After Mark Rothko, American.

Imagine being blessed with the good chance to be invited to dine in the penthouse of Harvard’s Holyoke Center when Rothko’s Harvard Murals were just there, on the wall. Smoking after having a nice diner. Looking at the views of Cambridge and Boston that faced the canvases. Talking with the dons of academia. The paintings were there, they were nice, and you didn’t need to worry about shutting the blinds. I mean, the view after all…

John Coolidge and Mark Rothko in the Penthouse.

John Coolidge and Mark Rothko in the Penthouse.

In 1979, the rascals at Harvard realized that they may have goofed by looking at that view so often that they really never shut the blinds, ever. The pigments (lithol red for example Pdf) used by Rothko were fugitive and faded quite badly in the constant sunlight. Rothko, of course, had warned them about light damage and insisted they install the unused blinds. Not knowing what to do with a set of canvases that lacked that dignified aura found in Rothko’s best work, Harvard decided to store the mural. In doing so, they created an urban legend of a lost masterpiece damaged, graffitied, and beyond hope.

In 2008, in an attempt to expand and modernize their buildings, Harvard closed the Fogg and Busch-Reisinger and downsized their museums to the size of the Sackler. They used the reopening of the 3 museums in November 2014 as an excuse to reinstall the Rothko Murals (on view through July of 2015) as they had found an alternative conservation technique for the paintings. Harvard worked with the MIT Media Lab and others to create a light projection in the hope that this might restore the magic that was lost, ironically from light damage. “Compensating Illumination” was also effective in this case as it was easily reversible and allows for later developments. The reason that they can’t readily conserve these canvases is that what is faded is the dry, glue based underpainting and Rothko’s egg based paint. It’s not really as easy as inpainting over a section of an oil painting and matching the varnish. It would be a glossy blob completely covering Rothko’s dry paint and would alter the paintings significantly.

The digital light on the canvases is subtle and unusual. It is unmistakably additive and makes the canvas glow with reflective hot spots like a priceless movie screen. But the primary visual sense created by the overlay is that of unnamable colors, unidentifiable pigments that have a soft aqueous brilliance. Rothko strove for that effect, so it is apt. His ideal viewer had no awareness of paint, instead their intimacy should be with the complete whole. His aim was their transcendental state in front of the work; if they were enveloped by the work.

the pictures have their own inner light and if there is too much light, the color in the pictures washes out and a distortion of their look occurs

(1961 letter)

We are left to parse out what is being displayed on the wall right now and, if possible, to find the vocabulary to describe the thing. Empirically, we are viewing the original canvases and a very precise layer of light that is provided by a set of 5 projectors. Taken together, it is a Rothko that is only slightly unlike any other Rothko, literally glowing with colorful bouncing light. But as we pare away the individual parts, we are left with something that seems easy to explain, but is actually quite progressive and unexplored. Some tools that may be useful are the vocabulary we’ve developed for prints and objects in museums that have obscured histories.

Mark Rothko, Harvard Mural, Panel 4.

Mark Rothko, Harvard Mural, Panel 4.

The canvases alone no one really wanted to display. They’re ashen with damage, but there is no question that the Rothko Murals still have some aesthetic information left in them. They are not unlike other museum worthy paintings that have been conserved carefully. So, with the magic of technology, they developed an image, not really a picture, but an algorithm, an amalgamation of very exact data that approximates the effect that the original paintings displayed, which, when projected on the canvases, gets us close to the original.

This second layer, what we could call a second state of the painting, prompts a consideration in relation to traditional prints. Louis Menard sees this second state as “a work of conceptual art” that raises questions of forgery and authenticity, even if these questions are easily dismissible. Read through the formal practice of printmaking one does not need to question the veracity of the object as displayed, but instead can see this second layer as an effect from digitally connecting with the canvases and their history; as an impression taken from the original object.

you have to ask whether the museum couldn’t illuminate blank canvases and make them look like Rothkos, or Rembrandts, or anything it liked.

The museum could. In the age of three-dimensional printers and scanners, they can also print out a copy of the object that is touchable, expanding access for visually-impaired visitors. The cone of light that is being projected is formally more like a print than a forgery. It is a burnished impression, a digital embossment, a visual mark created from strictly working across the surface of the painting, mixed with scientifically sound information retrieved from photographs, color corrected for the technology used, and layered over the canvases with incredible accuracy.

If a museum presented a projection—or even a hologram if you want to be even more futuristic—as an “original Rembrandt,” I hope that it would be found to be a frankenpainting and any visitor would feel queasy immediately from this uncanny equivalent, but if this hypothetical is read through the historical practice of printmaking, we find ourselves in familiar territory. Printmaking’s history as a reproductive medium, a way of repeating or duplicating an original object often for mass distribution, is well documented. And printmaking is not alone in this history. There are a number of painted copies and unattributed objects currently hanging in museums. The main difference is that they are not usually from the modern era.

When I first saw The Submersion of Pharoah’s Army in the Red Sea, which is also on view currently at Harvard, I assumed it was a reproductive print that was published after one of Titian’s paintings. It is not. The print, drawn by Titian around 1515 onto 12 wood blocks, was printed and cut by Domenico dalle Greche. It was, like almost all surviving impressions, printed in 1549 from the same wood blocks but in a second publication state after Titian’s death. The print is attributed to After Tiziano Vecellio, called Titian, Italian.

I didn’t question if this print was worthy of being called “art” when I thought it was a reproduction. In addition, it is historically important for more than just the size (it is one of the largest European woodblock prints from its era) or the lyrical ease found in its lines (William Ivins said that there were very few prints from its era that are “comparable to this in swing and power and daring invention”). The print is not docked any aesthetic points for anything in its history as the number of major museums that own impressions generally value this print’s state and finesse. It is a fine impression of an important print, and if there were a bevy of earlier impressions found, it would not lower the value of this print aesthetically and one would hope that the earlier impressions would only prop up any historical importance.

Museums are happy to hang paintings from “the school of,” “the studio of,” “the master of,” and other euphemisms for “painted by somebody that isn’t as important as this other person or is unknown.” The image that is here being projected over the original paintings has been viewed by a number of scholars, visual experts, and even Rothko’s son. It is as close to accurate as we are capable of producing currently, but if we are still worried about the projection as a false copy, it certainly cannot be because the museum has never hung a copy before.

So, this cone of light, this forgery, this print, this whatever it is; if it were the only surviving copy of Rothko’s Harvard mural—assuming we could revive it from the hard drive and find a working projector—would anyone care about the secondary nature of the image? We get to see the canvases with the projector and the canvases without the projector daily, but the more radical object would be the projector’s image without the canvases. It would be dishonest to present it as original, as the work of Rothko himself, but we cannot deny that it is an astonishing, scholarly, and very costly reproduction of his work. If we accept it as an aesthetically important object, I can see a time when a museum could consider the projection historically important enough to present it on its own, even if we now consider too radical and even ethically dubious to do so. We’d have to attribute it to After Mark Rothko, American.

We left behind the world of copper plates, wood, and stones as the manifestation of “printness” with the advancement and adoption of digital tools. The point at which print begins and ends in the digital era is more fluid than what media is being used and isn’t really the subject here. Historically and ethically, the object is not “authentic” any longer, but we can all agree that the ruin that is left behind here is uninhabitable and we can develop some form of approximation to Rothko’s original intent through adding colored light to the canvases and it is the least intrusive form of conservation currently available to us. How we relate to this advancement is our task.


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