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5 Artists on the Influence of Mark Rothko

Artsy Editorial
Apr 13, 2021 6:01PM
Sheila Hicks
Torsades émeraudes, 2017
galerie frank elbaz

Fifty years ago, the eminent art patrons Dominique and John de Menil inaugurated a non-denominational chapel in Houston, Texas. The Rothko Chapel quickly became renowned as a spectacular jewel of modern art—a meditative sanctuary filled with 14 site-specific paintings by the titular artist. Mark Rothko also had a formative role in the architectural design of the building: an octagonal space set within a Greek cross.

Rothko died in 1970, a year before the project was finished, yet in the decades that followed, the Rothko Chapel only amplified his legacy. It became a pilgrimage site for art lovers worldwide, as well as a space for activism, religious and spiritual rituals, and gatherings of all kinds. “We saw what a great master can do for a religious building when he is given a free hand,” Dominique de Menil once said. “He can exalt and uplift as no one else.”

Shirazeh Houshiary
Esker, 2019
Lehmann Maupin
Mark Rothko
Blue and Grey , 1962
Fondation Beyeler
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In 2019 and 2020, the Rothko Chapel underwent a major renovation, which included installing a skylight—a detail that Rothko himself had envisioned, inspired by the design of the East 69th Street studio in Manhattan where he realized the chapel’s ethereal paintings.

In conjunction with the 50th anniversary of the Rothko Chapel, the Moody Center for the Arts at Rice University in Houston is presenting a group show to reflect on and honor the legendary site. “Artists and the Rothko Chapel: 50 Years of Inspiration,” which is on view through May 15th, includes a recreation of a 1975 show at Rice University, featuring the works of Brice Marden, David Novros, and Rothko, as well as a multifaceted presentation of work by contemporary artists who have been inspired by the late iconic artist, including Sam Gilliam, Sheila Hicks, Shirazeh Houshiary, and Byron Kim.

Sheila Hicks
TBT, 2020
galerie frank elbaz

“For numerous artists today who reflect on questions of the environment, identity, human rights, and social justice in their work, the same qualities expressed in Mark Rothko’s paintings can help generate new and urgent reflections on our society and its future,” writes the show’s curator, Frauke V. Josenhans, in the exhibition catalogue. “New generations of artists have pushed the boundaries of Color Field painting, translating the same aesthetic concern to other media as well.

“These artists embrace the transformative, spiritual, and humanistic power of chromatic abstraction,” Josenhans continues, “even while engaging with varied media, such as video and textiles.”

In time with this anniversary, we share below the words of five leading contemporary artists—Houshiary, Hicks, Kim, Pat Steir, and Arcmanoro Niles—reflecting on the resounding influence of Rothko.


Shirazeh Houshiary

B. 1955, Iran. Lives and works in London.

Shirazeh Houshiary
Flare-up, 2018
Lehmann Maupin

“I first visited the Rothko Chapel over 20 years ago, and was overwhelmed by the setting and scale of the dark enigmatic paintings that envelop the physical body and dominate the field of vision. With an unfocused gaze, I felt I had entered the interior space of the self where thought and identity give way to presence and absence. It is as if ground and figure merge to be one and the same, pointing to a singularity of experience and where the immensity of existence and life force is in the moment. How art can be a catalyst for such an encounter!”

Houshiary is currently featured in a solo show, “A Thousand Folds,” at Lehmann Maupin, New York, through May 28th.


Sheila Hicks

B. 1934, Hastings, Nebraska. Lives and works in Paris and New York.

Sheila Hicks
Downside Up, 2018
Sikkema Jenkins & Co.

“Like music, color is the almighty mood determinant: It sets the stage for emotional depth and inspires an expansive range of responses from joy to despair, from a sense of wonder to an affirmation of life. Rothko’s painting did this for me.”

Hicks’s forthcoming solo exhibition “Off Grid” will take place at the Hepworth Wakefield, England, from November 26, 2021, to May 20, 2022.


Byron Kim

B. 1961, La Jolla, California. Lives and works in New York.

Byron Kim, installation view of paintings from the “Urban Nights” series, 2010–11. Photo by Nash Baker. Courtesy of the artist and James Cohan.

“Rothko’s paintings have come closest to demonstrating to me that color in the abstract can carry meaning. I mean color itself, not color with figuration, not color with composition, not color attached to memory, narrative, concept, or text. Another way of saying this might be that Rothko discovered that isolating color as a medium allowed him to maximize his considerable imagination.”


Pat Steir

B. 1940, Newark, New Jersey. Lives and works in New York.

Pat Steir
Untitled XVIII, 2019 (Taipei), 2019
Lévy Gorvy
Pat Steir
Snow Drop, 1990-2015
Lévy Gorvy

“I recently made an exhibition I called ‘Considering Rothko.’ The remarkable color in Rothko’s bright work is like a prayer of exaltation in the sunshine. In the dark paintings there is a prayer in an endless darkness. The dark paintings are beautiful and romantic, not desolate.”

Steir’s solo exhibition “Considering Rothko” was recently on view at Lévy Gorvy, Palm Beach.


Arcmanoro Niles

B. 1989, Washington, D.C. Lives and works in New York.

Arcmanoro Niles, Go Home to Nothing (Hoping for More), 2018. Courtesy the artist and Lehmann Maupin, New York, Hong Kong, Seoul, and London.

“When I began painting, Rothko was the first artist who I felt a connection with. In 2007 I was painting abstractly, and therefore seeing Rothko’s work and reading how he wanted the viewer to feel ecstasy, anguish, and desire—with only shape and color—resonated with me. The abstractions I set out to make were deeply influenced by Rothko’s palette and by his panels of color which were shimmering and glowing—calling you in. The crimsons, deep purples, and blues that I used back then are the foundation for the paintings I create today.”

Niles will have a solo exhibition at Lehmann Maupin, New York, from June 3rd through August 28th.

Artsy Editorial