In the best of all possible worlds, there would be a Rothko Chapel in every city.
Mark Rothko was one of the major art world “stars” to emerge from the New York Abstract Expressionist movement in the late 1940s and 1950s, along with equally cerebral contemporaries such as Jackson Pollock and Willem De Kooning.
The work for which he became most famous was an extensive series of two- or three-tiered color platform paintings: a shallow level these were used to explore aesthetic relations of pure color, but the sheer delicacy with which Rothko delineated them conveys his passion for art both tempered and enhanced by, on a good day, perpetual melancholy and, on a bad day, deep and debilitating depression.
Paintings influenced by the latter condition—all done in stark shades of black and gray and painted immediately preceding the artist’s 1970 suicide—were those that eventually came to comprise Rothko’s great posthumous achievement: the chapel of his namesake in Houston, Texas.
For Rothko, a practicing Jew during an era of consistent, worldwide anti-Semitism and eventually the Holocaust, art’s noble purpose in life was to act as a universal source of spirituality.
The Rothko Chapel is the ultimate embodiment of this idea and serves as a penultimate coda to a career spent making failed but consistent attempts to fully embrace humanity.
Even as he fell deeper into despair near the end of his life, Rothko’s goal never changed; it just became increasingly difficult to fulfill.
But the universality of spirituality and its subjectivity are ultimately what are most embraced within the Rothko Chapel, where next to infinitely suggestive paintings of black vastness one may find both the Bible and the Koran.
On a literal level, this may not seem like much of an accomplishment.
However, even in our current, anal retentive, politically correct culture—one which assumes true equality for all humans—relations between religious groups, particularly Christianity and Islam, are incendiary and fueled consistently by hatred and scapegoating. That a place exists where these two constantly conflicting religious traditions can, at least in theory, coexist under a universal banner should be a source of great hope as we continue to press forward into an unsteady and unknown future.
This is the power of art literalized into something both tangibly and intangibly pragmatic, serving as an arena that is both part of and yet separate from reality where reality’s problems can be sorted out in a much more sensible manner.
To suggest that embrasure of art is the key to world peace is both overzealous and terribly idealistic; and yet, with so many other options exhausted, would it really hurt to test its full capabilities?