Mark Rothko’s Harvard Murals

This exhibition was devoted to Rothko’s series of monumental canvases painted in 1962 on commission from Harvard University for a penthouse dining room in the new Josep Lluís Sert-designed Holyoke Center (now renamed the Richard A. and Susan F. Smith Campus Center). The murals were exposed to light from floor-to-ceiling windows and experienced a significant shift in color after their installation in 1964. Pigment analysis later revealed the presence of light-sensitive lithol red, and the murals were removed from public view in 1979. This exhibition showcased a noninvasive method of “compensating illumination” developed by Harvard’s conservation scientists in collaboration with the MIT Media Lab. Installed in a space replicating the original Holyoke Center configuration, Rothko’s canvases were illuminated by digital projectors programmed to produce the appearance of the series’ original color scheme. The projectors were turned off for one hour daily, revealing the paintings in an unmodified state. The year-long exhibition consisted of 54 works, all dating from 1961–1962, and included small-scale studies for the murals on construction paper from the National Gallery of Art, Kate Rothko Prizel and Christopher Rothko, the Menil Collection, and a private collection, in addition to those in Harvard’s own collection. The paper studies were shown in six-month rotations; the double-sided studies were presented on one side and then the other.

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