Not long ago I visited the Harvard Art Museums, which re-opened their doors in November after a major renovation. The banners touting the recent updates immediately put me on notice of past and present, and the capacity of art to transcend those labels.
The most fascinating example is the Rothko mural project. The short version of the story sounds miraculous in itself. The restoration team found a way to bring back the original color to the viewers’ eyes—-and did so without adding so much as a brushstroke, fingerprint or molecule of sweat from exacting brows. Like so many elegant designs, the striking purity hides a complex, messy and ingenious process (which Harvard’s Senior Conservation Scientist, Narayan Khandekar, explains at The Conversation ).
The magic of the Rothko restoration, just reading about it, might seem to be that time can be undone. But the unexpected truth that struck me in the gallery was the opposite. Time can’t be undone. What Rothko put on that canvas hasn’t been lost or destroyed. The artist’s vision is still there, and visible to the rest of us, under the right conditions.
This revelation owes as much to the pedagogy of the exhibit as to the technology. Rather than letting us fall for this fancy trick, the museum dedicates the space to explaining what visitors are looking at. Plaques and displays outline and illustrate step-by-step, the technical process by which the mural was made to look for re-opening day in Nov 2014 precisely like it did for visitors of the Holyoke Campus Center in 1964. A sixth panel—never displayed before—also serves as a sort of “control,” as it was safe from the exposure the other panels had at Harvard and hadn’t been manipulated in the museum.
When I faced the full display with the projection I understood that now two murals exist simultaneously on that one wall: the one that came out of storage and the one that I saw when the projector was turned on. As an informed visitor, I was a witness to both. (*)
That opportunity to experience the omnipresence of what is in what could be was thrilling and a little scary. For me, it was a reminder of all else that—I think, or would like to think— has changed since 1964 and, when, for example, Louisiana and other states were issuing voter “literacy” tests (which today’s Harvard overachievers failed), and Harvard Graduate School of Arts and Sciences had just opened to women one year before. How much of the landscape I see as “now” is altered by projections, my own or others’—that laws and law enforcement are meant to protect citizens and our rights, or that my husband and I, with our equivalent educations, are equal breadwinners?
What beautiful or ugly truths are only waiting to be cast in a different light? Where are the switches, and who can throw them?
I’m grateful to the Rothko restoration for the opportunity to stand and face those questions, and for the reminder that they won’t disappear.
*Each day 4pm the projector is shut off and one actually can see the unaltered panels, too. Have you seen it? Please share in the Comment section. UPDATE: Louis Menand at the New Yorker has had this “discordant aesthetic experience“