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Rarely Seen Rothkos Highlight Harvard Art Museums’ Reopening

5.20.14






Mark Rothko’s Harvard Murals, a five-panel series that the University commissioned from the expressionist painter in 1962, will star in the Harvard Art Museums’ inaugural exhibition this November, the museums announced today. The paintings, installed in 1964 on the tenth floor of Holyoke Center (renamed the Smith Campus Center last year), were all removed within 15 years because their light-sensitive background color had progressively faded. (For background on the works’ troubled history, read the sidebar article, “What Ails This Painting?” from Harvard Magazine’s archives.)

Since 2008, Harvard’s Center for the Technical Study of Modern Art (CTSMA) and Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies have worked in conjunction with Ramesh Raskar, an expert in computational photography at the MIT Media Lab’s Camera Culture Research Group, to develop a software that uses noninvasive digital light projection as a tool to restore the appearance of Rothko’s original colors. “It’s an amazing opportunity to develop something that hasn’t been done before,” said Narayan Khandekar, senior conservation scientist at the Straus Center. Forms of digital projection had been used on tapestries and architectural elements, he explained, but no one had applied the technology to paintings. 

According to Mary Schneider Enriquez, Houghton associate curator of modern and contemporary art, the new exhibition will restore the murals as a work for art historians to study. “One of the tragedies has been that the Harvard Murals have basically not been recognized in art history…as they should be,” she said. “One of the several things this exhibition will do is to bring them back into the discourse on Rothko’s history and [their] importance within his trajectory in art history.” The murals are one of only three commissioned series Rothko executed; the other two are the Seagram Murals, painted in the late 1950s and destined for the Four Seasons restaurant in New York City, and the Rothko Chapel in Houston, which was completed after the artist’s death in 1970 and hosts 14 of his paintings. 

The museums’ news release recounts how talks about Rothko’s commission began in 1960, when then-economics professor Wassily Leontief, chair of the Society of Fellows, suggested that the artist create a series of works for the penthouse dining room planned for the new Holyoke Center. With the support of John Coolidge, then serving as the director of the Fogg Museum, Rothko painted the large-scale canvases to be donated to Harvard between 1961 and 1962.

But soon after installation of the works in 1964, their backgrounds, which Rothko painted a bright crimson, began to fade differentially. According to Jens Stenger, the former Straus Center conservation scientist (now at Yale) who has been leading the conservation efforts, in the late 1970s the paintings were taken down and stored in a warehouse. They have rarely been on display since, but Stenger said that during a 1988 temporary exhibition, then conservation scientist Paul Whitmore studied the paintings and determined that the color loss was due to the presence of lithol red, a light-sensitive pigment.

When the Straus Center and the CTSMA began working on Rothko’s paintings 20 years later, they faced the challenge of establishing what the backgrounds had looked like almost 50 years ago. According to Stenger, Rudolf Gschwind, a digital-imaging expert at the Digital Humanities Lab of Basel University, helped the Harvard team to determine the original background color of the murals. 

CTSMA director Carol Mancusi-Ungaro said that, given their fragile surfaces, the Harvard Murals could not be restored through inpainting (manually compensating for the color loss). The idea of using light projection came from thinking about color perception, said Stenger. “In human color perception you have the light source, the surface, and the viewer, and these three interact,” he explained. “So if you can’t change the surface, you can change the light source to change the color.” In the exhibition, a digital projector will use compensation images to illuminate the murals differentially, restoring the appearance of the original color as the paintings are viewed in the gallery. Mancusi-Ungaro, who is also associate director for conservation and research at the Whitney Museum of American Art, called this kind of technology “a logical next step in conservation.” 

“One of the things that makes this tool particularly exciting is that it allows us to see things as they once were,” but no permanent change occurs, Schneider Enriquez said. “We’re just using light to pixel by pixel give us back the unity.”

The “restored” Harvard Murals, along with numerous other studies on paper and canvas that Rothko produced in the early 1960s, will be on display at the museums from November 16 through July 26, 2015. The five paintings will be exhibited in a way that reproduces the space of the original penthouse dining room, in line with Rothko’s desire to create an environment through his art pieces. Schneider Enriquez said that the disposition of the paintings brings back Rothko’s idea of a “single image in space.”

The exhibition will coincide with the opening of the new and expanded Harvard Art Museums complex, which will bring the Fogg Museum, the Sackler Museum, and the Busch-Reisinger Museum under one roof. Where the paintings will go after the inaugural exhibition ends, curators and conservation scientists said, is the subject of continuing discussion.

Read the Harvard Art Museums' press release.

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