Coloured with light

Mark Rothko’s Harvard murals – damaged by light – are now being restored with light.

Rothko was commissioned to paint the murals for Harvard University in 1960. Installed in a room where they were exposed to sunlight, they faded patchily. There was no immediate remedy for the damage – Rothko was no longer alive, it was impossible to replicate his paint, and any retouching would have obscured his brushwork – so the murals were taken down in 1979 and placed in storage.

Recently, however, an alternative approach has been taken to ‘restoring’ them. In an exhibition at Harvard Art Museums, templates have been painstakingly developed for projecting coloured light on to each mural – just enough, precisely where it’s needed, to recreate the original colouration. (To determine what that was, conservators studied another painting Rothko had made for possible inclusion in the Harvard group, along with photographs taken of the murals soon after they were completed.)

Going in to the exhibition, this restoration seemed ingenious and a bit disconcerting. How would the technology affect the experience of the murals? To what extent are they still paintings, as opposed to hybrid works? In the room, standing in front of them, you see the paintings; they work on you as Rothko’s do. Then you realise how much adjustment there is when someone positions themselves near one of the works, interrupting the projection, and you see how the colour plays over them, in some parts intense, in others nothing at all…

The museum have tried to approximate the space in which the murals were originally hung, to retain a sense of scale and context; they have also endeavoured to reproduce the colour of the original room’s walls, an unexpected mustard-ish yellow. Ante-rooms display archival materials such as Rothko’s notebook-size preliminary paintings and a model of the room which he used to test out ideas, along with three full-size paintings and background information on the project – fascinating for a glimpse into Rothko’s process, as well as into what was involved in developing the exhibition.

And because this restoration is immediately reversible, you can also see the paintings just as they are now, when the projections are turned off for an hour at 4pm each day.