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Mark Rothko's Harvard Murals to be featured in Harvard Art Museums' inaugural special exhibition
Mark Rothko, Untitled (Study for Harvard Mural), c. 1961. Opaque watercolor on purple construction paper. Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, transfer from Harvard University, gift of the artist, © 1998 Kate Rothko Prizel and Christopher Rothko / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, courtesy President and Fellows of Harvard College.

CAMBRIDGE, MASS.- The Harvard Art Museums announced today the inaugural special exhibition in their newly renovated and expanded facility, opening to the public on November 16, 2014. The exhibition, Mark Rothko’s Harvard Murals, will present innovative, noninvasive digital projection as a way to return an important Rothko mural series to public view and scholarship, as well as to encourage study and debate of the technology. This new conservation approach uses specially calibrated light as a tool to restore the appearance of the Harvard Murals’ original rich colors, which had faded during the 1960s and 1970s when the five large-scale canvas paintings that make up the series were on display in a penthouse dining room at Harvard University. Featuring 38 works created between 1961 and 1962, including the paintings commissioned by Harvard University and a majority of the artist’s related studies on paper and canvas, the exhibition is also an exploration of Rothko’s creative process. The exhibition will be on display from November 16, 2014 through July 26, 2015 in the Harvard Art Museums’ special exhibitions gallery.

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.”

Mark Rothko’s Harvard Murals marks the first time that the murals and studies on paper and canvas from the Harvard commission can be examined together. A sixth mural painted for the commission—brought to Cambridge for installation by Rothko but ultimately not included—will be presented publicly for the first time. Many of the works on paper in the exhibition also contain relevant sketches on their reverse, which will be exhibited during the second half of the exhibition beginning in March 2015. The accompanying studies on canvas provide perspective into Rothko’s creative process as he worked from a small to larger scale. The majority of the studies are from the Harvard Art Museums, with loans from the National Gallery of Art, the Menil Collection, and private collections.

“Our presentation—of the five paintings and the majority of his studies on paper and canvas for the Harvard Murals commission—provides important insight into Rothko’s thinking and working process,” said Mary Schneider Enriquez, the Houghton Associate Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the Harvard Art Museums. “These works give us a lens through which we can perceive his interest in the measure of figure and ground, balance and scale, color and, ultimately, light. Through this perspective we begin to understand how he conceived the paintings as a single image for a specific architectural space.”

The exhibition will also include multimedia components accessible via interactive screens in the galleries. These components will also be accessible through a special section on the Harvard Art Museums’ website, to be launched this fall. The content includes interviews with members of the project team as well as with Christopher Rothko and Kate Rothko Prizel, the artist’s children, and other individuals who have expert knowledge about Rothko and the Harvard Murals commission.

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