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.

43rd Annual Meeting, General Session, Track C: Year of Light, “Shedding Light on the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum Lighting Project,” Holly Salmon

Holly Salmon, Objects Conservator, Isabella Steward Gardner Museum, presented a fast-paced, engaging, and informative review of the Gardner Museum’s ongoing lighting project; she co-authored the talk with James Labeck, the lighting designer (TEND, LLC) who worked with the museum. Salmon began the talk with a brief history of how the building was lit, in Mrs. Gardner’s time and the early museum years, and a quote (which I may have paraphrased) from a letter from Gardner to Bernard Berenson, “You have no idea how difficult it is to arrange light satisfactorily.” Her museum “descendants” clearly agree with her and are working hard towards that lighting goal.
As early as 1925, the museum had installed screening and bamboo curtains to reduce daylight. Later these were replaced by ultraviolet-filtering films and temporary black-out shades. While working to reduce daylight, museum staff was also introducing electric lighting. Previous museum staff had converted some historic lamps to run on electricity and created some amusing ad-hoc lights.
The recent lighting project began in 2004 and was completed in 2012, although as Salmon mentioned at the end of her talk, the Gardner staff continue to (re-)evaluate and improve lighting in the museum. In looking at how the museum was lit, staff and consultants looked at atmosphere, intent, visitor experience, and conservation. For the AIC audience, Salmon said that of course conservation was the most important factor! In reality, it was clear that for all involved, all of these factors were important. They wanted to create lighting that would give visitors a sense of how Gardner (might have) intended the rooms to look and make the works on display and the rooms look good, while giving the objects the best protection from light damage.
The lighting project began with a light survey, using hand-held light monitors and light dataloggers, on which they recorded a year’s worth of light. The project’s second phase included major improvements to the wiring infrastructure, bringing all of the museum wiring up to modern standards and providing a master control to provide great flexibility for controlling the lighting. Lighting design and mock-ups of the design were the third and fourth phases. The designers created designs for each room. Working with museum staff, they tested and revised designs as needed. Salmon showed an example of a particularly challenging corridor gallery that went through at least three iterations of design to achieve the desired look.
To accomplish their goals, project staff approached lighting by thinking about it in layers. The first layer was the exterior light. All of the windows had ultraviolet protection. Before the project the museum also had light-colored linen shades on the windows, which created what they called “light bombs” that made it harder for visitors’ eyes to adjust to interior lighting. In the lighting project, they replaced these shades with translucent sunscreens that permitted visitors to see outside. (Salmon pointed out how visitors had always pulled at the edges of the older shades so they could see the outside.)They also fitted the windows with dark shades for when the museum is closed; where there are fragile collections near the windows, the shades are remote controlled.
The second layer was historic light. The fixtures that had previously been converted to electricity were remodeled (and/or rewired) to give better and safer light. These fixtures are now used as Gardner would have used them. For example a “candelabra” would only be lit for evenings or dark days, rather than turning on its electric bulbs all the time.
The third layer was viewing and ambient light. This was the “layer” where the project staff tried to light the collections so they could be seen well but where the lighting was not obtrusive. The overall goal was to have consistent (feeling/looking) light throughout the museum. Salmon showed the example of the newly restored Tapestry Room. They installed track lighting to showcase the objects and added recessed lighting to add ambient light, to avoid spotlighting effects.
A slide near the end of the talk read:
1. Too
2. Many
3. To
4. List.
Nonetheless, Salmon did discuss some of the challenges of the project. These ranged from trying to encompass all points of view, through working on lighting while the given room was open (as opposed to closed for a given time for room restoration). Work in “open” rooms occurred during hours the museum was closed, entailing more staff hours for moving (and re-moving) collections and cleaning during the work.
Salmon acknowledged that the Gardner still has the challenges of light-sensitive pieces on permanent or long-term display, a challenge that is quite familiar to me and to all who work with historic house museums. She noted that they have been moving towards using high quality reproductions for some of these pieces, a decision they do not take lightly, but one that has precedence going back to Mrs. Gardner’s time.
The last part of the project addresses reversibility and reassessment. Salmon noted that they are already revisiting some rooms to make further improvements; this is primarily happening in rooms that they are continuing to restore to their Gardner-era appearance.
Clearly, a project of this scale involved a lot of people and a lot of funds. Salmon and co-author Labeck thanked all of their museum colleagues and major contractors (Cannon-Brookes Lighting & Design and Tamagna & Dipietro Electrical Contractors). They gave credit for support of this 1.65 million dollar capital project to the funders, including the Jane’s Trust, Save America’s Treasures, Massachusetts Cultural Facilities Fund, and the Richard C von Hess Foundation. (CHECK THESE!)
While this talk focused on one museum, it described an approach to looking at lighting that could be used by many museums. I will be hoping to see this talk in print in JAIC before too long.