This exhibition (on view until July 26, 2015) is not only about a group of Mark Rothko paintings done at the peak of his career, but it’s also about an ingenious restoration technique – a way to restore the color of these faded murals via non-invasive digital projections.
|Mark Rothko's tryptic from his Harvard Murals, illuminated with digital projections that restore the original color (Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard Gazette).|
|Verboten photograph of some studies for Mark Rothko's Harvard Murals.|
|Rothko's Panel Five inside the Holyoke Center, January 1968 (from the Harvard University Archives).|
|Mark Rothko, Untitled (study for Harvard Murals), 1961, tempera on purple construction paper, 7 x 12 inches (Harvard Art Museums, Gift of the Mark Rothko Foundation).|
Rothko had made paintings for a particular site before – the Seagrams murals (which he decided not to install), the Rothko Chapel, and the Phillips Collection Rothko Room (see comment below). But the Harvard Murals were the only ones where he personally supervised the installation. He also chose the color of the walls – a rather obnoxious greenish ochre that I assume he wanted in order to contrast with the canvases.
The murals are installed in a space that approximates the penthouse dining room’s original dimensions; but without the penthouse's furnishings, windows and drapes, the room feels too big for the work – it's not the immersive environment that I imagine the Holyoke Center penthouse conference room must have been. And intended or not, they don't have the theatrical religiosity of the Rothko Chapel or the mysterious poetry of his earlier work – what Clement Greenberg disdainfully referred to as “moody paintings.”
The murals are more structured than Rothko's typical earlier work with its soft-edged floating rectangles, but not structured enough to deal with their much greater size. Rothko referred to them as “portal paintings,” and they are usually composed of two "columns" framing an interior void. To succeed, the columns and voids would need to be experienced as somewhere between a solid and a colored cloud, or field of color. If the columns are too wide, they become color fields and lose their solidity, too narrow they become a figure in a ground and don't breathe and glow. The same with the voids. If they are too big relative to the size and shape of the canvas, or if there is too much space between the columns and the edge of the paintings, they become just a colored space for the columns to inhabit. The voids lose the solidity needed to compress the space and create a taut, dynamic composition.
|Mark Rothko’s Panel Four (photo from WBUR Radio website).|
|Mark Rothko, Untitled (Harvard Mural Sketch), 1962, oil on canvas, about 6 feet high (Collection of Kate Rothko Prizel).|
|The penthouse of the Holyoke Center in January 1963 (Elizabeth H. Jones/President and Fellows of Harvard College). Rothko is in the middle wearing a sport coat.|
Ordinarily conservators would paint a protective layer of varnish over a painting that needed restoring in order to isolate and protect the original painting from the touched up restoration. Harvard conservators could repair the damage from food and drink, and even the graffiti, but they could not restore the faded color without the isolation varnish masking the subtle brushwork and matte/gloss contrasts in the works.
So, expanding on the ideas of Canadian conservator Raymond Lafontaine, who used slide projectors in the 1980s to partly recover the colors of some art, the Harvard conservators, together with scientists from the MIT Media Lab, came up with what they called “compensation images” – colored light digitally projected on the faded murals, that would restore the original rich colors in a non-invasive way.
|The digital imaging software and tools used to calibrate the color corrections onto the damaged Rothko paintings|
(photo: Jesse Costa/WBUR Radio).
|Conservation scientist Jens Stenger holds a white board demonstrating the noninvasive digital projection of one of the damaged Mark Rothko paintings (photo: David Ryan, The Boston Globe).|