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Saturday Art: Creative Restoration of Rothko murals


(Picture courtesy of tom ledger at

Artist Mark Rothko painted a series of murals in abstract expressionist style, to be exhibited in the dining hall at Harvard, a project that produced crimson of varying hues in bold blocks of color for the University and that were valued at millions, but immediately began to deteriorate.

It was 1960 when Harvard economics professor Wassily Leontief approached Rothko, already famous enough to be getting invitations to the White House, about creating works for the university. The artist eventually settled on the series of panels that ended up installed in what was then called the Holyoke Center.

The brightly-lit space immediately posed problems, as did the purpose of the room, for catered functions.

Rothko’s murals that had been painted for display in the dining hall have been damaged by exposure to light, to the extent that they had to be put into protection and stored away to keep from futher damage to the originals.   The paint had been mixed by Rothko, and was not possible to recreate, nor was the material itself possible to work with without further damage to the original intent of the art.

The conservation technique employs a camera-projector system that includes custom-made software developed and applied by a team of art historians, conservation scientists, conservators, and scientists at the Harvard Art Museums and the MIT Media Lab. For each mural, the camera captures images of its current state and compares them to a photograph representing the original, unfaded color. This information is then used to calculate a “compensation image,” which is sent to a digital projector that illuminates the mural and restores the color, pixel by pixel.


Following this calibration, the camera is removed and the projected light presents the works closer to how they appeared a half-century ago. For a certain period of time each day, the projector lights will be turned off, in order for visitors to study the paintings without the addition of the augmented color. The five paintings from the Harvard Murals series will be presented in the Harvard Art Museums’ galleries in the approximate configuration of how they were originally installed in 1964 in the penthouse dining room of Harvard University’s Holyoke Center (now called the Richard A. and Susan F. Smith Campus Center), the space for which they were commissioned.

“As a teaching and research facility, it is the Harvard Art Museums’ role to encourage innovation, scholarship, and debate around new conservation techniques,” said Thomas W. Lentz, the Elizabeth and John Moors Cabot Director of the Harvard Art Museums. “We think it is especially fitting that we celebrate the opening of our new home with a provocative exhibition that reinforces our core mission.”

As a whole, these murals show Rothko’s work with color, texture and shape to give an effect of elemental beauty of design and placement.

 (Picture courtesy of sara at

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Ruth Calvo

Ruth Calvo

I've blogged at The Seminal for about two years, was at cabdrollery for around three. I live in N.TX., worked for Sen.Yarborough of TX after graduation from Wellesley, went on to receive award in playwriting, served on MD Arts Council after award, then managed a few campaigns in MD and served as assistant to a member of the MD House for several years, have worked in legal offices and written for magazines, now am retired but addicted to politics, and join gladly in promoting liberals and liberal policies.