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Friday, May 11, 2012

Finding the Right Architect

Some Notes on the Rothko Chapel
John and Dominique de Menil, 1968.
Photo: Hickey-Robertson, Houston
courtesy menil.org

If there was one person who inspired me to begin this blog, it would be Dominique de Menil. (I never met her.) She was born in France, but spent much of her adult life in the United States exploring the terrain where art and faith cross. She was patrician, educated, thoughtful, and generous. A biography by William Middleton is slated to be published next year. In the meantime, there are books about her and several art books to which she contributed essays. I think of her often and wrote about her recently for a brief piece in Faith & Form (http://www.faithnform.com/). The editor, Michael Crosbie, posed a question on his LinkedIn site: “Can atheists design sacred spaces?” And that got me thinking about all kinds of folks, including Dominique de Menil, Mark Rothko, and Philip Johnson. In my short piece, I didn’t have enough room to really get into Johnson. That’s what a blog is for!

In her largesse, Mrs. de Menil commissioned a number of architectural projects. For the Menil Collection in Houston, she eventually turned to a young Renzo Piano, who created a masterwork that helped launch his career in the United States. It remains one of my favorite museums in this country. It looks simple, like some of the art contained within, but like the art, it’s not. She scored a home run with that one. Piano’s courtliness and humility were genuine. It’s in the work.

Museum Building
courtesy menil.org

Cy Twombly Gallery
courtesy menil.org

Earlier in her philanthropy, de Menil commissioned several works from Philip Johnson. In this effort, the results were mixed. The campus for the University of St. Thomas, a small Catholic university in Houston, is a serene academic environment where the student outdid the master: it’s better, though considerably smaller, than Mies van der Rohe’s IIT campus in Chicago. The brick has a rose tint that works in the Houston light. Here you can tell the difference between an industrial building and a chapel. But the chapel, built later during Johnson’s postmodern phase, just doesn’t fit. It’s in the right location, but it feels tacked on, and like most of his work during this era, looks a bit comical.

His first project for the de Menils, their residence in Houston’s River Oaks neighborhood, was so austere that most folks thought it was an industrial building. And the flat roof leaked. Apparently Mrs. de Menil insisted on the windows in the kitchen, so the fa├žade is not as austere as Mr. Johnson wanted. She also didn’t go for a house furnished with a few pieces of perfect Miesian furniture, and so she hired her dress designer, Charles James, to help decorate. And he did what Johnson couldn’t do— humanize it. His soft, sensuous furniture and unusual color palette provided the right background for the de Menils’ life. Mix it up. Johnson hated it and wouldn’t include the house in monographs.

Philip Johnson

Menil House, ca. 1964
courtesy menil.org

Menil neighborhood
courtesy menil.org

The de Menils’ least successful collaboration with Johnson (if collaboration is the word) was to commission him for the Rothko Chapel. At first this was to be part of the St. Thomas campus, but that changed over time, and it became a nondenominational chapel a few blocks away.

Johnson spent his career focusing on wealth and power. He knew how to ingratiate and how to imitate. He could follow the money, but he didn’t really have an original idea. His other ecclesiastical projects, like the Crystal Cathedral, aren’t inspiring. With the de Menils and Rothko, he had a client and an artist who exemplified the idea of art as transcendence. But that meant he wouldn’t be the star. His limitation was his endless sense of self.

There was a precedent for Rothko and Johnson collaborating, and it did not go well. The recent play “Red” is built around Rothko’s turmoil painting a set of murals for the Four Seasons, the restaurant that Johnson designed at the base of the Seagram Building (the office tower on Park Avenue that Johnson designed with Mies van der Rohe). The legend is that after dining in the restaurant, Rothko was so disgusted by the wealthy patrons that he returned the commission. (The paintings are now in the Tate Modern in London.)

For years, the paintings in the Rothko Chapel have been plagued by the lighting conditions and their inadequate solutions. As others have noted, Rothko probably did not understand the light conditions of Texas. But the problem was deeper than that. Johnson didn’t understand Rothko as an artist. Johnson was a chameleon of great skill, but one would be hard pressed to suggest that he was a spiritual man.

Barnett Newman's Broken Obelisk and the Rothko Chapel
photo: Frances Carter Stephens
courtesy rothkochapel.org

Rothko Chapel interior
photo: Hickey-Robertson
courtesy rothkochapel.org

Philip Johnson never fully lived down his well-documented Nazi sympathies, but went so far as to atone for his sins by designing a temple on Long Island and a nuclear reactor for Israel. But as another writer once pointed out, he got the symbols mixed up: the temple looks like a reactor and the reactor looks like a temple. I would rarely find myself in agreement with the late conservative art critic Hilton Kramer, but his article assessing Johnson’s career in a 1995 issue of Commentary hits the mark.

“—what characterizes his work is a series of brilliantly performed charades in which other people’s ideas, other people’s tastes, and other people’s styles have been appropriated, exploited, deconstructed, and repackaged to advance the prosperity of his own reputation and influence.”

Johnson was an amoral man. He didn’t stand for much beside himself. It’s well known that Rothko was often difficult and paranoid. But he was painting for something beyond himself. Houston architects Eugene Aubry and Howard Barnstone finished the Rothko Chapel after Johnson left the commission, although he was invited back later to consult on the entry.

Could another architect with a greater spiritual sensitivity have given Rothko a space equal to his work? It is a shame that the de Menils did not commission Louis Kahn for this project. He didn’t have the social airs and the wealth that Johnson did. His office wasn’t filled with expensive flowers and furniture. But he was known to them. He had written an introduction to an exhibition Mrs. de Menil organized at St. Thomas in 1967. Wouldn’t his poetic ideas about space, light, and silence have found resonance with the de Menils? Indeed, he did do some initial schemes for the Menil Collection building, but both he and Mr. de Menil died in the early 1970s.

In his biography of Rothko, James E. B. Breslin writes that the viewer cannot see the complete work in the chapel simultaneously and concludes that the murals “…are spiritual only in the sense that they renounce the world.…” My own experience was that the withdrawal, like a retreat or meditation, allows the individual to return to the outside world more present and more compassionate. It took a religious client and an agnostic artist with a great capacity for the transcendent to create that space. Too bad the original architect was so rooted in his earthly self.

Dominique de Menil with various Religious Leaders
Dedication of the Rothko Chapel, 26-27 February 1971
courtesy rothkochapel.org

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