Unveiled: the newly restored Rothko Chapel

A $1.8 million project saves both paintings and the contemplative space designed by the artist himself


The Rothko Chapel in Houston has reopened after an eighteen-month, $1.8 million restoration that has included conservation of its fourteen painting; an overhaul of the octagonal building’s climate control system, and the instalment of new lighting.

The chapel, commissioned by John and Dominique de Menil, originally opened twenty-nine years ago, one year after the artist’s suicide. Rothko disliked museums, which he likened to vast department stores of art, and he conceived of the chapel as an alternative a quiet retreat more conducive to an intimate relationship between the work of art and the viewer.

Since opening, the chapel has been plagued with problems. A large baffle, installed to deflect glare, was hung so low that it altered the proportions of the interior. Heat and moisture, entering through the unenclosed antechamber as well as the chapel’s intermittently leaking skylight, were affecting the surfaces of the black paintings, which were becoming covered by a white film produced by the interaction of Houston’s notorious humidity with the fatty acids of the eggs which Rothko employed as a medium.

The antechamber has now been sealed off with glass doors; a new climate control system has been installed; fifty-five-foot piers prop up one sagging side of the building’s foundation, and a new, small baffle has been inserted inside the skylight. And the paintings have been cleaned, for the second time in twenty years, by the Menil Collection’s chief conservator, Carol Mancusi-Ungaro.

“Now you have this very natural experience and, whether it is human or spiritual or emotional, it requires the viewer to slow down in order to see what is there,” says Ms Mancusi-Ungaro. “These are dark paintings, but they are not just about dark colours; they’re also about light.”

The building and its paintings are owned by the Rothko Chapel Foundation, but the Menil Foundation is charged with their care. According to Menil director Ned Rifkin, “The chapel is the progenitor of all that has followed. It set the bar for the power of art as a spiritual expression, so it is integral to this environment. And, now that the paintings have been conserved and rehung in the restored space, it is as though a veil has been removed from them. They are luminous and vibrant, and I’ve never seen them look so alive and generous.”

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Unveiled: the Rothko Chapel'