How Rothko mocked up his Houston chapel in NY
Art & Place reveals how the artist scaled an interior world of private spirituality designed to engulf the viewer
As you might know by now from our Introducing story and our picture gallery, our new book Art & Place is a wonderful celebration of permanent, site-specific art in locations ranging from Canada to Argentina, with each work creatively integrated into its particular environment. Site-specific art of course, is as old as art itself, as the images to be found at the Coso Mountain Range of Eastern California engraved by hunter-gatherers as long ago as 8000 BC attest. However, it was in the 1960s, when artists such as Robert Smithson decided to move away from the conventional “mausoleums” of galleries that art began to take on a new relationship with the outside world in our time.
Rothko Chapel (1965-7) is one such work, and particularly resonant in that the space it creates is situated not just in the public, outside world but seeks to denote the interior world of private spirituality. It's a collaboration between the artist Mark Rothko and the architects Philip Johnson and Howard Barnstone. Situated in Houston, it uses the principles of modern art to provide an abstract setting which speaks to the needs of believers of all faiths. The paintings contain no subject matter, and therefore no narrative or didactic prompts to the viewer – they serve, rather to assist in the act of reflection. It's barely furnished, comprising just four benches; its purple and black canvasses create a suitably dark, subtle ambience, whose delicate hues, varying degrees of indirect light, architectural slants and precise placement of the rectangular pieces are calibrated to achieve an environment wholly conducive to religious contemplation. (For a musical companion to this site, incidentally, we recommend Morton Feldman's Rothko Chapel, commissioned for its opening.)
This sort of immersive experience would have been impossible to achieve in a gallery, with all its competing distractions. It required a dedicated space of its own. As the book's text reveals: "Employing an octagonal layout, Rothko used mock-ups of the chapel walls in his New York studio to scale his paintings to their dimensions. For him, paradoxically, large scale was intimate as it allowed viewers to be 'in' the paintings."
Finally, while you're in the store be sure to pick up a copy of our great Abstract Expressionism book which takes in the work of Rothko, Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock as well as lesser known artists such as Lee Krasner and Bradley Walker Tomlin.