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Meditation and modern art meet in Rothko Chapel

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I’m Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I’m Melissa Block.

The Rothko Chapel in Houston is more than an interfaith chapel. It’s also a center for human rights – and a one-man art museum devoted to 14 gigantic paintings by the abstract expressionist Mark Rothko. The chapel opened its doors 40 years ago.

And as Pat Dowell found, it continues to make an impression on all who enter.

PAT DOWELL: Walk up to the chapel from the south and the first thing you see is a small pool with Barnett Newman’s steel sculpture, “Broken Obelisk,” apparently floating on the water. The chapel itself is an octagonal brick building, windowless. Solid black doors open on a tiny glass-walled foyer.

Beyond the room, gray stucco walls, each filled by massive paintings. A baffled skylight subdues the bright Houston sun, and the surfaces of the paintings dramatically change as unseen clouds pass outside. There are eight austere wooden benches, and today, a few meditation mats.

(Soundbite of bell)

DOWELL: Concerts, lectures, weddings, memorial services all take place in here, but on most days, it’s just visitors, about 55,000 a year. And there’s always an attendant. Today, it’s Suna Umari. She’s worked at the chapel in various jobs for 30 years, most recently as historian. She also takes a turn as attendant, and her eight-hour shifts have given her, she says, a new sense of what the chapel means to visitors.

Ms. SUNA UMARI: People feel it’s their place. You know, they come, and they have a problem, and they cry in this space. If you look at the comment books, they make comments to each other as though this was their personal little diary.

DOWELL: There’s one couple who comes every six months.

Ms. UMARI: The first time I saw them, they must have had a fight, because she came in and sat down, then he followed. And he sat next to her, and she ignored him. Anyway, they whispered to each other, and pretty soon, they made up. And then they came out here to the foyer, and he wrote something in the comment book. He used the whole page, a declaration of his love for her. And then she wrote that she loved him also. And they seem to come, you know, at the beginning of the month, usually it’s the first or second of the month, and they sit in the chapel for a while, and then they declare their love for each other and go off.

DOWELL: For at least one visitor, the chapel was unnerving.

Mr. CHRISTOPHER ROTHKO: I wasn’t prepared for that when I walked in the door.

DOWELL: Christopher Rothko is the painter’s son.

Mr. ROTHKO: I almost left with nothing, but, in fact, I sort of sat through it for a few minutes and ended up spending an hour and 15 minutes, something like that, there. The time just sort of stopped running. And I can’t even tell you where I went at that point. I just -I know that it was a Rothko experience unlike one I’ve had before.

DOWELL: These are not the luminous color fields that made Mark Rothko famous. The paintings here are dark, in purplish or black hues. And there’s a reason for that, says Suna Umari.

Ms. UMARI: The paintings, they’re sort of a window to beyond. He said the bright colors sort of stop your vision at the canvas, where dark colors go beyond. And definitely, you’re looking at the beyond. You’re looking at the infinite.

DOWELL: The canvases are huge. The largest is about 15-by-11 feet. Susan Barnes was here the day they were installed.

Ms. SUSAN BARNES (Author, “The Rothko Chapel: An Act of Faith”): What I remember most of all was these large paintings, one at a time, being put in a sling and lowered through the skylight. The largest of these barely cleared.

DOWELL: In fact, the first day, the truck and the crane had to be sent back because it was too windy.

Ms. BARNES: Take a look at that big painting and think about it as a sail.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. BARNES: It was too dangerous.

DOWELL: Barnes has written a book about the project, but back then, she was fresh out of college and working for John and Dominique de Menil. They were the philanthropists and collectors who commissioned the chapel and the paintings. They hired Philip Johnson to design the building and Rothko to fill it. But the painter had such specific ideas about the space that Johnson bowed out.

It was always intended to be more than an art gallery, though. In a 1972 interview, Dominique de Menil said she saw it as a meeting place.

Ms. DOMINIQUE DE MENIL (Art Collector): But meetings of people who are not just going to debate and discuss theological problems, but who are going to meet because they want to find and contact with other people. They are searching for this brotherhood of humanity.

DOWELL: The chapel’s creator never lived to see it finished. Mark Rothko committed suicide in 1970, but his son, Christopher, says his father knew what it should be.

Mr. ROTHKO: It took me a while to realize it, but my father’s gift, in a sense, to somebody who comes to the chapel. It’s a place that will really not just invite, but almost demand a kind of journey.

DOWELL: The journey for onetime art history student Susan Barnes led to a ministry in the Episcopal Church. She says the chapel, too, has become a sacred place.

Ms. BARNES: This was a little neighborhood location. There was a house here. But you walk into this chapel and you know, now, that it has been sanctified by the prayers of the people. There is something you feel in the chapel that tells you it is a holy space.

DOWELL: For NPR News, this is Pat Dowell in Houston.

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