By James Foritano
Cambridge, MA – Lest you think, dear readers, that with all the hoopla over the opening of the new Renzo Piano-designed Harvard Art Museums, that Harvard University is only looking forward into a glorious future, never back …
No! Harvard remembers a bright spot of shame smack on its reputation for art conservation. Most specifically, a quintet of Rothkos installed in a dining room at the top of the Holyoke Center in 1964 and slowly fading during a nearly two-decades long bath in the light from floor to ceiling windows. OOPS!
The last of these paintings was taken down in 1979 and squirreled away into the darker recesses of storage. Meanwhile Rothko’s ascension into the pantheon of modern art continued a steady progress towards stratospheric heights, both aesthetically and monetarily. Double OOPS!
Enter the newly redesigned Harvard Art Museums, filled with flooding natural light so ubiquitous that very possibly the darkest corner where dark things are hid is noon-bright; where the art conservation department is at the very top of this pyramid of light — all its tubes and bottles of color displayed for every visitor’s uplifted gaze.
So, about 13 years ago, when the Renzo Piano philosophy of total disclosure in architecture was maybe entertained only in the eye of a future Harvard donor, some conservator types had the bright idea of shedding some light onto these abysmally faded canvases.
But what kind of light would not only go some way towards restoring the original hues, but also leave untouched the texture created by the artist’s moving brush? Therein lies a saga, of connoisseurship, of physics, of pixels, of man and computer! And there’s more!
Once a day, at an hour late in the afternoon, the lights will be doused and then restored in the third floor gallery where this ill-fated installation now resides. Visitors will ‘enjoy’ a heart-rending trip back to 1979 when these majestic pieces were unevenly and ruinously faded; then, at the flick of a switch, they will re-appear in the glow of color as originally as present technology, custom-designed, can resuscitate them.
Who says Harvard doesn’t look back? And with style!
Come and see the glorious new Harvard Art Museums and judge for yourself whether, in the third floor Rothko galleries, past omissions have been richly compensated for.
(The Harvard Art Museums, 32 Quincy Street, Cambridge, Mass., open their new facility, designed by Renzo Piano Building Workshop, to the public on November 16, 2014. The renovation and expansion of the museums’ landmark building brings the three museums and their collections together under one roof for the first time. “Mark Rothko’s Harvard Murals” will be on view from November 16 through July 26, 2015.)