Fans of the abstract work of American painter Mark Rothko are in for a treat later this year. Harvard Art Museums has announced a seven-month exhibit called Mark Rothko’s Harvard Murals, set to open in November featuring six panels Rothko made for Harvard in 1961 and 1962, as well as a series of related studies. Besides the opportunity to see works that have not been displayed for more than a decade, visitors will be able to see the murals in a new light, thanks to new digital restoration technology.

The idea for the commission of the works came from Wassily Leontief, a Nobel Prize-winning professor of economics, at the time chair of the Harvard Society of Fellows. In January 1964, the large canvas murals went up in a dining room on the 10th floor of Harvard’s Holyoke Center, now called the Richard A. and Susan F. Smith Campus Center, where they stayed until 1979.

During that period, exposure to light caused the color on large surfaces of the pieces to fade. The first steps to tackle the issue were taken in 1988 for an exhibit of the murals at Harvard’s Arthur M. Sackler Museum. At the time, the conservators discovered the fading could be traced to an organic pigment called Lithol Red, which Rothko had used in all murals. But they had to find a method that did not involve retouching, since this could deform the original works by effacing the artist’s brush strokes.

A multidisplinary team, including art historians, conservation experts and scientists at the Harvard Art Museums (the Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies and the Center for the Technical Study of Modern Art) and the MIT Media Lab’s Camera Culture research group worked together on the challenge and arrived at a light-based technique that uses a noninvasive, digital camera-projector system driven by custom software.

They made a chromatic comparison between the colors on the canvases now and the colors of the original pieces as recorded on photographic film stock. This part of the job involved a collaboration with the Imaging and Media Lab (now Digital Humanities Lab) at the University of Basel, Switzerland, to digitally restore faded Ektachrome color transparencies of the murals made in 1964. They also took color measurements of the sections not affected by light and time. This data enabled the experts to create what they call a "compensation image," which is then overlaid on the mural via a digital projector to restore the color, pixel by pixel.

This novel approach means the actual pieces remain intact and only their appearance is restored. Viewers will also have the chance to see the murals with the faded colors as the projector lights will be switched off for some of the visiting hours. They will also get a taste of the original installation, which the new one will replicate. Related studies on paper and canvas will bring the number of pieces on display to 38 items. The extra material will provide insight into Rothko’s creative process.

The exhibition will run between November 16, 2014 and July 26, 2015 in the Harvard Art Museums’ special exhibitions gallery.

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