, yet, they lend you … something. We left the chapel all thinking our own unique thoughts. It remains to be unlike any other art experience I've ever had.
No photography is allowed in The Rothko Chapel - the Stokstad photo being an educational exception. I could see why. It isn’t a place where photos make sense. The paintings change each time a cloud passes above the chapel’s oculus. A photo would not only over-communicate, but a photo is useless in helping anyone understand the chapel.
Since that first visit I’ve been back to the chapel three other times, each time with the chapel being different. I see new aspects of Rothko each visit. I still haven’t seen it during a sunset, but I still believe that it is possible for these black paintings to become orange.