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Chasing the Rothko Trail

By Roberta Green Ahmanson, December 7, 2022

Mark Rothko has long been the mid-century artist whose work I thought had the most to say about the human condition. By that I mean it was the work that seemed to communicate the dilemma, the tragedy and the glimmer of hope of the 20th century, the century in which I was born.

It was a century that juxtaposed the monotony of material abundance in North America with the horrors of war and genocide, poverty and disease that erupted across the globe. Rothko, a reader of Nietzsche and Kierkegaard, often said that tragedy was at the heart of human experience — that in solitude our deep loneliness was palpable.

And there, in that deep place, we long for something, for someone, to give it meaning, to make it better. That tragedy, that unquenchable longing in that deepest of places is what Mark Rothko set out to paint.

When he got the commission to create a chapel for John and Dominique de Menil in 1964, Rothko knew it was the chance he had been waiting for. What is now the Rothko Chapel in Houston, Texas, has become a pilgrimage destination for some and an enigma to others.

There was immediate controversy when Rothko rejected architect Philip Johnson’s original plan for the building. Johnson was removed, and architects Howard Barnstone and later Eugene Aubry took over.

At the time of his suicide in 1970, Rothko had finished the 14 panels for the chapel, which was still incomplete. He never saw them in place. The chapel was finally opened on the last weekend of February 1971.

From the beginning the lighting was a problem. The original skylights let in too much of the piercing Texas sun and overwhelmed the space. Through the years various solution were tried — a kind of fabric “diaper,” then a baffle. None worked.

The paintings were restored in 1999, and then for its 50th anniversary in 2021, the Architecture Research Office was engaged at a price of $30 million to restore not only the chapel but also the grounds and supplementary buildings. Rothko’s largest project reopened on the same February weekend in 2021 as it had 50 years earlier. Not everyone loves the chapel. Some think it’s too dark, including Rainey Knudson, who reviewed the restoration for the Texas Monthly and called it “a little too dry and puritanical.” Beyond that, for Knudson, the chapel has become a religion all its own: “It demands you believe in it. Without any theology at its core, however, that belief is unfixed and open-ended.” I first visited the chapel in 2011, the heavy baffle dominating the space. My sympathies then would have sided with Knudson. But since then Rothko has become an important figure in my effort to trace the way longing has been visualized in Western art for at least 2,000 years. By the time I got to the 20th century, I knew the importance of Rothko’s work for that story. My quest started with reading biographies. The more I read, the more fascinated I became. Rothko loved the places in Europe, especially Italy, that I love — San Marco monastery in Florence, the old churches of Rome, Santa Maria Assunta on Torcello in Venice.

Santa Maria Assunta, 1008, Torcello in the Venice Lagoon

There is a route art historians call the Piero Trail leading from Arezzo through Monterchi to San Sepolcro, Piero della Francesca’s hometown. For me there grew a Rothko Trail, those old churches of Rome: San Marco monastery and the Laurentian Library vestibule in Florence, Santa Maria Assunta in Venice.

Add two 2021 shows in London for the 50th anniversary of Rothko’s death — the reinstallation of the Seagram Murals at Tate Britain and a show of late works, mostly on paper, at Pace Gallery. Then include the Rothko Room at the Phillips Gallery in Washington, D.C., the 2021 “Red Studio” show at MoMA and, of course, the Rothko Chapel itself in Houston. My route was set.


Excerpt from the exhibition: The Red Studio was painted in 1911, when Henri Matisse (1869-1954) was 41 years old and still a highly controversial figure. The poet and art critic Guillaume Apollinaire had recently described him as among the “most disparaged” artists of the time. In creating The Red Studio, Matisse nevertheless undertook one of the most complex experiments of his career, a monochrome-but-not, flat-yet-deep composition that served as a proving ground for his radical rethinking of modern painting.

This exhibition unfolds in two parts. The first gallery reassembles the gathering of artworks that Matisse portrayed in The Red Studio. These works have not been together for more than a century, as they each departed the studio not long after the painting was completed. The second gallery documents The Red Studio’s circuitous journey from the place it depicted to the The Museum of Modern Art. The painting's early history of inscrutability and rejection illustrates that it was hardly assured, or even likely, that The Red Studio would ultimately become one of the most renowned and influential landmarks of modern art.

Rothko insisted he was painting reality. He also insisted that his large paintings be hung close to the floor and in groups. He was said to be belligerent and cantankerous about that. It mattered. The two went together.

As for the first insistence, Rothko had written this personal statement in the catalog for an exhibition curated by David Porter in 1945:

I adhere to the material reality of the world and the substance of the things. I merely enlarge the extent of this reality, extending to it coequal attributes with experiences in our more familiar environment. I insist upon the equal existence of the world engendered in the mind and the world engendered by God outside of it.

As I read and looked and thought about Rothko’s work, it occurred to me that there might be yet another source for the luminous clouds that seemed to hover about to lift off from his canvases. Rothko’s education began in a cheder, an orthodox Jewish school in his hometown in what is now Latvia. For six years, from age 4 to age 10, this young boy learned Hebrew, studied Torah (the first five books of the Hebrew Bible) and worshipped with the Psalms.

Searching those sources with Rothko’s images in mind was revealing. For one thing, deep darkness and luminous clouds suffuse the text. Genesis opens with it:

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And, the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.

Reading on in Exodus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, whenever God appears, it is in a luminous dark cloud or a pillar of glowing fire. When they leave Egypt, the children of Israel are led by a cloud by day, a pillar of fire by night. Clouds and darkness protect them before the crossing of the Red Sea. When God calls Moses to Mt. Sinai to give him the Ten Commandments, he appears to him in a cloud so that the people will be able to hear but not see him because seeing him they would die. Then in Exodus 19:

On the morning of the third day there were thunders and lightnings and a thick cloud on the mountain and a very loud trumpet blast, so that all the people in the camp trembled.

The Psalms reinforce the image. This passage from Psalm 97 is but one example:

The Lord reigns, let the earth rejoice; let the many coastlands be glad! Clouds and thick darkness are all around him; righteousness and justice are the foundation of his throne.

Whether or not the adult Mark Rothko was conscious of those images, they were part of the fabric of his education. The deepest realities are shrouded, and we long to break through. But breaking through can be dangerous.

When I revisited the Rothko Chapel this September, the thing that struck me most was the way these dark panels grew more luminous the more I looked. They became an enveloping, hovering presence, both calming and enticing. That made the flat black rectangle at the exit stand out more than ever before.

That leads to Rothko’s second insistence — large pictures hung close to the ground in groups.

On Sept. 25, 1954 (his birthday), Rothko had written to the curator, Katharine Kuh, that he feared his paintings could become nothing but decorative features on huge museum walls. He wrote:

This would be a distortion of their meaning, since the pictures are intimate and intense, and are the opposite of what is decorative; and have been painted in a scale of normal living rather than an institutional scale. I have on occasion successfully dealt with this problem by tending to crowd the show rather than making it spare. By saturating the room with the feeling of the work, the walls are defeated and the poignancy of each single work had for me become more visible.

Again and again, Rothko found opportunities to create groups of works and put them together — the works for the Harvard dining room, the Seagram panels that echoed Michelangelo’s Laurentian Library planned first for the Four Seasons Restaurant but finally landing in their own room in Tate Britain, the Rothko Room at the Phillips, the installation of his 1961 MoMA show and, of course, the chapel in Houston.

The Russian art historian Alexei Lidov has coined the term hierotopy to describe the creation of sacred spaces as an art form all their own. Orthodox Christian churches are a prime example — the icons, the scent of the incense, the taste of the Eucharist, the haunting strains of the chants and the touch of the vestments all work together to create the space.

Examples abound: Zen temples. Installation art works. Hindu ashrams. These are intimate spaces, public but private. It seems to me that Mark Rothko was creating just such spaces, intimate spaces in which to face the deepest questions of the human heart.

In his address to the Pratt Institute in November 1958, published in Writings on Art, Rothko said:

Since I am involved with the human element, I want to create a state of intimacy — an immediate transaction. Large pictures take you into them. … When I went to Europe and saw the old masters, I was involved with the credibility of the drama. Would Christ on the cross if he opened his eyes believe the spectators? I think that small pictures since the Renaissance are like novels; large pictures are like dramas in which one participates in a direct way.

When I read that I couldn’t help but think of Fra Angelico’s paintings in the San Marco Monastery in Florence, a place Rothko visited more than once. Biographer James Breslin recounts artist Robert Motherwell recalling how Rothko, being disgusted with the need for the modern artist to “steal a place on a rich man’s wall,” was impressed with the fact that in Fra Angelico’s world art had a legitimate human place.

Looking at, say, Fra Angelico’s painting of the Transfiguration, a life-sized image saturated with blazing white light inviting you in, I couldn’t help but think of Rothko’s own images. Its purpose was just that — to take the viewer to the foot of Mt. Carmel, gazing with Peter and James and John at the glory of God in Jesus Christ, to make the sacred a part of the monk’s daily life.

Rothko’s challenge was to find a way to create such spaces in the 20th century. Matisse’s painting “The Red Studio” had come to MoMA in 1949; it was a work Rothko contemplated for hours. The Italian writer Gabriela Drudi visited the Rothkos in 1960 just after they moved into their brownstone on 95th Street. In a letter to biographer Dore Ashton after the visit, she recounts Rothko telling his wife Mell what was so special about “The Red Studio”:

You asked: why always that and only that picture? You thought I was wasting my time. But this house you owe to Matisse’s Red Studio. And from those months and that looking every day all of my painting was born.

In her book “About Rothko,” Dore Ashton adds this further insight from the artist: “When you looked at that painting, you became that color, you became totally saturated with it,” as if it were music. That is exactly what happens in sacred spaces: We become participants, no longer observers. Inside, no longer outside looking in.

Many have made the point that the Rothko Chapel harkens back to the church of Santa Maria Assunta on Torcello in the Venice lagoon, a space Rothko loved. The back wall is the world’s only mosaic of the Last Judgment, where Christ returns to judge the living and the dead forever. But opposite, in the apse, the Virgin Mary holds the Christ Child, the door into the glorious home we all long for. At the Rothko Chapel, the luminous paintings at the front echo that hovering, hopeful virgin and child, and the blood red panel with a flat black rectangle at the back suggests that Last Judgment. And Rothko, the man who as a boy walked out of the synagogue never to return but who loved Fra Angelico’s luminous paintings and the church at Torcello, was striving to create such sacred spaces. But for Rothko, those spaces take us to the question rather than the answer. They offer room and time to reach our own deep spaces. As poet Robert Frost put it: They cannot scare me with their empty spaces Between stars – on stars where no human race is. I have it in me so much nearer home To scare myself with my own desert places. Hope and the question, the question of life and of our own lives. There was no question that Rothko understood his work to be religious. He said so to curator Sheldon Rothman in 1956: I’m interested only in expressing basic human emotions — tragedy, ecstasy, doom, and so on — and the fact that lots of people break down and cry when confronted with my pictures shows that I communicate those basic emotions. ... The people who weep before my pictures are having the same religious experience I had when I painted them. James Breslin recounts that Rothko called his paintings “‘portraits’ of the states of the soul.” Rothko often called them “facades” or “windows.” His goal was to take his viewers into Frost’s “empty spaces.” To do that, those places need to be close, on our level. Mark Rothko intuitively understood all this. He painted the dark places that frighten us and yet draw us to them, the deepest places. Religious indeed.

All of the Rothko quotations in this essay are taken from “Writings on Art Mark Rothko,” Miguel Lopez-Remiro, editor, Yale University Press, 2006, unless otherwise noted.


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