Untitled 1964 (from the National Gallery site).
The Rothko Chapel
Rothko's last one-man show in New York during his lifetime was at MoMA in 1961. He continued to paint but wanted to place his paintings in groups, rather than making single sales. He told a friend that all that really mattered to him were public commissions.
Rothko signed a $250,000 contract with the de Menil family in 1965 to produce a set of murals for a chapel in Houston. Rothko's friend, Dore Ashton, thought it was strange that Rothko would paint murals for what was at first to be a Catholic chapel, but after talking about it with him, she had a better understanding of his motives. "What is wonderful about Mark," she wrote in her journal in 1964, "is that he aspires, and is still capable of believing that his work can have some purpose - spiritual if you like - that is not sullied by the world."
The de Menils were French, rich from oil money, and art collectors who loved art for itself and not for investment value. They had bought their first Rothko painting in 1957. They gave Rothko a free hand in creating the murals for the chapel, which was to be designed by Philip Johnson. Johnson and Rothko disputed contrary visions of the building and the murals' prominence in it until, finally, in 1967 the de Menils got Johnson to resign. The architectural team that took over followed Rothko's intentions in making the building facade "blank, mute and rectilinear." Inside, he wanted the building to resemble his studio.
Interior of the Rothko Chapel showing three of fourteen panels. (panels are about 5' high x 15' wide)
Rothko worked for more than two years on the project with studio assistants who prepared the canvases and hoisted the heavy paintings for him. Some of the canvases were built up with fifteen or twenty layers of paint, according to one assistant. After a monochromatic base color was finally achieved to Rothko's satisfaction, Rothko decided on the sizes of rectangles to be painted on the colored fields. A rectangle was marked off with masking tape on a painted canvas and then colored in with charcoal. After studying the proportions and gradually enlarging the black rectangle, Rothko would call for another prepared canvas and paint in a black rectangles himself after having the precisely-taped size he had worked out duplicated on the new canvas. These were his first works with hard edge elements. Some of the panels did not have rectangles painted into them and were presented as Rothko's first monochromatic works.
Another view of the chapel showing the rear wall with two doors lit from the foyer.
Breslin spent five days at the chapel looking at the work. He sums up his study as follows: "Intended for a Catholic chapel, hung in an ecumenical one, these murals are spiritual only in the sense that they renounce the world - the world of material objects, of historical time and social pressures. Decorating a public, sacred space, they express a private and very human desire: a despairing wish to withdraw from the human."
An acrylic on paper work from 1969 - one of the Brown on Grey series. Rothko considered the white margins where masking tape had held the paper to the wall to be an important element. "The dark is always at the top," is the way Rothko described them.
A late photo of Rothko in his studio.
Christopher Rothko at the Tate Modern show - wearing colors that his father would have appreciated. (Photo by Shaun Curry of AFP/Getty)