In the Spotlight, Harvard’s Rothkos Don’t Shine

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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.

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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’s Panel One, Panel Two, and Panel Three (Harvard Mural Triptych), with restored colors using light from digital projectors in the exhibition Mark Rothko’s Harvard Murals, on display at the Harvard Art Museums November 16, 2014–July 26, 2015. © 2014 Kate Rothko Prizel and Christopher Rothko / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo: Peter Vanderwarker, © President and Fellows of Harvard College.
Mark Rothko, “Panel One” (Harvard Mural Triptych) (1962), egg tempera and distemper on canvas, photo: digitally restored scan of a 1964 Ektachrome transparency
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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.

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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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