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Conservators shine new light on irreplaceable art

A series of paintings created by Mark Rothko for Harvard University was thought irreparably damaged by years of sun exposure and removed from view. Thirty-five years later, the paintings have returned, thanks to art historians and curators using digital projection, which offers viewers the appearance of restoration for works too fragile to touch. Special correspondent Jared Bowen of WGBH reports.

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  • , Senior Conservation Scientist, Harvard Art Museums:, Associate Curator, Harvard Art Museum:

    JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Now: an art restoration breakthrough.

    An international team of art historians and curators have developed a new technique to restore works of art without ever touching them. It’s being used for the first time on a Mark Rothko mural.

    Jared Bowen from WGBH in Boston has this report.

    JARED BOWEN:

    Even in 1960, it was a coup, when Harvard University landed Mark Rothko to paint a series of murals for its new penthouse dining room. Rothko was already considered one of the country’s greatest artist, and this was to be among his biggest commissions.

    NARAYAN KHANDEKAR

    He really wanted you to be up close and surrounded by his work so that you could feel the — feel the painting.

    JARED BOWEN:

    Rothko paint panels to envelop the space. They and the studies and sketches he produced in planning them are now on view in the newly renovated Harvard Art Museum’s first special exhibition.

    They were robustly read, says curator Mary Schneider Enriquez.

    MARY SCHNEIDER ENRIQUEZ

    He had been focusing on these kind of purples and crimson, as we like to say, of course, at Harvard.

    The ground of crimson or purple is then set off with these extraordinary contrasts of this red that is just incredible. As you look at any of his paintings, the play of color and contrast blending and then working against and with each other has always been essential to his work.

    JARED BOWEN:

    The panels were officially installed in 1964, but were in steep competition with the room’s Harvard Yard views. The penthouse shades were rarely drawn and the light-sensitive murals suffered substantial damage.

    NARAYAN KHANDEKAR:

    As the sun would traverse the sky, the paintings became faded, and in an uneven way because of the geometry of the room, so some parts were shadowed. Some parts received more sunlight. The paintings changed. And so what started off as a unified whole slowly drifted apart.

    JARED BOWEN:

    By 1979, Harvard realized the murals were irreparably damaged and removed them from their dining room perch. And the series, one of only three ever painted by Rothko, was placed into storage and, aside from a few exhibitions, had largely disappeared from public view and memory.

    MARY SCHNEIDER ENRIQUEZ:

    It’s been an extremely sad thing that this extraordinary work of art has not been included in the art history of Rothko. So it’s been a real priority for all of us to bring these works back to our — back to a place in which we can study them and recognize the achievement in this extraordinary paintings.

    JARED

    BOWEN:

    Thirty-five years after removal, Rothko’s murals are once again on view, hung in the same configuration in a room with the same dimensions and against walls painted the same olive mustard Rothko himself chose.

    MARY SCHNEIDER ENRIQUEZ:

    This really brings them back and puts them in the middle of his entire history in a major way.

    JARED BOWEN:

    But they had to be hung without touching the canvasses, says conservation scientist Narayan Khandekar. It turns out Rothko mixed his own paint, which inadvertently left the canvases overly susceptible to ruin and far too fragile for physical touch-ups.

    NARAYAN KHANDEKAR:

    Rothko used this binding medium, glue-size, which is — gives a very porous surface. And if you put any kind of isolating varnish over that, it would saturate the paint. It would change the color relationships. Everything that we do as a conservation approach also has to be reversible.

    JARED BOWEN:

    How to restore the Rothkos to their original glory without ever touching them? To achieve that, Harvard collaborated with art historians and conservation teams from MIT and the University of Basel in Switzerland. They devised a software program that replicates Rothko’s original paintings pixel by pixel, color by color.

    NARAYAN KHANDEKAR:

    We were able to have access to an alternate panel that had been shipped up to Cambridge, but not installed, and which had unfaded sections on it, and were able to use those to make the final adjustments on the digital image of what the paintings looked like.

    JARED BOWEN:

    The digital recreation is projected with nonthreatening low light onto the canvas.

    NARAYAN KHANDEKAR:

    It’s about 2.07 million pixels. So, we have to calculate the color and the intensity for each of these pixels and then shine it in exactly the right spot.

    The color that’s on the painting, plus the compensation image, gives the viewer the impression of what the paintings looked like in 1964. We’re very, very confident that we’re as close as can be for this project.

    JARED BOWEN:

    The technology is a game-changer, museum officials say, but it also raises questions about whether conservation in the digital age fundamentally changes the art. Rothko’s color is back, but no longer by his own hand.

    MARY SCHNEIDER ENRIQUEZ:

    One of the key questions is, where is the line between what is the original work of art and the art that has the projection system on it? I mean, have we changed what he has done? No, we haven’t changed his canvases.

    JARED BOWEN:

    But they have changed the possibility that damaged masterpieces the world over can once again see the light of day with the elaborately configured light of a projector.

    I’m Jared Bowen for the “NewsHour” in Boston.

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