Not shown in public for 10 years, the artist's murals have been returned to their original state thanks to a pioneering digital restoration technique. Florence Waters reports
A team of leading conservation scientists and scholars at Harvard will this month unveil a hugely significant and priceless series of Mark Rothko works, removed in 1979 and not shown in public for 10 years.
The Harvard Murals were painted in 1961-62 for the university’s new Holyoke Centre. Considered for many years to be too faded and fragile to display, their re-emergence has been made possible by an ambitious new conservation technique.
The murals are the first paintings ever to be restored without being touched: a projector, designed specifically for the works using complex digital technology, will filter coloured light onto the damaged murals, apparently returning them to their original state.
After years of problem-solving conservators are poised for controversy at the curtain-down moment on 16 November, which coincides with the Harvard Art Museum’s major extension reopening.
‘We’re presenting something new, something that hasn’t been thought about before, restoring paintings using projected light. It will make people question what it is that they’re seeing. I think it’s provocative,’ says Narayan Khandekar, Senior Conservation Scientist at the Straus Centre for Conservation and Technical Studies at Harvard.
It’s a significant moment for the conservation community but also anyone interested Rothko’s oeuvre, as Carol Mancusi-Ungaro, Director of the Center for the Technical Study of Modern Art at the Harvard Art Museums says. ‘The Harvard Murals are not really written about in Rothko’s canon,’ she explains. ‘This was one of three very important commissions Rothko did — we knew they were important to the artist.’
Mancusi-Ungaro was chief conservator of the Rothko Chapel paintings 20 years ago and she’s never questioned the validity of the new conservation technique. ‘For my part I felt it was the only thing we could do… We welcome discussion and disagreement,’ she says. ‘This is a university. That’s what we’re about.’
Access to Rothko's works has given her insight to what the artist was trying to do. ‘You try to get into Rothko’s skin, try to work out what these paintings are,’ she adds.
Mancusi-Ungaro is excited that the Harvard murals may shed new light on the understanding of a major turning point in Rothko’s trajectory in the early to mid-Sixties while he was painting the Seagram Murals. At the time he was beginning to steer toward darker hues and ideas, culminating in the Rothko Chapel paintings which were completed in 1968 just two years before his suicide.
So why have works so valuable to scholarly research — not to mention to the market — been in boxes for so long?
Rothko has long provided a conundrum for conservators. Despite their apparent simplicity, the artist’s paintings are notoriously difficult to fix because he often mixed his own paints with unusual materials. He didn’t glaze his works so the surfaces are highly porous, and used thin layers of paint to achieve a depth and richness often comprised of hundreds of meticulously layered sheets of colour.
He was also fond of using Lithol Red, a light-sensitive pigment that has proven over the years to have been highly fugitive in his self-mixed paints.
Making the Harvard job even more complex was the works’ varying degrees of wear: the five paintings all hung in different relation to the offending window and contained differing amounts of Lithol Red.
‘What was once a single environment created by Rothko has changed over time,’ says Khandekar, ‘so that the paintings appeared to assume different spaces. What people are able to do now is enter the space that Rothko imagined and created.’
Both scholars and scientists have been working on the project since its genesis. The first stage, Khandekar explains, was to study in detail Rothko’s complex painting technique so that they could make ‘mock-up’ versions of the works. ‘There was a plum-coloured ground in a pigment bound in animal glue, and the pigment of the colour fields are a kind of egg-tempura.’
They then observed how those pigments faded using a speeded-up process, before designing software with an algorithm to determine the right colour and intensity needed for each location, using 2.07 million pixels for each of the works. ‘The hardest thing for us to develop was the ‘target image’ which shows what we think the paintings looked like in 1964,’ Khandekar says.
The image had to be developed at the University of Basel where echtochrome copies of photographs taken at the time could be made. The team also had to consider light studies and colour observation, only made possible because a sixth unused painting from the series exists in storage.
Given the resources at the team’s disposal, we might question whether digital can really be the future for paint restoration. Harvard is keeping quiet about the cost of the process too. ‘It’s a project only a teaching museum could undertake,’ Khandekar offers.
So far, Rothko’s son Christopher has given his seal of approval: ‘You still have the feel of the canvas. For me that's what makes it still feel so believable. Because, you know, my father’s brush strokes are still there.’
Khandekar admits when it’s his turn to prepare the room for a touring group he likes to arrive early. ‘I enjoy sitting in there on my own. It’s a wonderful meditative space and a very powerful environment. You can’t put an experience into words.’