Books: The Rothko chapel and religious art without God

A study in obscurity for the twenty-fifth anniversary


At a spanking new London hospital, visitors in need of solace have a choice: they may visit the chapel—neo-Victorian, gothicising, nostalgic for the age of faith; or they may visit the alternative space, a “room for reflection”—comfy sofa, white walls and a single large black canvas.

Just as the former is a kind of outcrop of the Rock of Peter, so the latter is a kind of franchise outlet of the Rothko Chapel. Originally commissioned in 1964 as a chapel for a small liberal Catholic College by the connoisseurial and philanthropic de Menils of Houston, Texas, the “independent sanctuary” consists of a collection of eight monochrome paintings in an octagonal enclosure, the setting and lighting of which were determined by the artist.The chapel was hailed by many as the catalyst for a new mode of pictorial dynamics.

To mark its twenty-fifth anniversary, Professor Nodelman aims to explain its meaning: “Here, multiple composition and multiple configuration exacerbate one another’s already strenuous internal conflicts, while the confining and privative aspect of configuration, which was only latent in the contrarial opposition of s1-s2, assumes a virulent form in its clash with an expansionist compositional realisation that is equally vehement and contentious.”

Art historians of Dr Nodelman’s kidney are presumably enlightened by this sort of writing, but as an explanation of the function and form of what Dominique de Menil claimed to be one of the “greatest religious monuments of our time,” it fails.

Rothko, who, as Dr Nodelman reminds us, was a nonbeliever, perceived no “incongruity relating to the Christian destination of the commission: the pictorial installation addresses itself to universal issues entirely compatible with Christian belief, though in no way limited by it.” So too a car-park or the local Sainsburys. One wishes Rothko had taken a look at Matisse’s exquisite, functioning chapel for the Dominican nuns at St Paul de Vence (a far more interesting expression of a twentieth-century artist’s encounter with the mysteries of faith and worship).Rothko’s chapel is an art gallery pretending to be a church and Professor Nodelman’s arcane explanation of its meaning an exercise in occultism.

Sheldon Nodelman, The Rothko chapel paintings: origins, structure, meaning, (The Menil Collection and University of Texas Press, Houston, 1997), 359 pp, 96 b/w ills, 21 col. ills, $65 (hb) ISBN 0939594366 $34.95 (pb) ISBN0939594374

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'The Rothko chapel: Religious art without God'