Threshold of the divine


Dear Artist,

Once, while on a two-hour stopover in Houston, I took a cab to the Rothko Chapel, sat alone beneath the baffled skylight cupola and blinked into the fourteen inky canvases until it was time to go back to the airport. My long-dreamed-of pilgrimage had overwhelmingly confirmed not only the immersive drama and eye-filling trickery of Rothko’s surfaces, but the power of context. Like the Sistine and the Guggenheim, the Rothko is, perhaps, the highest achievement in spatial devotion to art and its spiritual purpose.

Red on Maroon, 1959 oil paint, pigments and glue on canvas 266.7 x 457.2 cm by Mark Rothko (1903–1970)

Red on Maroon, 1959
oil paint, pigments and glue on canvas
105 x 180 inches
by Mark Rothko (1903–1970)

All these years later, with the chapel closed for a $30 million, years-long upgrade to tweak its skylight for a more perfect ambient light filtration, my Mum and I are settling instead for the dappled shade of a nearby Southern Live Oak. Just knowing the paintings are close but inaccessible is almost as mythical an experience as being under them inside. I’m imagining the transcendence as a museum guard passes by from the neighbouring Menil Collection and in a hushed gravitas mentions the Rothko’s leaky roof.

Untitled (Rust, Blacks on on Plum), 1962 oil paint, pigment, glue on canvas 60 x 57 inches by Mark Rothko

Untitled (Rust, Blacks on on Plum), 1962
oil paint, pigments and glue on canvas
60 x 57 inches
by Mark Rothko

Commissioned in 1964 by French-American oil magnates John and Dominique de Menil, the Rothko Chapel was the original house of art worship in a museum project devoted to the Menil’s 10,000 object-strong art collection — a campus now comprising five purpose-built galleries, a bookstore, restaurant and parkland, all nestled in a middle-class residential Houston neighbourhood. Committed to trying to achieve a kind of spiritual event in his paintings, Rothko had recently cancelled the largest commission of his career — forty paintings which were to hang in the Four Seasons restaurant on Park Avenue — when Dominique de Menil suggested he design and paint for a temple instead. The resulting fourteen paintings would be the last of his life, which he ended by suicide a year before the chapel’s completion, in 1971. He never saw his paintings installed there. “The picture must be a revelation,” Rothko said of his spiritual quest, “an unexpected and unprecedented resolution of an eternally familiar need.”

Rothko Chapel, Houston TX Commissioned by Dominique de Menil Designed by Philip Johnson, Howard Barnstone, Eugene Aubry, Gene Aubry, Architects Paintings (1964-1967) by Mark Rothko (1903-1970)

Rothko Chapel, Houston TX
Commissioned by John and Dominique de Menil, 1964
Designed by Philip Johnson, Howard Barnstone, Eugene Aubry, Gene Aubry, Architects
Paintings (1964-1967) by Mark Rothko (1903-1970)



PS: “The reason for my painting large canvases is that I want to be intimate and human. To paint a small picture is to place yourself outside your experience, to look upon an experience as a stereopticon view or with a reducing glass. However you paint the larger picture, you are in it. It isn’t something you command.” (Mark Rothko)

Esoterica: In 1958, Mark Rothko gave an address to students at the Pratt Institute. In working out his own ideas about his paintings’ purpose and how to achieve it, he riffed on a personalized formula:

1. There must be a clear preoccupation with death — intimations of mortality. Tragic art, romantic art, etc., deals with the knowledge of death.

2. Sensuality. Our basis of being concrete about the world. It is a lustful relationship to things that exist.

3. Tension. Either conflict or curbed desire.

4. Irony. This is a modern ingredient — the self-effacement and examination by which a man for an instant can go on to something else.

5. Wit and play — for the human element.

6. The ephemeral and chance — for the human element.

7. Hope. 10% to make the tragic concept more endurable.

“The gifted artists are the great benefactors of the world,” said 79-year-old Dominique de Menil at the opening of the Menil Collection in 1987. “Life flows from their souls, from their hearts, from their fingers. They invite us to celebrate life and to meditate on the mystery of the world. They bring us back to the essential.”

Dominique de Menil (1908-1997) at the Rothko Chapel, 1997. Adelaide de Menil photo, The Menil Archives, The Menil Collection, Houston

Dominique de Menil (1908-1997) at the Rothko Chapel, 1997
Adelaide de Menil photo, The Menil Archives, The Menil Collection, Houston

Sara Genn: New Alphabet is on view until October 17th, 2019 at Dimmitt Contemporary Art, 3637 West Alabama Street, Houston. 

The Letters: Vol. 1 and 2, narrated by Dave Genn, are available for download on Amazon, here. Proceeds of sales contribute to the production of The Painter’s Keys.

“We are cluttered with images and only abstract art can bring us to the threshold of the divine.” (Dominique de Menil)

“A painting is not about an experience. It is an experience.” (Mark Rothko)



  1. Welcome to Houston, Sara! Be sure to visit the other art museums, especially the MFAH and the Contemporary Arts museum while you are here. Hope yesterday’s floods have not caused you any inconvenience. Stay high and dry and congratulations on your exhibit!

  2. Great that the ambient light situation is being addressed. I visited the chapel 5 years ago. I am a great fan of Rothko, having seen his paintings in museums. This chapel, I’m sorry to say was very depressing. It was way too dark and didn’t at all reflect the transcendence evident in the museum paintings.

  3. The Marc Chagall Stained Glass windows at the Hadassa – Hebrew Medical Centre in Jerusalem are also worthy of awe. Sitting beneath the cupola, the saturated colours and images take your breath away.
    Marilyn Riopel
    Vancouver Island, BC

  4. Those seven points of Rothko’s personalized formula – gems! Each one of them. I shall be sharing this post with this year’s oil painting students as a touch stone, a reminder and as inspiration as they face their large canvas work. Thank you Sara and I do so love painting and stepping into a good sized canvas!

  5. Sara, Your writing today reflects an interesting connection between artists and nature: We flow through our art and nature. Mark Rothko’s love of large paintings struck a nerve in me, as I have painted canvas in feet, not inches this year. Now I am back to studies of butterflies, hummingbirds, flowers, smaller paintings in Chinese and Japanese style. It’s the larger art that compels the paint to flow. And whether I am under stained glass or the sunlight filtering through trees, main happens.

  6. I have been to the Rothko Chapel several times; I found the sadness and depression of Rothko overwhelming, so much so that I could only stay for a few minutes. I’ve been there on sunny days which really made it worse–the contrast between the interior and the outside world. The Byzantine chapel is nearby–also undergoing renovation—and full of quirky details—if you have studied architecture even in a general manner.

    I’m glad others find the Rothko Chapel inspiring; I will try it again but end with a trip to the Byzantine.

  7. “We are cluttered with images and only abstract art can bring us to the threshold of the divine.” (Dominique de Menil)

    ….nice…! How utterly beautiful..! Thank you Dominique!

    “A painting is not about an experience. It is an experience.” (Mark Rothko)

    what more does a creative need than these (2) inspirations…!?

    absolutely wonderful….!

    Thank you for sharing Sara…

  8. I visited the Chapel with great anticipation last February. I love so many of Rothko’s works, but found these unpleasant energy to be with. Its not surprising he was suicidal. I hope a lighting renovation will help. The Chapel of St. Basil, nearby, is a sublime work of art and architecture.

  9. “The answer is never the answer. What’s really interesting is the mystery. If you seek the mystery instead of the answer, you’ll always be seeking. I’ve never seen anybody really find the answer. They think they have, so they stop thinking. But the job is to seek mystery, evoke mystery, plant a garden in which strange plants grow and mysteries bloom. The need for mystery is greater than the need for an answer.”

    ― Ken Kesey

  10. Gerri: No wonder Rothko was suicidal if he did dwell on his formula. Hope art students do not dwell on his formula, but be a part of the light and love in the world,

  11. Life is celebrated. Death is feared. No offense- but people- especially artists- who are only optimistic and happy all the time- make my skin crawl. To me- they can’t confront the truth. Sorry. Rothko was suicidal. Confronted by his own demons. That makes him more interesting- not less. It also makes him terrifying to many. I’ve been suicidal. I faced not only the Darkness- but the actual Blackness. No Light whatsoever. And then I broke through into the other side. A place where I recognized that without the Darkness no Light would ever be visible. No Light would even exist. It is this Field of Darkness that everything is birthed from. And I was not only recognized by that aspect of Source- but welcomed. And loved. And I climbed out of hell. And that connection of the Light and Dark became my permanent condition. It’s where I live. It’s what I radiate. And I terrify people too.
    Interestingly- my work has often been larger. I’ve made it so- so it was bigger than me. I’m 6’3″. That way you can kind of fall into it. But it’s also my focus. Many people are focused down- into detail. I’m focused up and out- which I managed to do without losing my attention to detail. And I’ve scored a gallery space for a show next March/April.
    And when I looked at the actual dates after confirming with everyone- the final day of the exhibit is April 12. Easter Sunday. Now please note I am so NOT a christian. But I have a nearly finished 7 foot by 10 foot christian cross piece called CrossBones. Because the cross looks like bones. It’s very male. It’s also a memorial piece to all who’ve died in the name of religion/god. And I’ve been working on it for 20 years. I also have a second piece- 5.5 feet by 9 feet- that’s a diamond built from hexagons. It’s shape is a Vesica Pisces- and although there are male elements integrated into this vagina shape- it’s still very female. And I’ve also been working on it for 20 years. The ceiling height is 11 feet.
    So these 2 pieces form the centerpiece- and then all other vertical rectangular pieces flow out from them- large work hung at 7.5 feet high. All brilliantly colored. And for a month- this small rectangular room is going to be my temple.
    The show title? RIOT. A riot of color… the room’s going to vibrate inter-dimensionally… with finished work that took me 20 years. Something to look forward to. Or be terrified by…

  12. Rothko has always bothered me. Was he just a swatch maker? A formula man? Endlessly churning out combinations of the same thing, repetition=sincerity = belief. We believe in those who believe, what ever ludicrous notions they entertain. Man, we are attracted to certainty. Those 7 nuggets leave me cold. “Irony. This is a modern ingredient- the self-effacement and examination by which a man, for an instant can go on to something else…”??? W.T.F? Scale matters to Rothko’s work because there is little else that does. Without scale, you are left with a catalogue of colour swatches. Scale is important to visual experience, to physical experience, but not necessarily important to conscious experience. We are impressed by the monumental because we see ourselves as a certain “human sized thing”. But we are “no size”. I am in as much awe at the crawling of an ant as I am of the rising sun. Size doesn’t fool me. The big temples, the high offices etc are often built on vacuous egos ….I do like commitment and human endeavour. The trace of our love and our living in what we make and do, the marks of our searching and quest for understanding. In our making we externalise ourselves and it can be glorious to even draw and behold a circle in the sand and wonder at how the grains pile and shift in the breeze and find light particles caught in each rock like a sprite in a big room shinning. I have made “large art” and I have made “small art”. The impact resides elsewhere beyond the relative physical facts. They can carry but one expression in relation to our experience of the body. Rothko, he is released form his small paintings unto the boundlessness to which we all belong.

    • I am not qualified to weigh in on Rothko- tormented genius?Big kid playing with crayons?Your quote about the ant and the rising sun hit home with me. Miracles are everywhere if we chose to see them

  13. Sarah, I clicked on the link for your Houston show. Your work is beautiful. I love seeing the narrow action of Wet Life,, Smoking, and Song Cycle, North/South, East, West. The New Alphabet series offer deeper thought.The dot series IS joy.
    You are inspiring.

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