Art Seen: National

ROTHKO RESTORED // HARVARD ART MUSEUMS

by Tara Plath

The Harvard Art Museums’ inaugural exhibitions following a massive renovation by renowned architect Renzo Piano includes an incredible presentation of Mark Rothko’s Harvard Murals, enormous canvases made specifically for the Harvard Campus in 1961-62. After decades of degradation and wear, the canvases were de-installed in 1979 and put in storage. Their rich colors faded, it was difficult to imagine what they may have looked like in the days immediately following their creation.

Rothko-Panel Four HM_2011.638.4_LEG253452_PR

Mark Rothko, Panel Four (Harvard Mural), 1962.
Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Transfer from Harvard University, Gift of the Artist, 2011.638.4.
© 2014 Kate Rothko Prizel and Christopher Rothko/ Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
Photo: Digitally restored scan of a 1964 Ektachrometransparency, Harvard Art Museums, © President and Fellows of Harvard College.

Mark Rothko, Untitled (Study for Harvard Mural), c. 1961.  Opaque watercolor on pale green construction paper. Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Gift of The Mark Rothko Foundation, Inc., 1986.627. © 2009 Kate Rothko Prizel and Christopher Rothko/ Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.  Photo: Harvard Art Museums, © President and Fellows of Harvard College.

Mark Rothko, Untitled (Study for Harvard Mural), c. 1961.
Opaque watercolor on pale green construction paper. Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Gift of The Mark Rothko Foundation, Inc., 1986.627.
© 2009 Kate Rothko Prizel and Christopher Rothko/ Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
Photo: Harvard Art Museums, © President and Fellows of Harvard College.

I confess, a Rothko has never made me cry. There could be many reasons for this: perhaps the very knowledge that some people do cry puts me on guard, the fact that I had seen so many reproductions before seeing an original could have softened the impact, or maybe I’m just cold. I have, however, always had deep respect for his legacy of creating space on the canvas that elicits deep emotional and psychological response, finding myself attracted to the compositions of horizontal rectangles of paint that ranged from rich to washed-out in varying color combinations.

The Harvard Murals moved me far beyond deep respect. I was subsumed by the depth of space, left breathless and confused when standing in front of the enormous canvases, with repeating compositions I had never seen. Rothko’s increasing interest in painting as architecture in later years is clearly evident, not only in his desire to create an immersive space with the canvases, but with the compositions themselves. The verticality of shapes, embellished by symmetrical notches at top and bottom, recall architectural forms like imposing cathedral towers or stonewalls. There is an authority to the shapes that is not as prevalent in his earlier works. These deep spaces with their deep colors devour you against your will, pulling you closer than comfortable.

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 Fourin 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.

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 Fourin 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.

In the room leading up to the installation are two immense paintings, similar in size and treatment to the ones made for the mural, along with small studies, a description of the process involved in restoring the works, and several video interviews with Rothko’s two children, as well as various curators and museum officials detailing exactly what went into the consideration of showing the works again.

What is unique about this restoration is that the canvases were not directly manipulated. The immediacy of stroke and vibrancy of color indicative of Rothko does not lend itself to the meticulous hands-on application of fresh paint and color correction that is often involved in returning damaged paintings to their former brilliancy. Instead, Harvard explored the potential of light to create the illusion of the original hues of red and black, overlaying a projection of the painting digitally re-mastered onto the original.

Mark Rothko’s Harvard Murals, Panel Five, HolyokeCenter, January 1968.  © 1998 Kate Rothko Prizel and Christopher Rothko/ Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Courtesy of Harvard University Archives, UAV 605 HC 1797.

Mark Rothko’s Harvard Murals, Panel Five, HolyokeCenter, January 1968.
© 1998 Kate Rothko Prizel and Christopher Rothko/ Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Courtesy of Harvard University Archives, UAV 605 HC 1797.

The immediate effect is disorienting. The previous room, detailing the lengths and effort necessary to achieve the proper effect, made me brace myself for something more extreme. Instead, one walks into a dimly lit room to find a subtle installation- the works hung as originally intended against golden-yellow walls. The room was bathed in a pink-red wash of light. The massive projectors overhead—probably negligible to anybody who has never tried to install a projector—casts pale tones over the paintings. Holding the blank white back of my admission ticket into the light revealed an eerie pink. But ultimately, understanding the science of the installation is ancillary to the final effect­. Here, the paintings are bathed in the light they have historically appeared to emit—their glow re-mastered, and retouched, but never reduced. It is a powerful step forward in conservation techniques. In a world where technological “advances” are often experienced as invasive, overbearing, or feel like more work than progress; when HD and 3D are more distracting than enlightening, the digital re-mastering of Rothko’s murals are a luminous insight into the future of art conservation.



Tara Plath is an artist and writer based in New York City. She holds a Bachelors of Fine Arts with an emphasis in sculpture and a Bachelors of Arts in Visual and Critical Studies from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

Mark Rothko’s Harvard Murals is currently on view at the Harvard Art Museums through July 26, 2015.

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