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rothko-sparks.jpg
Is It Art, Technology or Both?

Architects design structures; engineers complain they can’t be built. Apple products with solid technology sell like hotcakes because their design is exceptional. Art and technology have always been a team of rivals. Like a constantly feuding couple, neither can live with nor without the other.

The recent digital restoration of five mural panels at Harvard demonstrates what this partnership can accomplish. Mark Rothko created the panels in the early 1960s for a private dining room in the then new Holyoke Center. The panels added color to an otherwise austere mid-twentieth century interior, their effect enhanced by natural light from the room’s large windows.

Unfortunately this light caused the colors to fade. Moreover, the materials Rothko mixed to make his paint created a highly unstable combination prone to color loss. By 1979 the damage was so extensive that the paintings were considered unusable and put in storage.

Rothko Mural 5 Hanging by Window
Panel 5 Hanging by Window.1

Damaged artwork routinely is restored by replacing lost materials. But such retouching was considered inappropriate here since it would have changed the reflective properties of Rothko’s original canvases thus irreversibly altering their appearance. Then conservators got the idea that it might be possible to replace lost color not by painting the damaged areas, but rather by projecting colored light onto them.

Essentially the goal was to program digital projectors to provide each part of the mural with the color it had lost. Sounds easy until you try to do it.

Rothko's Harvard Mural No. 5
Panel 5 Photo Restored2

First the conser­vators had to figure out what the panels looked like fifty years ago. Colors in photos taken when the panels were new had changed with age. So they were compared with colors in a mural panel that had never been exposed to light. Those measurements were then used to adjust colors in the archival photos to return them to their original hues (see image at right).

The conservators then compared the colors in the adjusted archival photos with those in digital pictures of the faded murals. Pixel by pixel they measured exactly what colors had been lost. Digital projectors were programmed accordingly. Finally the projectors were aligned with the hanging mural panels so that the exact compensating color is sent precisely to the correct location on each.

The effect is amazing: Rothko’s actual brush strokes restored to their original colors. You don’t really realize how extensive the restoration is until the digital projectors are turned off. Then you can see that one of the mural panels is so badly faded that all that’s left of the original is now black, white and gray.

The restored mural is on exhibit at the Harvard Art Museums through July 26, 2015. If you go, be sure to visit in the late afternoon. The digital projectors are turned off daily at 4:00 p.m. so visitors can see the unrestored canvases.

So is this art or technology? Which is the iPhone? Probably some of each. After all most good teams produce a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.

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  1. Mural 5 hanging at Harvard. Hilarie Sheets, A Return for Rothko’s Harvard Murals, N.Y. Times, October 23, 2014.
  2. Restored 1964 photo of Panel 5, Harvard Art Museums web site.

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