Somebody once said that Houston is a town where it’s easier to be rich than interesting. A terrific line, even if it’s not true. Personally, I think Houstonians are a fascinating tribe, particularly those who gather around the Rothko Chapel. Like many of the best things in the Bayou City, the chapel was the brainchild of philanthropist Dominique de Menil, who described Houston as “a no man’s land of God,” another great line, even if it’s difficult to decipher. More prosaically, the chapel is a spare, octagonal structure, designed by Philip Johnson and dedicated in 1971. It rests on a spacious bit of greenery near the Menil Collection and features 14 enormous, “black-form” canvases by the abstract expressionist painter Mark Rothko. These canvases comprise Rothko’s final major artistic achievement, and what his son, Christopher Rothko—a chapel board member and expert on his father’s work—considers “the ultimate Rothko experience.”
I consider the chapel the ultimate de Menil experience. Mrs. D., for those of you who don’t know, was a principal stockholder in Schlumberger Ltd., the world’s largest oilfield services corporation. With her husband John, she was an art collector on par with the Medici and the Rockefellers. By the time of her death in 1997, at age 89, she had amassed what is widely considered one of the most important collections of modern art in the world. She achieved this despite the fact that, according to one nameless source in a 1986 New York Times Magazine profile, the de Menils were never Texas Big Money Rich, like the Basses and such. In a line straight out of a Nancy Mitford novel, this person is quoted as saying, “The de Menils have done so much good with so little money … really peanuts, compared to some fortunes down here.”
Her relative poverty notwithstanding, Mrs. de Menil almost single-handedly put Houston on the map as a destination for modern art and architecture. She and her husband also bankrolled a generation of liberal causes and candidates in Texas, and were instrumental supporters of the democratizing reforms to the Catholic Church during Vatican II.
It’s difficult, and depressing, to imagine what Houston might be without the de Menils’ contributions. Besides the Menil Collection, the couple established art and art history departments at the University of St. Thomas, and vastly expanded those of Rice. These universities are, of course, among the most prominent and vital institutions in the city—but sadly, the Rothko Chapel often gets lost in the shuffle. This is partly because the Rothko wears so many hats: It functions as a museum; a nondenominational worship space; a lecture hall that, through the years, has hosted Jonas Salk, Nelson Mandela and the Dalai Lama; and every other year, it bestows the Oscar Romero Peace Prize. This combo of high culture, lefty politics, and spirituality is unexpected in Houston, a city whose signature religious structure is arguably Pastor Joel Osteen’s Lakewood Church, which used to be known as the Compaq Center, and was once home to the Houston Rockets—basketball and TV evangelism being a classic Houston mélange.
Another important reason for the Rothko’s hometown obscurity is that, during Mrs. de Menils’ lifetime, it was practically synonymous with the woman who created it. John de Menil passed away just two years after the chapel’s opening, almost a quarter-century before Mrs. de Menil. These years—from 1973 until her death—were among her most engaged and active, years in which her Catholic faith grew increasingly politicized and inspired by the Liberation Theology being practiced in Latin America. The Rothko Chapel was a fascinating example of the scope and purpose of an institution deepening with the intellect and consciousness of its founder.
The only downside to this symbiosis was that, with the passing of Mrs. de Menil, the chapel lost a great deal of its vitality. Like a child forced to come of age after the loss of a parent, the Rothko had to emerge from the shadow of its creator. It was a rough patch in the life of the institution that was largely (as with so much that’s good in Texas) stewarded by pioneering feminist politician and progressive activist Sissy Farenthold. Today the Rothko is experiencing a renaissance in its programming. Nobel Laureate Rigoberta Menchu delivered a lecture last spring, playwright Tariq Ali last fall, and legendary civil rights activist and poet Amiri Baraka will read from his work this April. The Rothko Chapel is one of the great, (still) undiscovered treasures of Texas. It’s finally being discovered again.