Art Museums Will Display Digitally Restored Rothko Murals in Inaugural Exhibition

To inaugurate the opening of its renovated facility this upcoming November, the Harvard Art Museums will present a special exhibition featuring Mark Rothko’s “Harvard Murals,” a set of five works by the abstract expressionist that were once on display in the Holyoke Center.

Including the five murals commissioned by the University, the exhibition will display 38 of Rothko’s works created between 1961 and 1962 and many of the artist’s related studies on paper and canvas, according to a press release by the Harvard Art Museums.

Rothko and Holyoke
Several murals by Mark Rothko, which used to hang in the Holyoke Center, have been digitally restored by the Harvard Art Museums and the MIT Media Lab.

In the 1980s, Harvard conservators began to restore the murals, which were unevenly faded during the 1960s and 1970s as a result of light exposure while the paintings were on display in the Holyoke Center’s penthouse dining hall.

During the 1980s, conservators assessed why the murals’ colors faded so quickly and eventually decided that conventional conservation techniques—such as retouching faded areas on the mural with new paint—could irreversibly damage the integrity of the works.

They decided to instead employ an innovative conservation approach that uses calibrated light to illuminate each mural, pixel by pixel, to its original color. The technique, which involves a sophisticated camera, projector system, and custom software, was developed by a team of art historians, conservation experts, and scientists at the Harvard Art Museums and the MIT Media Lab.

Inferring color from 1964 color transparencies of the works, as well as from unfaded sections of a sixth mural created by Rothko for the Harvard commission, the restoration team constructed “compensation images,” which, when projected onto the faded works, presents them as they may have looked in the 1960s.

Thomas W. Lentz, director of the Harvard Art Museums, said in the press release that the innovative conservation technique highlights the Art Museums’ objective: to promote art scholarship, innovation, and debate surrounding new restoration techniques.

“We think it is especially fitting that we celebrate the opening of our new home with a provocative exhibition that reinforces our core mission,” he said.

The Art Museums’ new facility, located at 32 Quincy St., will house works from across the University’s three art museums—the Arthur M. Sackler, the Busch-Reisinger, and the Fogg. Outfitted with 43,000 square feet of gallery space, the building also features six levels of public space and new spaces and resources for teaching and learning, including a 300-seat lecture hall, seminar rooms, and a media lab.

The exhibition will be on display from November 16 through July 2015 in the Harvard Art Museums’ special exhibitions gallery located at its new facility.

—Staff writer Alexander H. Patel can be reached at Follow him on twitter @alexhpatel.