The Rothko Paintings at Harvard That Everybody Wants to See: They Were Restored But Never Touched
by Jen Graves
on Wed, May 28, 2014 at 3:54 PM
I love this story. It's about art and time and bodies and ephemerality, and it starts in 1963. Several outlets have reported it this week, but the best narrative by far is from 90.9WBUR, Boston's NPR station.
In 1963, the notoriously prickly Mark Rothko donated five murals to Harvard for a penthouse ceremonial dining room, and stipulated that to protect them, the drapes in the room be permanently closed. Out the windows was a "killer" view of the Charles River, Andrea Shea writes.
This was not the first time Rothko wanted to blot out something powerful with his art.
In 2006, The Stranger asked me to take a look at art in Seattle restaurants. I discovered a huge Rothko lookalike at a place called Crow on lower Queen Anne. It made me recall Rothko's tortured fight in another dining hall a few years before Harvard. I wrote:
"I accepted this assignment with strictly malicious intentions," the New York abstract painter declared in 1959, after agreeing to adorn the most exclusive room at the new, deluxe Four Seasons on Park Avenue with 600 square feet of new paintings, for $35,000. "I hope to ruin the appetite of every son of a bitch who ever eats in that room." By inflicting indigestion in the belly of the beast of American wealth and power, Rothko would get his revenge on the machine that had alienated him as a young Jewish immigrant in the Portland ghetto in Oregon, the machine he feared threatened to corrupt him by making him an art star.
Shortly after the restaurant opened and before he installed his paintings, Rothko strode in with his wife for dinner. He was immediately destroyed. His art didn't stand a chance against the designer food and furniture, the floor-to-ceiling windows draped in glimmering metallic curtains. In a rage, he pulled out of his contract. Eleven years later, he arranged for a permanent installation of nine of his Four Seasons paintings at the Tate Gallery in London. The morning they arrived there, Rothko was found dead in his studio, in a six-by-eight-foot pool of blood. He'd cut his own arteries.
How did Rothko feel about Harvard? I don't know. But it is quite the center of American wealth and power, and you can imagine his desperate desire to get in commingling with his disdain.
In the end, Harvard did not care for its Rothkos. Diners didn't want the drapes closed, so they were left open. The murals were sunburned, food-stained, ripped, graffitied. By 1979, no longer fit to be shown, they disappeared into storage. The murals emerged a handful of times for exhibition, but they remained utterly compromised. Because of the original materials Rothko used, his original colors could not be restored. As Michael Kimmelman wrote in his own 1988 history of the paintings, "Their original effects can only be imagined."
Except that now Harvard says it's displaying all five murals restored to their original appearance, in an exhibition that opens in November. It will involve an exact reconstruction of that original dining room, with the paintings displayed in their original positions.
To perform this miracle involved the invention of an entirely new restoration technique.
The inventors included scientists in Switzerland, art historians, and tech geniuses at MIT Media Lab. I'm still not precisely clear on how the restoration is actually generated, but it involves the use of a high-powered camera, a high-powered projector, and custom software—and never touching the Rothko surfaces at all.
Instead, a precisely calibrated pattern of colored light is projected onto the murals while they're hanging. The experts say the light revives the original color perfectly, to within a pixel. Rothko's son, Christopher, told WBUR the illusion was so good that he got the goosebumps. Nobody else has been allowed to see them yet.
I want to see these Rothkos, but how will I know if they look like the originals? How will anyone really know? We have to trust the experts, to some extent. The rest will involve walking right up to them and intuiting whether these new surfaces of hovering light feel like Rothkos feel, which sounds pretty loose-goosey. How do we develop muscle memory for certain works of art? Do we, actually?
Every art "restoration" is an approximation, a meticulous attempt to turn back the clock. This time, the past can be summoned only using futurist technology, the painting resurrected like a cryogenically suspended celebrity who hoped she'd make it to the other side, but couldn't be sure.
It's always good (and oddly pleasurable, I think) to be reminded that many of the paintings you see in museums are layered amalgams rather than artifacts plucked pristinely out of time. Some involve not only restorations, but restorations of restorations, botchings covered by new discoveries or the failings, over time, of corrections once hailed as "restorative."
The difference this time, for the first time I know of, is that all those years of abuse will come rushing back every time the lights are turned off. This cryogenic celebrity can only live in the light.