Visual Arts

“Mark Rothko: A Retrospective” Isn't Officially Called a Chapel, but It Might as Well Be

I like Rothko a lot. That would be the American artist Mark Rothko (1903-1970), and it’s his paintings I’m talking about, since I never met him (though I know Houstonians who did; more about that later). I might as well admit my fondness up front, even though it pretty much precludes any possibility for a surprise ending to this review of Mark Rothko: A Retrospective, now on view at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, a show of 60 paintings, mostly from the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC.

With a beginning like that, you might wonder why I don’t just distill the next 1,500 words down to “great stuff; go see it.” I can envision my editor thinking the same thing as her hand wavers above the signature line of my paycheck. (Yes, I get paid to write these reviews; it sometimes amazes me too.) So let me elaborate.

Since I like Rothko a lot, Houston is about the best place in the world I could be right now. For the next few months, we’re lucky enough to have not one but two Rothko Chapels. There’s the one we’ve had for decades, with14 huge black and purple paintings created by the artist in 1967, near the end of his life — a life ended by suicide on February 25, 1970, a year and a day before Dominique de Menil gave her inaugural address opening the chapel (reprinted in the catalog for this show). And there’s the other one, which will be here only until January at The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. It’s not officially called a chapel, but everybody’s talking about it with such reverence that it might as well be.

I know that for many, the official Rothko Chapel is a profound environment in which they find serenity, spiritual engagement, perhaps a sense of their place in the cosmos. For those folks, Rothko, through his art, plumbed depths that may disturb, but also comfort.

I respect their feelings, even envy them, but I’m not among them. For me, it’s the dark and dismal chapel of the two we have. When it opened, I lived in a city far away. I read everything I could find about it and dreamed of one day seeing it. I had no idea back then that one day I’d live only blocks away and be able to go in almost any day I wanted. But sure enough, for 30 years I have. And in all those years, how many times have I gone in? Maybe half a dozen.

Because the Rothko I like is about color. In her introduction to the current catalog, Alison de Lima Greene, MFAH curator of Contemporary Art & Special Projects and local curator for this traveling exhibition, quotes Rothko in 1956: “The people who weep before my pictures are having the same religious experience I had when I painted them. And if you, as you say, are moved only by their color relationships, then you miss the point!” Oops, he’s talking about me.

I’d never say it out loud, of course, but the term mumbo jumbo comes to mind when I read that. I had enough “religious experience” growing up gay and a fundamentalist Christian in West Texas. Weeping was not unknown. Such talk was in the air in his day, especially among the Abstract Expressionists, so maybe Rothko really believed it. Who am I to say? And in a way it might be better than the I’m-too-cool-to-take-anything-seriously art that’s common now. “Better an ignis fatuus/Than no illume at all,” as Emily Dickinson said?

Anyway, for me the color is enough, even if I’m missing the point. The great rectangles and squares of luminous color floating like fogs on firmer grounds of other color. It’s amazing to me that anyone had the skill to paint them, but also that Rothko had the courage to declare them paintings and not just color swatches. Most of us believe him now, but it must have been daunting to take that stand in 1950. If I were going to have a religious experience looking at Rothko paintings, it would be standing before those, and there are enough in this show for multiple epiphanies.

You don’t actually review Rothko anymore. By now he’s risen out of the Abstract Expressionist primordial soup to join the pantheon of artists whose work changes forever the way all the rest of us can see, and he’s unlikely ever to fall. That being said, it’s possible to comment only on where and how the work is shown.

The paintings in this exhibition are ravishing. They’re the paintings Rothko kept, passed on to the National Gallery by his estate in 1986. They’re Rothko’s Rothkos. And here they’re beautifully installed in the special exhibition galleries of the Beck building, galleries large enough to welcome even the largest of them. The audio tour, which invites a number of artists, curators, musicians and others to share their views, is imaginative. Even the exhibition catalog — an anthology of articles by people who knew Rothko and his work (including the artist’s son, Christopher) — is useful.

One of the great revelations of any Rothko retrospective is bound to be the beauty and quality of his Rothko-before-Rothko paintings of the 1930s and 1940s — that is, before he found his signature style. One of the upsides of WWII (even with war there are upsides) was the temporary immigration of many Surrealist artists — Max Ernst, André Masson, Roberto Matta and Salvador Dalí, to name a few — from Europe to the United States. Rothko saw their work and interacted with them in New York, and adapted their European images and ideas to his own American vision with interesting and pleasing results.

These Surrealist Rothkos are so different from the Rothkos of the 1950s and beyond, and so relatively little shown that seeing them is almost like discovering a great new painter. They add a new dimension to the view of even moderately devoted Rothko fans.

Since the work is great and the exhibition compelling, perhaps the useful bits I might add fall into the Rothko-One-Degree-of-Separation-Houston-Edition category. Besides the current show and the Rothko Chapel, there are other Rothko/Houston connections. An earlier retrospective stopped at MFAH in 1979, and way back in 1957, the Contemporary Arts Association (now the Contemporary Arts Museum) exhibited Rothko in what was only his second museum show anywhere, curated by Jermayne MacAgy.

For that show, the canvases were shipped rolled to save money. Houston artists Jack Boynton and Jim Love stretched them here. According to Boynton, they “only wrecked one.” Maybe he was joking, but even if not, those were the days before Rothko was the $82 million man, the auction price for one of his paintings this spring, so it wasn’t such a big deal.

Years before that, in 1949, Leila McConnell, who’s still painting and showing here in Houston, had a Rothko moment at the California School of Fine Arts. The not-yet-famous Rothko planted a big, simple idea that matured for McConnell some years later, an idea he’d applied to his own work: make your realistic painting more abstract.

In 1954, Gene Charlton, some of whose work will be in a Menil Collection exhibition later this year, showed with Rothko and others in a 25th Anniversary Alumni exhibition at Contemporary Arts Gallery in New York City. Rothko was one of the older alums and Charlton was listed as the youngest — not actually true, however, since he’d shaved ten years off his age between Houston and New York.

Much later, Houston artist Gertrude Barnstone went with her husband, Howard, local architect for the Rothko Chapel, and lead architect, Philip Johnson, on a visit to Rothko’s New York studio. While the other two left to pick up lunch, Gertrude stayed behind, at a loss for conversation (was she nervous in the presence of the “great man,” perhaps? No, not Gertrude). To put her at ease, Rothko chatted away on all kinds of topics, but not art, to her relief. She didn’t much care for his work back then; her Rothko enlightenment happened later on.

This is another of those pesky (I’m thinking of a stronger word) ticketed exhibitions. If you’re a museum member, you get a few (too few) free tickets. Otherwise, each time you want to see it, you’ll pay. Not that art isn’t worth paying for. It is, for sure, especially when it’s art this beautiful and this great. MFAH Director Gary Tinterow said that for him, the exhibition is like being a kid in a candy store. At up to $23 a visit, some may be left with their noses pressed against the store window. Too bad. There’s got to be a way to finance these exhibitions so folks are welcomed in, not ticketed out.

There, fifteen hundred words, more or less. Dear editor, go ahead and sign the check so I can afford to go see the show again. Oh, but I forgot the cliff-hanger ending: I like Rothko a lot, and I think you will, too. Great stuff, go see it.

“Mark Rothko: A Retrospective”
Through January 24, 2016. Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 1001 Bissonnet, 713-639-7300,
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Randy Tibbits is an independent art writer and curator, specializing in the art history of Houston. He is a member of the Board of Directors of CASETA: Center for the Advancement and Study of Early Texas Art and the coordinator of HETAG: Houston Earlier Texas Art Group. He writes art exhibition reviews for Houston Press from time to time.