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Where's Rothko?

Panels by a seminal abstract painter were commissioned by Harvard in the 1960s to adorn the Holyoke Center’s penthouse. Faded and torn, they now sit in storage in an undisclosed location. It’s the tale of one of modern art’s greatest tragedies.

By Brian D. Goldstein

Visitors to the penthouse at the Holyoke Center today will no longer find the elegant dining room designed for Harvard’s most lavish events, but instead a number of sun-bathed offices with the best views in Cambridge. The only traces to remind a visitor that this floor was the setting of one of the great tragedies of modern art are found in the Harvard chairs that decorate the offices. Though typical across the University, these particular chairs are distinguished by rubber bumpers affixed to their backs.

These so-called “Rothko-bumpers” immortalize the numerous well-intended but futile attempts made to safeguard five paintings given to the University by internationally renowned American Abstract-Expressionist painter Mark Rothko. His murals, designed to create a complete spatial experience for a viewer and ranking among the most valuable works of art owned by Harvard, ironically did so in a physical space that would eventually lead to damage and their removal.

Today, with the Holyoke space converted to offices, Rothko’s Harvard murals sit faded and damaged in an undisclosed location, wrapped in black plastic and rarely seen.

Rothko, known for large canvases that confront the viewer with the subtlety and depth of large fields of color, painted three mural cycles late in his career. The second of these was commissioned for the Holyoke Center penthouse, an idea initially based in a 1960 request by Harvard’s Society of Fellows. After the Society found they could not afford to rent the penthouse for their own use, Professor Wassily Leontief—who led the society and initially came up with the idea of approaching Rothko for the commission—and then-Fogg Art Museum director John Coolidge continued to advocate on behalf of the murals to the Harvard Corporation and then-University President Nathan M. Pusey ’28.

In a university known for decorating nearly every ceremonial space of any kind with portraits of founding fathers, patriarchs and presidents, it is surprising that a completely non-representational painter such as Rothko would receive approval from the Corporation for such a prominent display. On the other hand, Pusey had demonstrated his tolerance for modernism by giving university projects to Graduate School of Design Dean Josep Luis Sert, and by commissioning Le Corbusier to design the university’s new Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts.

Despite some initial misgivings, by early 1962 the Corporation had agreed to the mural commission, and by October of that year Pusey had previewed the murals in Rothko’s studio and recommended their acceptance.

Rothko was well aware of the room for which his murals were painted. Indeed, he helped make the small changes, including fiberglass curtains and olive-green fabric wall covering, that would give the room the somber qualities in which he preferred his work to be seen. By contrast, the room’s north and south walls were lined with windows that illuminated the paintings—and ultimately served as their downfall.

Marjorie B. Cohn, who served until last week as acting director of the Harvard University Art Museums and who helped stretch the unrolled canvases when they first arrived in Cambridge in 1963, says Rothko knew about the full windows from the beginning. “There was no surprise,” she says.

Once the paintings were hung, Cohn says, museum conservators regularly had to visit the penthouse to make sure the curtains were closed. But even when they were, they still let in considerable amounts of sunlight.

And because the paintings belonged to the Corporation and not the University Art Museums, the measures that staff from the Fogg took to look after the paintings were conscientious—but not technically their responsibility. They could only do so much, Cohn says, and the paintings were often at the mercy of others.

By 1967, the deep crimson red of four of the five murals had faded to blue-purple at best, and in the case of Panel Five, nicknamed “the nude,” its flesh-colored abstract figure on a red background had become a white figure against a gray-blue ground.

Moreover, the room, which was to be an exclusive place for entertaining, could soon be used by any university entity. “The Rothkos were famous or notorious while they were up, in that people would go over to look at them all the time,” Cohn says.

In a room where people were eating, drinking and smoking on a regular basis, with little security, and with furniture that came up above the level of the paintings, the fading was inevitably accompanied by physical destruction: tears to two of the paintings, a food stain and even one instance of graffiti. Though conservators at the Fogg Museum were able to repair these blemishes, taking Panels Two and Three down in 1979 for repairs meant that only two paintings would remain in the penthouse, as Panel Four had come down in 1973.

Finally, in August 1979, all of the murals were brought to an off-site storage facility, never to be returned to the Holyoke Center.

The paintings have been shown three times since then, twice at the Sackler Museum and later in 2001 as part of an exhibition of Rothko’s murals at the Fondation Beyeler in Basel, Switzerland. They have been in storage for longer than they were originally exhibited, and form a tragic event for both art history and the University’s legacy.

Harry Cooper ’81, curator of modern art at the Fogg Art Museum, says that the vertical motifs of the murals are “well-suited to the idea of a mural cycle because they really have so strong an architectural feeling of columns and posts and lintels.”

“They are a huge relief from the stacked rectangles, which I think got a little stale,” Cooper says.

Rothko’s first mural series was intended for the Four Seasons restaurant in New York, which was designed by Philip Johnson ’30. The murals were never installed because of Rothko’s dislike for the restaurant’s elitism. In that series, vertical elements also appear, but without the nodes and articulations that give the Harvard murals a unique place in Rothko’s oeuvre.

Cooper points out that the motif of a frame within the actual frame creates a definite spatial experience, where the sheer size of the paintings can make the viewer feel as if he is entering the work. Rothko’s painting technique, which involves the layering of colors, also creates a sense of depth, as variations across the murals imply the presence of dimension.

Although this does not indicate that Rothko was careless about the colors he used—the studies for the murals located at the Mongan Center indicate that he was definitely concerned with the relationships between the colors in these paintings—they do represent a departure from his traditional forms. As such, these paintings remain significant to modern art despite the fading and damage they have sustained.

Carol C. Mancusi-Ungaro, director of the Center for the Technical Study of Modern Art at the Harvard University Art Museums and director of conservation at the Whitney Museum, points out that non-representational art like Rothko’s murals traditionally concerns itself “so much about color, when people see the colors changed they think the paintings have changed.”

But attributing this much significance to the shifts in color is a judgment of modern art that neglects the lessons we have learned from art of the past, says Mancusi-Ungaro. She contends that these faded Rothko murals should not be considered relics.

“Technically, they are very close to large watercolors…museums are constantly exhibiting watercolors that have faded and we still admire and appreciate them as watercolors,” Mancusi-Ungaro says.

Non-representationality makes it more difficult to fill in the blanks created by changes that inevitably occur to art, but Rothko’s Harvard murals continue to have meaning and power.

Mancusi-Ungaro also points out that “in 50 years, no work of art is going to be in its first youth…as works of art age, they change. People in the Harvard community remember these paintings as they looked new but [students] don’t.” Instead of thinking of paintings that are part of the present era as infallible, aging works of modern art should be considered in the same light as the fresco cycles of the aged Italian Renaissance that inspired Rothko to carry out his large commissions.

Understanding modern art in terms of the passage of time—rather than giving up on damaged work—means regarding these paintings with the same frame of mind as viewers look at art of the not-so-recent past. Mancusi-Ungaro predicts that “they will become more important as time goes on.”

Cohn, who has watched this narrative unfold and dealt with most of the parties involved, says that at this point assigning blame is really irrelevant.

“We shouldn’t sit around pointing fingers,” she says. “The University with the best will in the world and the artist with the best will in the world put the art in the wrong place.”

Cohn believes this has nothing to do with a misunderstanding or negative attitude towards modern art, nor with the negligence of any specific player. On Rothko’s part, Mancusi-Ungaro says, “if [he] had called a conservator when he was making these paintings in the early 1960s and said ‘I bought this red paint, is it okay to use?’ No one would have been able to tell him whether it would fade or not.”

The lack of materials standards at that time meant that Rothko could not have known Lithol Red was a “fugitive” pigment.

And though a dining room was likely not the best setting for these paintings, which both Sert and Pusey observed as soon as they were installed, it is quite remarkable that Rothko was chosen at all. The commission represented a progressive step in the direction of modern art, and a willingness to depart from Georgian traditionalism, on the part of the Harvard Corporation.

But the fact remains that at present, nobody can see and experience Rothko’s Harvard murals. Cooper argues that “these need to be seen [and] that keeping them in storage is negligent.”

But Rothko’s estate requires that they must be hung together and in the same configuration as in their initial installation. No one is sure whether they can ever be hung permanently. Rothko preferred his work to be hung in dim light, but it remains to be seen how dim that light would need to be to prevent further damage.

Moreover, the paintings are so large that to even get them into existing buildings requires the transom to be removed from doorways. Once inside they must be put in a space with the same dimensions as their original location. According to Cohn, the art museums are already so pressed for space and resources that there is no conceivable way the murals could have a home until something new is built.

The murals would likely have had a place in the modern and contemporary art museum that was to be built in the Riverside neighborhood, but this project was scrapped by University planners in 2002 in the face of community opposition. If a new museum is eventually built, Cohn pictures “one of the rooms…be built the approximate size and shape of the penthouse, and the Rothkos be hung and temporary walls be placed in front of them. Then we could use that gallery for other art and once in a while take away the facing walls and show the Rothkos.”

Mancusi-Ungaro believes they could have a permanent place if careful arrangements were made as to the light levels and conditions in which they were hung. She adds that the unique history of the Rothko murals is itself enough reason for a modern art museum to be built, as this would allow them to be studied by both historians and conservators.

Mancusi-Ungaro says a new art museum would also mean a home for her Center for the Technical Study of Modern Art. This center, established when she was hired, is concerned with exactly the issues that Rothko’s murals have brought to the fore.

“If a work of art should change in a way that is not fully understood, then the center would do the research necessary to address the problem,” said Mancusi-Ungaro. This holistic view of the artistic process would, in her mind, provide exactly the body of knowledge that Rothko lacked, the absence of which led to the considerable damage the Harvard murals sustained.

—Staff writer Brian D. Goldstein can be reached at bgoldst@fas.harvard.edu.

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