Mark Rothko, one of the United States’ greatest mid twentieth-century painters, was born in Russia on September 25, 1903 in what is now Daugavpils, Latvia. The suite of fourteen paintings in the Chapel, completed in 1967, were created at the height of his career and toward the end of his life. They are illuminated by natural light, so important to the artist, which accurately shows the nuances and subtleties of Rothko’s color palette.
Mark Rothko’s parents immigrated to Portland, Oregon when he was a young boy. He took art classes in high school and was also drawn toward music, literature, mathematics and theater. He continued his studies at Yale University, which he left after two years to move to New York City. There, throughout the 1940s, as he developed as a painter, his work moved increasingly from stylized, content-driven canvases to arrangements of abstract forms. By 1950, he had developed the essence of what he would explore for the rest of his career: one or more rectangular forms floating on a field of color.
Rothko is often identified with the American Abstract Expressionist movement of the 1950s and with the Color Field movement of the 1960s, though he steadfastly denied that his work was either. His color palette in the 1950s was bright, often vibrant reds, yellows, oranges, and pinks. In the late 1950s, and continuing through the following decade, he began using darker, more somber colors.
It was in the late 1950s when Rothko was commissioned to create a permanent installation of a group of paintings for the Four Seasons restaurant in the new Seagram Building designed by the German architect Mies van der Rohe. Before they could be installed, however, Rothko decided that he would not deliver the paintings, as he believed they would only provide a decorative backdrop. It was this dramatic suite of paintings that the de Menils saw in Rothko’s studio and that ultimately informed their decision to commission the powerful murals in the Chapel.
Rothko created the paintings in his 69th Street studio in New York, where he built mock walls of the size he desired for the chapel. He devised a pulley system so he could adjust the height of the canvases to establish the configuration. And in the more than two years of experimentation and work, he arrived at a new look for his work: seven canvases with hard-edged black rectangles on maroon ground, and seven purple tonal paintings.
In 1966 he wrote a letter to the de Menils, saying,"...The magnitude, on every level of experience and meaning, of the task in which you have involved me, exceeds all of my preconceptions. And it is teaching me to extend myself beyond what I thought was possible for me."
Mark Rothko died in 1970 before he could see his masterpiece installed. His legacy to all who encounter his work in the Rothko Chapel is the transformative power of art.
The Broken Obelisk
Thirty four years ago Annalee Newman wrote “[Dominique and John de Menil] have given the people of Houston a glorious gift -- the Rothko Chapel with its penetrating, self-searching beauty and the Broken Obelisk, standing majestically in its pool of golden shadows.” Both dedicated in 1971, Barnett Newman's sculpture and the Rothko Chapel have become increasingly intertwined over the years.
The Broken Obelisk came to Houston as part of a 1967 government program that gave funds for monumental works of contemporary art in public places. Four cities, Philadelphia, Grand Rapids (MI), Seattle and Houston, were chosen to receive funds. The sculpture that eventually arrived in Houston was first exhibited in front of the Seagram Building in New York City, and then the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. The de Menils then arranged for the transfer of the sculpture to Houston as a part of the cultural enhancement program.
Providing both funds and interminable conviction, the de Menils worked endlessly to overcome objections to their proposed dedication of the sculpture to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the question of where the Broken Obelisk would be exhibited. The masterpiece finally found its home in front of the Rothko Chapel.
Newman constructed three Broken Obelisks – one is in Houston, one is at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and the third is on the campus of the University of Washington in Seattle. All are made of Cor-Ten steel, a material that is designed to rust. Houston’s, however, has suffered more than the other two, partly because of the Houston humidity and also because this Broken Obelisk is in a reflecting pool. In 1987, foam was blown into the sculpture to stop the seams from popping apart due to air pressure. However, the foam only spurred new problems. The constant condensation inside the Obelisk kept the foam from drying properly and corrosion not only ensued from the outside in, but began occurring from the inside out as well.
The Obelisk’s wellbeing remained unstable until August, 2004, when experts from the Menil Collection were brought in to conserve it. First, it had to be dismantled – much easier said than done! A harness was placed around the pyramid and a huge crane pulled on the harness. No movement at all! A different harness was designed to utilize a central force at the point at which the obelisk and pyramid meet to pry it apart. Still no movement.
The inside of the obelisk contains a “bladder” -- a huge balloon filled with water to offset the weight of the structure and keep it standing upright. On the third attempt, a steel rod was attached perpendicular to the rod that runs through part of the structure in an attempt to break the bladder. To try to break the rust, the steel rod was hammered – hard. STILL no movement.
For the fourth try, specially-made harnesses were attached to the Obelisk and ropes were pulled, applying force from varying directions. In effect, the Obelisk was being wiggled. And it worked! The rust broke and the renovation project could begin.
The Broken Obelisk underwent a meticulous restoration process, overseen by Menil sculpture conservator Laramie Hickey-Friedman. Hickey-Friedman’s conservation treatment was designed to be minimally invasive to the sculpture while still stabilizing and strengthening it. Houston’s W.S. Bellows Construction Corporation donated the use of a mill for housing the off-site project, and also the services of an employee to operate the heavy equipment needed to lift and move the nearly 5-ton work of art. The repair of the sculpture was also made possible by a grant from the Annalee and Barnett Newman Foundation.
The Broken Obelisk was reinstalled at its original site in time for Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, in 2006. Marking the conclusion of Black History Month, on Sunday, February 26, 2006, the Rothko Chapel re-dedicated Broken Obelisk in memory of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The Rothko Chapel and the Menil Collection co-hosted a ceremony at the reflecting pool outside the Chapel. The Reverend William A. Lawson, founding pastor of Wheeler Avenue Baptist Church officiated the ceremony, and Jill Jewett, the city’s Assistant for Cultural Affairs, read a proclamation from Mayor Bill White.
Barnett Newman once said, “The Obelisk is concerned with life and I hope that I have transformed its tragic content into a glimpse of the sublime.” This living dedication to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. has indeed transformed the city, adding beauty and magnificence that has been enjoyed for over thirty years. Broken Obelisk rises anew at the Rothko Chapel reflecting pool, a landmark work of art and a powerful memorial to Dr. King.