Abstraction as Ecumenism in Late Modernity: Morton Feldman and the Rothko Chapel


ACLS Fellowship Program




This study develops a microhistorical analysis of the premier of Morton Feldman’s music for the Rothko Chapel in Houston on April 9, 1972. The project reconstructs the network of artists, musicians, and patrons who collaborated on the event: composer Morton Feldman, painter Mark Rothko, violist Karen Philips, and the patrons Dominique and John de Menil. These collaborators struggled over fundamental questions about the emotional efficacy of artistic practice and its potential translation into religious feeling. At the center of this study is the question of ecumenism—that is, in what terms can religious encounters be staged for fruitful dialog to take place? This was a dilemma for both Feldman, whose music sought to produce sublime “abstract experience,” and the de Menils, who envisioned the Rothko Chapel as a space for ritual invention in an era of late modernity.