43rd Annual Meeting – The Year of Light session – May 15, 2015 – "Mark Rothko's Harvard Murals: An Image for a Public Space" by Narayan Khandekar

As a big fan of Mark Rothko, I was particularly jazzed to hear this talk. The idea of “restoring” faded works by Rothko is particularly intriguing to me, since color and light are of utmost importance with his work: atmosphere matters most.
Mr. Khandekar, who gave the talk, stated that he was only the spokesperson for the team. This was clearly a collaborative effort with many different people including those familiar with Rothko.  With all of these people working on this project, it helped create an all-around vision, Khandekar said.
For those unfamiliar with Mark Rothko, he was an artist in the Abstract Expressionist movement. He wanted people to be immersed in his paintings. He believed his paintings formed an environment around the viewers, which is how these mural works came to be. Rothko said, “I have been preoccupied for a number of years with the idea of translating my pictorial concepts into murals, which would serves as an image for a public space.”
Khandekar mentioned similar mural projects, such as the Seagram Murals, which I saw at the Tate Modern back in 2010. I completely understand what Rothko was trying to project onto the viewer: the murals creates an immersive atmosphere that made me never want to leave the room. Seriously, I sat in that gallery space for a long while, feeling as if I would lose something if I left the room. It was one of the most profound experiences I had with an artwork installation. I found out at this talk that the pieces were brought together in real life only as a temporary real life installation (they were commissioned for the Four Seasons restaurant in NYC and apparently were never installed) and is together only online. So I was one of the fortunate few who got to see this installation in its entirety live and in person!
ANYWAY, back to our regularly scheduled program. The Harvard Rothko Murals were installed in the Holyoke Center at Harvard in 1963. The Holyoke Center is a Brutalist building designed by architect Josep Sert. The installation room was originally intended to be a Harvard fellows’ meeting room, but instead was used as a high-level (read: important people only) dining room, but had also been used for other special events, including a disco party! Viva La Saturday Night Fever!
There were 5 pieces in total as part of the installation that were all butted up against each other: three pieces fit into a niche in the room, creating a triptych, and the other two were displayed on other walls. This room had floor-to-ceiling windows so the paintings received A WHOLE LOT of light. Rothko asked the folks at Harvard to keep the blinds drawn as much as possible, but sadly the blinds often remained open. As a result, the paintings faded and were removed from display in 1979.
So now we come to the 21st century in search of a solution: we want to show these murals again. How can we treat these so display would be possible? In order to investigate the possibilities, the team broke the art viewing experience down into three aspects: the painting, the viewer and the light.
The paintings themselves have a surface texture to them: the media is egg tempera and distemper (also a favorite medium of another favorite of mine, Edouard Vuillard); and there were glossy versus matte areas. Any type of wholesale restoration would have hidden these aspects of the work, so physical intervention was not pursued.
The viewer experience had evolved over the years. Now we have visual digital enhancement tools like Google Glass, HoloLens, and Oculus Rift. These will serve a purpose for museum visitors, but that didn’t seem to be the solution for this project either.
What did seem like a possibility was the use of light. It affects how the viewer would see the work without changing the surface characteristics of the work. So, compensating using light seemed like the best option.
They used color slides that were taken back in 1964 (Ektachrome), but of course those slides faded as well. In order to determine the original colors, they utilized one of the panels that had not been on display – Panel 6 – to get the faded colors in the slides right. They worked with a media lab in Basel, Switzerland in order to get the faded slides back into balance using Panel 6 as the color reference, which was applied to all of the paintings.
Now here’s where it got complicated and you might wait for the post-prints: somehow folks at MIT (I think it was MIT) took that color reference rendering from Panel 6, and applied it universally to the slides to create digital images of the original murals. Using a camera-projector system, a compensation image was formed and then aligned on the original panels. Then BAM! Rothko’s mural paintings are back without any alteration of the original. We’re talking AMAZING resolution here, folks: over 2 million pixels!! Freaking. Genius.
So the really awesome part was the diversity of reactions to this “restoration.” I tried to capture their original quotes, but I imagine I am paraphrasing or only got a portion of the quote.
• Terry Winters, artist: “Drama of turning off the projectors is like the move from comedy to tragedy unexpectedly!” (I kind of love that, but that is the actor in me, I’m sure.)
• Christiane Paul: “We have two versions: the historic and the restored.”
• Jeffrey Weiss Guggenheim: “The light within the painting is lost… Deceptive illusions is unnerving…”
• Brad Epley Menil: “Restored is a digital remaster and the unrestored version is like a vinyl LP. Which is the most authentic version? At what point do we accept change?”
• Kate Rothko Prizel: “The setting is not a problem. You experience the room. The space felt right. It feels like Rothko luminosity.”
• Christopher Rothko: “It feels right because my father’s brush strokes are still there.”
The display is up until July 26: I’m totally going because in order to really experience Rothko, you have to be in the room with the paintings, as the artist intended.