Destination viewing: Mark Rothko has returned to Harvard. If a trip to Boston is not in your immediate future, you may want to consider changing that.
Rothko's series of these five paintings was commissioned by the university and displayed in its Holyoke Center during the 1960s and 70s. Life in this public space--considered daring at the time--caused the paintings to fade due to sun and other exposure; they had been in storage since 1979. There was talk about whether and how to restore them. Traditional methods--apparently controversial with any work of art--were rejected for fear of compromising the work's artistic integrity, particularly the texture of the paint on canvas.
Modern technology, the details of which are explained at the site, presented a possible answer in the form of custom-made software that operates a form of digital projection. As an art viewer, what you see is this: Rothko's actual paintings are displayed on the wall of an exhibition space. Suspended from the ceiling are several projectors directing beams of light toward the paintings. As a result, the viewer's eye sees the paintings "restored." Conservationists are gleeful at the result, especially since this method is deemed noninvasive, and reversible. At 4:00 P.M., the projectors are turned off so that the viewer can see the paintings without any enhancement.
One thing of particular interest to me was that the restorers did not want to "restore" the paintings to their absolute original quality; rather, they wanted the restored paintings to look as they might have in the present day, minus the sun damage. But they did not know what natural aging might look like for these paintings. Then they discovered documentation that Rothko had actually painted 6, not 5, works in this Holyoke Center series. After much searching, they discovered the forgotten 6th painting, which had not been displayed but had been rolled up and stored. Voila! The art restorers felt they had found a painting that could guide their efforts. The now famous 6th painting is on display in this exhibition along with its 5 siblings.
Information about the exhibition, the restoration process, and the history of the Rothko paintings, are available through short interactive videos at the museum. Particularly poignant is one of Rothko's two (now adult) children, commenting on their father's work and the current exhibition at Harvard. A museum docent told me that the Rothko children had been to the museum just the day before my visit.
After several years, the Fogg, Sackler, and Busch-Reisinger Museums are now housed under a single roof in a new architectural gem, the Harvard Art Museums, which opened recently on November 16, 2014. The location is the same, 32 Quincy Street, just on the other side of Harvard Yard from the Harvard Square T station. A single ticket serves as admission to all three museums. I glanced briefly at some of the other offerings that are more than worthy of a second visit: an early Monet with uncharacteristic linear brushstrokes, a promised Gerhard Richter that I never managed to find. Mostly, however, I remained on the third floor, lost in the rectangles of Mark Rothko.