February 27, 2024

Conceived and founded by those fabulous de Menils, Rothko Chapel was dedicated in 1971 as an ecumenical non-denominational sanctuary. The tranquil grounds contain an unprepossessing octagonal brick Chapel and a public plaza where artist Barnett Newman’s colossal Broken Obelisk sculpture rises from a large, rectangular reflecting pool. Recognized as one of the great artistic achievements of the latter twentieth century, as a work of religious art it is firmly on a par with Matisse’s Chapel of the Rosary or the Notre Dame du Haut Chapel by Le Corbusier. Widely known for his color field paintings, Mark Rothko had long yearned for the opportunity to create a total art space, to shape a complete environment where his paintings would be seamlessly integrated into the structure and purpose of the space that housed them. The Chapel commission granted the artist the unique freedom to create such an environment. Working closely with architect Philip Johnson, Rothko designed a sunlit octagonal space to hold a suite of fourteen majestic paintings in deep velvety blacks and purples, cultivating a spiritual quality of reverence and intimacy. As a non-believer the power of the Chapel as a sacred space is a bit difficult for me to grasp at first. Fitted with little more than a handful of benches, it’s a place to meditate, worship, pray, or experience the transformative power of art. Call it what you will, it’s a rare bird: a place where at least briefly the busy world can be hushed in abeyance of something larger.

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