PaperCity Magazine

PaperCity Houston October 2020

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Rothko Chapel: the path to light + tRansCendenCe t he Rothko Chapel restoration unveils this fall, phase one of a $30 million, multi-year campaign to reimagine a sacred space that is both a call to contemplation and a beacon for activism. The nondenominational site of worship, serenity, and enlightenment has, for nearly a half-century, served as a Mecca for art pilgrims worldwide. Forty-nine years after it was inaugurated, architect Robert Morris considers the early days of the Chapel and the ongoing challenge of realizing most fully co-founder Dominique de Menil and painter Mark Rothko's uncompromising vision. "When you enter the Chapel, everything seems very dark. It is night. But gradually the night recedes and it becomes predawn — a predawn followed by dawn." This passage, written by Dominique de Menil in The Rothko Chapel: Writings on Art and The Threshold of The Divine, describes the founder and patron's quest for a mystical experience within the interior environment of the Chapel. A nearly sacrosanct building, it serves as a receptacle containing Mark Rothko's 14 large, minimal paintings arrayed along its eight walls, considered the artist's magnum opus. Nonetheless, the Chapel's 50-year history has been marked by often unsuccessful attempts to evoke the transcendent within this prescribed architectural construction. These efforts revolve around lighting solutions, an all-consuming design struggle focused on resolving the issue of the Chapel's interior illumination, a tenet central to the visitor's communion with the Rothko paintings at the space's heart. In 1971, when the Rothko Chapel opened, the building featured a large clear glass and aluminum-framed skylight in the ceiling. Within the sacred space's first two years, it became evident that the intensity of Houston's natural daylight pouring in from the large skylight was having a deleterious effect on the exotic paint mix (oil, egg tempera, rabbit-skin glue) that Rothko used for his celebrated suite of canvases. Although Rothko worked with architect Philip Johnson on the evolution of the architecture for the Chapel from 1964 to 1967, they could not agree on the final design for the skylight. After Johnson resigned the commission in 1967, local Houston architects Howard Barnstone and Eugene Aubry began collaborating with Rothko on the project. Rothko's large Upper East Side studio in New York City, where he created the paintings, had a parachute draped from the ceiling to filter the natural daylight from the overhead skylights. The 14 paintings plus four alternates were completed using this filtered, diffused natural-light condition. The first time Ms. de Menil saw the artworks in Rothko's studio, she sat silent for a All Rothko ChApel imAges © pAul hesteR. The restored Rothko Chapel, fall 2020 (Continued) 24

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