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Barnett Newman’s ‘Broken Obelisk’ The Rothko Chapel By Jan Butterfield Houston The remarkable Rothko Chapel has now been dedicated in Houston amid much confusion. The Newman sculpture, after a storm of controversy, has come to rest in front of the chapel. The events which led ultimately to the dedication have been circuitous and complex. Tragically, both Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman died in 1970. Though neither lived to see the Houston project finished both were consulted about its progress and both were aware of the form and shape it would take upon conclusion. Rothko built a simulated chapel in his studio so that he could relate the scale and form of the murals precisely to the actual chapel space. Newman came to Houston to view the proposed site, which he approved. He also expressed his pleasure at the concept of a reflecting pool. THE ROTHKO CHAPEL is built on a plot of land near St. Thomas University. Its octagonal shape and simple design are intellectual and unobtrusive. The exterior is pale brick. Inside, blocks of rough, grey asphalt tile, cut into rectangles form the floor. The chapel is empty except for a few rough-hewn benches. Daylight, too intense for the subtlety of the paintings, pours in from the sky light. Rothko utilized a silk parachute in his own studio to difuse the light. Expecting the warm cadmium reds, bright oranges, pulsating sensuality and floating blurred rectangles for which Rothko is so well-known, I was shocked and, at first, incredulous. Here are fourteen of the most difficult, complex and moving paintings I have ever seen. The triptychs on either side of the chapel are a deeply overpainted, brush-stroked black. The center panel of each is hung so that it is raised slightly, in the manner of a cross. The floating rectangles and soft edges are completely gone and in their place are tight borders of rusted wine. “The message conveyed by Rothko is a sense of mystery. . . . Here are browns and purples utilized to their utmost poignancy in great understated simplicity,” Dominique de Menil said in candlelight dedication ceremonies. “Simplicity is the message of the inviting silence one can hear in them the unbearable silence of God.” The central triptych, its three panels hung level, ranges in coloration from deep re . d/black in the first panel through wine to deep plum/brown. In these panels the darker overlaid brush strokes are more obvious, lending a slight depth of field. These panels alone are lighter, more hopeful. On the far wall facing the shaded triptychs, hangs one unique panel, different from the others. More the Rothko one expects, it is at the same time very different. Its lower quarter is a tightly masked and painted rectangle of rusted wine which also thinly borders the edges in a tight line. “These canvases do not stop us,” Dominique de Menil said. “We can gaze into these dark hollows. … There is a message delivered without image because images have become almost intolerable to Catholics, Jews and Protestants. . . . We are cluttered with images, and so only abstract art can today bring us to the threshold of the divine.” It is really not so strange that Rothko should have bone these dark and brooding paintings as the last works of his life. As early as the beginning of the 60’s he was beginning to shift to rusts, plum and deep browns. His other dark paintings, which Marlborough Gallery holds, relate more to the early works. I saw them this summer and the edges are hard, but they retain some of the airiness of his earlier works, and a softness flows out from under them. Not so the works in the chapel. They are uncompromisingly deep, heavy, and overpainted, and, although it is too easy and has been said too often, they are the colors of blood and wine. It is as though, having produced these monumental murals with all of the spiritual and creative faculties left in him, he was seeking desperately, through them, the message of God, or the meaning of self. Outside the chapel in a rectangular reflecting pool stands Barnett Newman’s “Broken Obelisk.” “The Obelisk is one of March 26, 1971 13