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DVD Review: The Rothko Chapel

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Microcinema has recently released The Rothko Chapel on DVD, a documentary film from 1972 on the well-known Rothko Chapel in Houston, Texas.

Houston-based art collectors John and Dominique de Menil commissioned abstract expressionist painter Mark Rothko in 1964 to create site-specific artwork for a non-denominational chapel they were planning. The painter worked with three architects, Philip Johnson, who did the original design, and Howard Barnstone and Eugene Aubry who completed the project. Rothko created 14 large-scale paintings, which he finished in 1967, but he never got to see the completed chapel, as he committed suicide in February of 1970. The chapel was dedicated in 1971.

The chapel is a unique space, as it is used for artistic contemplation as well as religious services of all faiths. The DVD includes excerpts from three different services held at the Chapel — Islamic, Catholic, and Presbyterian. Rothko’s paintings seem a perfect match for the quiet contemplative setting.

The documentary was made by the de Menils’ son Francois and filmmaker Jerry Michaels. Viewers can play either a long (1:08) or a short (14:22) version of the documentary. Also included is an interview with the de Menils about why they commissioned Rothko and built the chapel — they “always wanted to mix art and religion.” In both the long and short versions the de Menils narrate as the camera tours the Rothko Chapel; first outside, featuring “Broken Obelisk,” a sculpture by Barnett Newman, and then inside.

The Rothko Chapel is a nice introduction to Rothko’s work, and fans of abstract painting will undoubtedly want to visit the Chapel. The only thing missing is some biographical information about the artist, which would have been welcome, but the 1972 film was merely intended as an introduction to the Chapel, and a chance for people to experience the space from afar, and in that it succeeds.

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