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Mark Rothko, “Untitled” (verso) study for Harvard Mural (c. 1961), opaque watercolor on purple construction paper (all images courtesy Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Gift of The Mark Rothko Foundation, Inc., and © 2009 Kate Rothko Prizel and Christopher Rothko / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, unless otherwise noted, photo courtesy Harvard Art Museums, © President and Fellows of Harvard College)

Cambridge, Mass. — There is a story that sometimes circulates through the art world claiming the reason some of Mark Rothko’s work has faded over time is because he bought his paint at Woolworth’s Department Store. The story, of course, is untrue. It is a rendering of old gossip repackaged and passed along as a fact despite ample evidence to the contrary. The truth, however, is both more mundane and more interesting. Notoriously secretive, some would say neurotic, about his studio habits, Rothko helped contribute to this mythology by actively blunting questions about how he worked, especially how he handled paint.

And how he handled paint is central to the reemergence of the Harvard Murals, which he installed in a penthouse dining hall at Harvard’s Holyoke Center (now renamed the Smith Campus Center) in 1964. Initially, Rothko requested special blinds for the windows to protect the work from the sunlight, but since windows and the views they provide are intrinsic to any penthouse, the blinds weren’t used and the paintings degraded until they were removed and placed into storage in 1979. But why did the work fade so dramatically over a relatively short time? Basically, a binder Rothko used made the pigment (Litho Red) highly unstable. This, combined with the exposure to constant sunlight, cut the mural’s tenure at Harvard short. By the time the work was taken down, Rothko was long dead (he committed suicide in 1970). As to whether Rothko knew of the binder’s problem, there are competing claims, mostly unresolved or still debated.

Mark Rothko’s Harvard Murals, “Panel One”, “Panel Two,” and “Panel Three,” Holyoke Center, January 1965 (courtesy of Harvard University Archives)

With the opening of the newest iteration of the Harvard Art Museums, an odd space designed by Renzo Piano that expands upon the working and storage areas of the existing museum, the damaged Rothko murals were hauled out of storage and a plan emerged. Working in collaboration with the M.I.T. Media Lab, conservators at Harvard struck upon the idea of using light as a conservation tool, more specifically colored lights, or as they are being called, “compensation images.” A software package, designed for the project, noninvasively restores the work to its original plummy-colored glory. Each day, the projectors are turned off for an hour so that visitors can see the work in its unrestored state. The process, as conceived, will not further degrade the murals because the light being used in the projections is apparently of a very low wattage.

Mark Rothko, “Panel One” (Harvard Mural Triptych) (1962), egg tempera and distemper on canvas, photo: digitally restored scan of a 1964 Ektachrome transparency

Narayan Khandekar, senior conservation scientist, Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies, Harvard Art Museums, holding up a white card which shows the digital projection on Mark Rothko’s Panel Four in the exhibition ‘Mark Rothko’s Harvard Murals’ (photo courtesy Peter Vanderwarker)

The five paintings are situated in a third floor gallery and hang beneath what looks like a dance club lighting rig that runs across the middle of the room. Part Rothko’s vision, part high-tech wizardry, the projectors silently restore the mural. There are also accompanying studies he made for the project and an additional, partially damaged painting that wasn’t ever installed at Harvard, though it was originally conceived by Rothko as a potential part of the project, and was used by conservators to reconstruct the coloration of the other works.

The restoration of the murals has generated some controversy, no doubt something the conservators and curators saw coming. But beyond the question of what you are actually looking at and the jazziness of the technology on display, there lingers a feeling that Rothko’s presence is only ephemeral here and the work is a holographic representation of his intent.

Technically speaking, there seems like there is no real reason to have the original work present other than to allow the conservators to show you what isn’t actually there anymore. In essence, having the original work act merely as projection screen feels like a perverse stunt. At best, we have a replica of the supposed power Rothko originally created in his work. Yes, the technological “in-painting” restores a sense of that power, but ultimately it pollutes a natural system wherein things perish and not everything can be saved: not the painter from himself or the instability of some animal glue from sunrays. Sometimes, all that is left behind are fragments of what once existed and those fragments contain the richness of the past.

Mark Rothko’s “Panel One,” “Panel Two,” and “Panel Three” (“Harvard Mural Triptych”), with restored colors using light from digital projectors (photo courtesy Peter Vanderwarker)

Mark Rothko’s Harvard Murals continues at the Harvard Art Museums (32 Quincy Street
Cambridge, MA) through July 26.

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10 replies on “In the Spotlight, Harvard’s Rothkos Don’t Shine”

  1. I’m into it. Nothing really exists to our minds except for the information they receive from our senses. The painting is still there; the projection simply corrects the lost pigments. Saying there’s no reason to have the painting there is like saying there’s no reason for a color blind person to go to a museum.

    1. Reminds me a bit of actually going to this very museum the other day and looking at some of the paintings, in particular a Fragonard that further convinced me that the whole idea of a “museum without objects” is a terrible idea. Sure, we can digitally reproduce images with great detail today, but the original object will still hold even more information and a greater presence.

  2. “it pollutes a natural system wherein things perish and not everything can be saved”

    What utter rubbish. By that logic we shouldn’t bother with preserving art at all. I would wonder if you feel the same about broken ancient sculptures or friezes that have obvious structural infilling to restore them to something close to their original orientation.

  3. This article dismisses the possibility of Rothko being a lousy craftsman using cheap materials. I was Motherwell’s full-time assistant in the ’70s. You can’t believe the insanely fugitive pigments, acidic papers, adhesives and grounds – and other bad science – that the Ab-Ex artists employed. They were winging it. Many had no money for materials. No money… NYC gallery owner Nat Halper was borrowing money in Chinatown to keep his artists alive. Motherwell once told me: “We were not even sure if we were making paintings…!” That was then. But now we have purists who say that even attempting to recreate the Rothko is, “a perverse stunt.” Let’s get real.

    Last year I got a private viewing at Christies of a huge Clifford Still valued at over $10M. It had been hanging in the same living room for decades. Thick layers of paint had actually fallen off a central feature. Gone. We stood there discussing whether or not a restoration was desirable or even possible. It was that bad. As many art conservation professionals will tell you, these genius artists often created beautiful time-bombs. At least de Kooning had learned his painting technique under classical European training. Most did not.

    Red pigments, then as now, are particularly susceptible to fading (are ‘fugitive’). The lead illustration in this story says this in the caption: “Untitled” (verso) study for Harvard Mural (c. 1961), opaque watercolor on purple construction paper…” Take a piece of brand new purple construction paper. Cut it in half. Tape one piece to a window facing the sun. Wait a week and compare the two halves. The one in the window will have turned brown. This is life, not art ethics theory for purists.

    Let the MIT people shine all the colored lights they want onto the Rothko. They are trying, in good faith, to bring a dying painting back to life. It is either that or get into a time machine.

    John E. Scofield
    http://johneverettscofield.blogspot.com/

  4. Spot on. With several million dollars, the Harvard Art Museum has succeeded in turning art into artifact.

    Compared to the Rothko’s outside the room, the ‘restored’ work is dead. Perhaps it’s not only the projections, but the hum of the projectors, the awful mustard backdrop, the claustrophobic space, or the entire preceding gallery devoted to lavish praise for the restoration effort; whatever, it has not feeling anymore.

  5. The author of this sour article is, as usual, entitled to his opinion. Of course, “it pollutes a natural system wherein things perish and not everything can be saved” statement, describes everything humans are and do — we’re the “artificial” “polluting” ingredient since at least the advent of agriculture (which keeps most of us alive 😉 . Naturally, you do not have to subscribe to the “purity” of this point of view, or to this author’s annoyances at the amazing pixel-by-pixel non-invasive restoration that Harvard/MIT scientists and conservators managed to achieve. The opposite view of the result of their efforts, is that they created a second Rothko chapel, in the quiet of the 3rd floor of that beautiful interior of the new Harvard Museums building… .

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