Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
May 14, 2015
Mark Rothko’s Harvard Murals 2015.
Exhibition schedule: Harvard Art Museums, November 16, 2014–July 26, 2015
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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 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.

On Sunday, November 16, 2014, ambitious Boston museumgoers could have treated themselves to first-viewings of two remarkable achievements: Mark Rothko’s newly restored Harvard Murals, currently installed in the Harvard Art Museums’ impeccable Renzo Piano-designed galleries, and Frederick Wiseman’s National Gallery, a three-hour behind-the-scenes chronicle of the London museum presented by the filmmaker himself at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. The coincidence would have delighted Wiseman, whose wry observation of institutions, in both their operational perversities and decorous self-presentation, seems tailor made for the museum’s grand performance before its many audiences. But where National Gallery is rich in quotidian drama, the Harvard Art Museums are producing another kind of spectacle. After the diminished public presence of Harvard’s collections during the six-year renovation of the Fogg and Busch-Reisinger museums’ Quincy Street home, the Rothko murals, in storage since the late 1970s, have been assigned a leading role in the drama of the Harvard Art Museums’ reemergence. In the current installation, five restored canvases and a sixth unused mural have been reunited with over twenty watercolor sketches on colored paper, two pen-and-ink studies, and three full-sized preliminary canvases from the collection of the Fogg Museum, the Menil Collection, the National Gallery of Art, as well as the collections of Dr. Corinne Hick and the Rothko family. Like Wiseman’s National Gallery, however, the unveiling of the Rothko murals remains an event of the camera.

With their original color decimated by the intense sunlight in the penthouse dining room of the Holyoke Center (currently the Richard A. and Susan F. Smith Campus Center), Rothko’s five canvases now serve primarily as screens for a digitally projected color correction, painstakingly reverse-engineered by conservators at the Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies and the Center for the Technical Study of Modern Art at Harvard, as well as specialists from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab and the Digital Humanities Lab at the University of Basel. This conservation team reconstructed the hues bleached from the once plum-colored ground of the paintings with the aid of an Ektachrome transparency showing one of the murals in situ in 1964 and an undamaged canvas rejected by Rothko at the time of the murals’ installation. The transparency was scanned and its uneven lighting digitally corrected before being transposed into a “logarithmic color space” that could be compared with Rothko’s unused “Panel Six,” which remained in the Rothko family’s collection. Triangulating between the digitally manipulated transparency, Panel Six, and a photograph of the murals in their current damaged condition, the conservation team was able to model the absent hues, projecting a ghostly optical after-image of lemon yellows, pinks, and acid greens onto the canvases.

Curator Mary Schneider Enriquez provides an admirable hanging for the murals in three galleries that emphasize Rothko’s process and the place of the paintings within his oeuvre as much as the technical feats of the conservation team. Visitors first encounter the project through the dramatic juxtaposition of some twenty small sketches, most in opaque watercolor on colored paper, and the three full-sized studies. A second gallery functions mainly as an isolation chamber, with several more small preparatory works and Panel Six positioned opposite a generous portion of wall text and a touch-screen video devoted to the restoration process, which prepares the viewer for her or his encounter with the murals in a third gallery.

Rothko abandoned his trademark horizontal blocks of color for the murals, in part to differentiate them from what he called his “pictures made for nowhere,” and the many small watercolors in the exhibition’s first gallery offer a welcome opportunity to familiarize oneself with an initially jarring new repertoire of forms. The device Rothko settled on (originally developed for an abandoned 1958 mural commission for the Seagram Building) echoes the form of the canvas as well as the architectural frame of the murals. Thick columnar verticals are connected by a narrow, almost hesitant, lateral line bisected by squat blocks, all in a single tone. The doubling of the frame and the sealed enclosure created by this device gives rise to a fertile series of associations which oscillate between a window flanked by heavy curtains and a stretched animal skin as Rothko tests lighter and darker values against his rich, wine-red ground. Already on his way to the Houston Chapel, Rothko skews his palette darker, keeping to black, brown, burgundy, violet, plum, and occasionally Prussian blue, but the artist’s eye for the forceful contrast of hue is sharp, and his painting retains the heat of the 1950s. The best of these studies render contrasts whose chromatic violence is hard to square with their closely matched values; it is almost as if one could be blinded by their very dim light.

The paradoxically potent low light of the sketches is precisely what one misses in the five restored murals. Whatever the technical accuracy of the composite light thrown off the five canvases in the final gallery, one never loses sight of the intensely mediated experience they provide. Schneider Enriquez’s hanging does much to minimize the differences between the studies and the augmented reality of the restored murals—pointedly, the only perspective in which Panel Six may be compared to the restored murals lies within the exhibition’s final gallery—but the otherworldly glow emanating from the murals is palpably different from the exhibition’s preceding spaces and probably from any other gallery space viewers have previously visited. There is one viable precedent, however. Although the mustard color of the old Holyoke Center walls has been approximated in order to replicate the specificity of the murals’ intended site, the ambiance of the digital projection imparts the unmistakable effect of the black box installation. The experience of the hybrid canvas-projection matrix’s crystalline brilliance is quite unlike the vexing low-level buzz of the extant large sketches, and more nearly approximates a very long film—Rothko, done over by Andy Warhol. Stay in the galleries long enough and you can even see the film end: at four o’clock each day, one hour before the galleries close, the projector lights are turned out (the remains of the murals, corpselike and haunting, are monumental in their own way).

The restoration is ingenious and problematic in equal measure. For a painter like Rothko, whose highly diluted pigments often leave the canvas feeling raw and dry, isolating the effects of the restorer’s hand from that of the artist is a daunting task. His insistence on unvarnished surfaces prohibits the use of an isolation varnish that would allow the restorers’ alterations to remain reversible. Projected light, by contrast, settles deep into the warp and weft of the canvas and transfers maximum hue with minimal effect on the fine granular structure of form. And from a distance of about ten feet, the murals do look remarkably vivid. But is this how Rothko wanted them to be viewed? The painter himself preferred an unconventionally intimate viewing distance of about eighteen inches, but this type of physical intimacy with the canvas is no longer an option. At about five feet, the digital color corrections dissolve in the viewer’s shadow; any closer, and one is forced to view the paintings askance, peering around one’s own shadow or checking its illuminated halo against the damaged surface revealed within it. In such an environment, the viewer’s movement before the paintings is effectively constrained, and while stalking the perimeter of the virtual viewing space one is liable to feel watched by the inert, unblinking digital eye of the projector.

Michael Fried famously objected to the ascendency of the viewing situation over the object itself with the term “theatricality,” but the technical supplement of the Harvard Art Museums’ restoration apparatus is more Industrial Light and Magic than proscenium stage. Beyond the temporary installation of the Rothko murals, this orientation is encoded in the museum building itself: after perusing the Rothko projections, visitors may head upstairs to peer through immense sheets of glass at the museum’s sky-lit conservation lab. If Wiseman’s National Gallery affords viewers a peek behind the scenes at the museum’s share in the production of cultural value, the Harvard Art Museums are attempting to make this kind of all-access viewing a permanent structural feature of the institution. The restoration of the Rothko murals represents both the aspirations and the limits of this project. For spectacular as the canvases are when the projectors are running, they will inevitably return to their objecthood at the end of the exhibition, as at the end of each workday, like props sent back to storage when the production closes.

Samuel Johnson
PhD candidate, Department of History of Art and Architecture, Harvard University

Please send comments about this review to editor.caareviews@collegeart.org.