Painter Mark Rothko directed the installation of his murals in Harvard’s Holyoke Center in 1963. Artwork: © 2009 Kate Rothko Prizel and Christopher Rothko / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo: Elizabeth H. Jones, © President and Fellows of Harvard College

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In 1989, I was a student of conservation at the Courtauld Institute, London. My professor Gerry Hedley demonstrated that shining blue light onto a painting with yellowed gloss made it appear as though the varnish had been removed, restoring the painting’s original appearance. It was a jury-rigged demonstration, using a slide projector and blue gel to filter the light. But it worked well enough to convince me one day, projected light can be used to restore a painting’s appearance without touching its surface.

Mark Rothko was one of the most important abstract expressionist painters of post-war America. He only painted three murals in his lifetime: the Seagram Murals, which are now scattered among Tate Modern and Japan’s Kawamura Memorial DIC Museum of Art, the Rothko Chapel located in Houston, Texas, and the Harvard Murals in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

The Harvard Murals were painted in the 1960s and originally installed in 1964 in the Holyoke Center penthouse. The colors faded quickly from direct sunlight exposure, and each painting disappeared differently. The once coherent collection was now disjointed.

In 1979, the university took them down. Since then, they have rarely been exhibited.

The penthouse at Harvard’s Holyoke Center, showing Panel Five. The colors of the murals were fading even though the curtains were closed in the penthouse. Artwork: (c), 1998 Kate Rothko Prizel, Christopher Rothko / Artists Rights Society ARS (New York). Photo: Harvard University Archives UAV 605HC 1797

Renzo Piano Building Workshop started its renovations of the Harvard Art Museums six years ago. The project included the Fogg Museum as well as the Busch-Reisinger Museum, and the Arthur M. Sackler Museum in one building. The Harvard Art Museums were analyzing the Rothko Murals to understand their materials better and study Rothko’s techniques. They would then restore and display the murals in time for November 16, 2014.

A team of Harvard Art Museums spearheaded the restoration: Carol Mancusi Ungaro, who had restored Rothko’s paintings in Houston Chapel; Mary Schneider Enriquez, the curator; Jens Stenger, a physicist/artist now at Yale; Christina Rosenberger, art historian, and myself, an organic paint conservator. Each of us contributed a unique vision to this complex project.

In the past, restoration strategies included physical retouching of paintings over a varnish, which isolates the restored image from the original. The delicate surface of Rothko’s murals prevented the traditional restoration techniques from being used. Retouching would not only have been an unreversible process but would also have covered up much of the artist’s brushwork. We knew that we couldn’t physically alter the paintings, so we used light to “restore the color.”

First, we had to determine what the paintings were like in 1964 when they were first installed. The images were also faded on the Ektachromes of the 1960s. Rudolf Gschwind, an expert at restoring color photographs from historic photos, helped us fix the original colors of the Ektachromes. We also used the color measurements of a painting that was not installed, Panel Six. This belongs to Rothko’s children, Kate Rothko Prizel and Christopher Rothko. It had unfaded areas. We were able to get the target image closest to the original 1964 paintings.

We then photographed the paintings as they were and, using algorithms written by us, compared them with the target image. The camera, computer, and projector were able to transmit information via their interrelated channels of red, green, and blue to create a compensation picture – what could be called a “map” or replacement for the lost color.

Finally, using a camera and software algorithm, align the compensation image before projecting corrective colors to the exact location at the right intensity. This was done for more than two million pixels in each painting.

Each step was filled with new challenges. We had to improvise and learn on the spot because this type of projected compensatory system had not been used before in paintings. (And credit should be given to the MIT Media Lab Camera Culture group, who were excellent partners. Jens Stenger painted a 1:1 scale copy of one mural using the same Rothko pigments as the originals. We used the 1:3 scale copy to experiment on instead of the sources.

Narayan Khandekar, senior conservation scientist, demonstrates the projection of a compensation image perfectly aligned onto Rothko’s faded murals in order to restore their original color. Artwork: (c), 2014 Kate Rothko Prizel, Christopher Rothko / Artists Rights Society ARS (New York). Peter Vanderwarker (c) Harvard College Fellows and President

We used ceiling lights with shutters to light the walls and floors up to the edge and the edges of the paintings. We used low levels of illumination throughout the room to create a cohesive visual.

We chose a color for the wall that resembled the fabric Rothko used in his original installation. Two Harvard conservators who assisted Rothko in stretching and hanging the paintings in 1964 were interviewed. They independently confirmed the color. The room size is similar to that of the Holyoke Center original, and the niche in which the triptych is hung fits just as well as the source.

The new projection technique could be used to restore other paintings in the future. It is not limited to color field paintings.

“We hope that the exhibition will allow the viewer to experience this installation as it was intended, or as Rothko put it, “…an Image for a Public Place.”