While Boonstra’s film is not at all silent, it is certainly still, with a deliberate pace that invites you to slip into a meditative mood.
Even if you don’t pay much attention to the art world, you’ve probably heard of Mark Rothko. More to the point, you are also probably at least somewhat familiar with his work, because Rothko is the rare contemporary painter who is also part of the general cultural conversation. Among other things, Rothko has been the subject of a Tony Award-winning play (John Logan’s Red), has had a replica of one of his works featured in an episode of Mad Men (“The Gold Violin”), and has had a different work in his style featured on an episode of The Simpsons (“Mom and Pop Art”). Rothko’s paintings, typically large canvases featuring blocks of colors blending into each other, are more approachable than those of many of his contemporaries, which may explain why he has enjoyed popular as well as critical acclaim.
In The Silence of Mark Rothko, director Marjoleine Boonstra explores both Rothko’s ideas on art and the influences that helped make him the painter that he was. At the same time she does something less conventional and more difficult by creating an analogue to his paintings. While Boonstra’s film is not at all silent—besides narration and interviews, there is often music playing under the images—it is certainly still, with a deliberate pace that invites you to slip into a meditative mood. Many of the images Boonstra puts up on screen—a canoe moving slowly across a lake, a boy peering out of a bus window, city lights reflected on a window—are hauntingly beautiful, and, as the advertising men noted of the Rothko painting featured in the aforementioned Mad Men episode, they are meant as something for you to experience, not to try to explain.
There’s more conventional documentary material in The Silence of Mark Rothko as well. One element is the narration of selections from Rothko’s writings by his son Christopher (who notes that people often say they have similar voices, so you can imagine you are hearing the artist speaking his own words). The Silence of Mark Rothko also includes interviews with people from the art world, including Rothko biographer Annie Cohen-Solal; Franz Kaizer, curator of the Rothko exhibition at the Gemeentemuseum; and conservator Carol Mancusi-Ungaro. And, of course, there are many views of Rothko’s works because without them none of the rest would matter.
Boonstra also takes you to some significant Rothko locations, including the apartment where he lived after migrating to the U.S. with his parents (now looking distinctly dilapidated, and which was probably anything but silent when he lived there), his studio, the city of Florence (where Rothko developed the idea of making art for specific locations), and the Gemeentemuseum (Museum of Contemporary Art) in The Hague, where an exhibit of Rothko’s work is being mounted.
Although the elements of The Silence of Mark Rothko are similar to those found in many documentaries, the end result is something more interesting—not just a film about Rothko but a film that conveys the experience of viewing Rothko’s work rather than just delivering facts about it. | Sarah Boslaugh
The Silence of Mark Rothko is distributed on DVD by Icarus Films. The only extras on the disc are trailers for two other films distributed by Icarus, Sol Lewitt and The Way Things Go.