John Paul Rollert
A Snuff Film at Harvard
“Put out the light, and then put out the light.”—Othello
The lady in the New Balance sneakers wasn’t having any of it. “Too much time and space on something so traumatic,” she said, storming past me on her way out of the exhibit. I had only made it to the introductory panel, which provided a brief account of the five Rothko murals that had been deemed “unsuitable for exhibition.” Hung in a long defunct dining room atop Harvard’s Holyoke Center— the famously fussy painter traveled to Cambridge to supervise the installation—the monumental canvases remained for 15 years before being removed in 1979. They “entered storage,” the placard explained, a place, much like a morgue, for preserving things we aren’t prepared to part with but prefer to keep out of sight, and “since then have rarely been seen by the public.”
Rarely seen, that is, until the fall of 2014, when the murals were exhumed to help re-dedicate a troika of structures collectively known as the Harvard Art Museums following a $350 million overhaul by Renzo Piano. The oldest of them, the Fogg Art Museum, opened its doors in 1896 and moved into the Neo-Georgian manor familiar to several generations of Harvard alums in 1925. The bones of that building remain—a concession to its place on the National Registry—but the interior has been gutted and reconceived beneath the folds of a steel- and-glass skirt. The roof they compose provides for the most stunning addition to the Fogg, allowing natural light to flood the open courtyard in the center of the building, filling the museum like a pitcher.
The Rothko exhibition is another exercise in artistic rejuvenation whose success depends largely on a celestial glow. It coincided with the museum’s re-opening; I arrived eight months later for the closing hours of the show. By then, the exhibition had every claim to being a “can’t miss” cultural event: recovered canvases by a blue chip artist, critical praise emphatically flecked with ambivalence, and, most significantly, a state-of- the-art conservation strategy that seemed inspired by the Tron movie.
The ingenious attempt to revive the Rothko murals received considerable press coverage and rightly so. Relying on “compensating illumination,” a technique by which digital projectors beam color onto canvases, in order to get the crimsons, pinks, and plums just right, conservators scrutinized period pictures of the Holyoke dining room, original studies by the artist, and, most importantly, a sixth mural, fully realized, that failed to make the cut. Rothko conceived his pictures as “dramas” and regarded the “shapes” in them as “performers,” a metaphor: might be extended to the ensemble of works for a site- specific installation. He made a practice of creating more paintings than a space could contain before deciding on the medley.
I encountered the abandoned panel in the narrow gallery that served as an antechamber to the main room of the show. The work was rolled up after its dismissal and returned with the artist to his New York studio. Since then, it had not been shown, giving viewers a sense of the chromatic intensity of the original canvases and a glimpse of one unhappy inevitability. While preparing the murals, Rothko preferred a secret recipe of pigments, egg yolks, and animal glue to create a concoction that would soak the canvas, in the words of one assistant, “like a stain.” Unfortunately, the striking colors it produced have a tendency, even under the best of circumstances, to fade (and, for that matter, fade unevenly). In the case of the unemployed mural, a band cuts across the center of the work like a fresh scar revealing a pinker pink, as if someone had laid a two-by-four across the painting decades ago.
Beyond its antiquarian interest and the opportunity for the furrowed brow of art appreciation, the sixth mural provides an illustration of the ultimate objective of the conservators. Rather than recreate the works that met the public in 1964, Harvard’s team tried to present the paintings as they would have looked today had they aged like a Chateaux Margaux stored in a wine cellar rather than a tub of margarine left on the counter. Whether such efforts restore life to the canvases, in addition to color, is a matter for desultory cocktail chatter or a stack of dissertations. Rothko had his say. “Pictures must be miraculous,” he maintained. “The instant one is completed, the intimacy between the creation and the creator is ended. He is an outsider. The picture must be for him, as for anyone experiencing it later, a revelation, an unexpected and unprecedented resolution of an eternally familliar need."
In other words, an artist's intent is no more relavent than his imprimatur. the life of a work, like its beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.
Such musings might not speak to the unnamed buyer of “Orange,
Red, Yellow,” the Rothko painting that sold at Christie’s in 2012 for $89.3 million, leapfrogging “White Center (Yellow, Pink and Lavender on Rose),” the previous record holder for a work at auction by the artist with a hammer price of $77.5 million. If the life of Rothko’s work is not exactly indistinguishable from its imprimatur, at these prices it seems unavoidable to acknowledge, if churlish nonetheless, that a Rothko is only a Rothko if it’s actually by Mark Rothko.
This tautology, the essential syllogism of the art market, has special significance, admonitory and aesthetic, for so much modern art. In “The Invisible Avant-Garde,” a lecture by John Ashbery that provides the last word in Art in America 1945-1970, a recently published anthology for The Library of America precisely assembled by Jed Perl, the poet locates the splendor of mid-century art—and especially the tributary Rothko fed, abstract expressionism —in a kind of recklessness consistent with religious devotion, both of which are beautiful, he says, “because of the strong possibility they are founded on nothing.” This “doubt element” gives an edge to the creative efforts of the experimental artist. It “keeps his work alive for us,” Ashbery contends, and supplies the crucible the artist must endure tantamount to the long nights of the lonely evangelist. “A painter like Pollock for instance was gambling everything on the fact that he was the greatest painter in America,” Ashbery says, “for if he wasn’t, he was nothing, and the drips would turn out to be random splashes from the brush of a careless housepainter.”
The “doubt” at stake for Ashbery in 1968 was the aesthetic merit of art like Jackson Pollock’s, the mutability of which made the work so gorgeously reckless. For contemporary collectors, such uncertainty has either been satisfactorily resolved or is simply irrelevant. If there is any debate about the worth of a Pollock painting, it more likely revolves around a question of identity rather than aesthetics. In the most preposterous episode of the forgery spree that brought down the grand dame of New York galleries, Knoedler & Co., in 2011, a $2 million Pollock was returned after experts could not authenticate the painting, a conclusion they probably reached not long after they discovered the artist’s name had been misspelled on the canvas. That the absence of a rather essential “c” was seen by neither Ann Freedman, the defrocked former president of the 165-year old gallery, nor Jack Levy, the Wall Street financier who purchased a seven-figure work essentially on spec, nor, for that matter, anybody in between them and a panel of experts, seems only the most incredible example of the will to believe overpowering reasonable doubt in a contemporary installment of the oldest con in the art world.
The drips, in this case, did not turn out to be the random splashes of a housepainter. They were addressed with great care by Pei-Shen Qian, a satellite figure in what has all the makings of a shaggy dog story by Thomas Pynchon. The frustrated artist turned forger was recruited to confect works out of his small home in Queens by a shadowy Long Island dealer, Glafira Rosales, who laundered the nearly $33 million paid to her through a bank account in Spain controlled by the brother of her co-conspirator and occasional boyfriend, Jose Carlos Bergantiños Diaz. At the behest of the duo, for over a decade, Qian, a painter of minor celebrity in his native China, churned out bogus canvases by artists who shared at least two things in common: they were all high priests of Abstract Expressionism (Franz Kline, Clyfford Still, Barnett Newman and the like) and they were all deceased. The phony paintings were not imitations so much as in the spirit of such artists— they were offered to Knoedler as “newly discovered”—but that fact does nothing to allay the doubters who are like to point out that, while it may be true that a Pollock is only a Pollock if it’s actually by Jackson Pollock, the syllogism bears repeating precisely because a “Pollock” can be passed off as a Pollock with rather appalling ease.
Among the $63 million in counterfeit canvases Knoedler is accused of peddling over a 15-year period, seven works by “Rothko” were sold at prices ranging from $160,000 to $8.3 million, and while little has been written about the imposters, one assumes the con artists didn’t forget a “k.” An artist’s inscription isn’t everything, of course. Autographs can be tendentious (Duchamp tagging “R.Mutt” on a urinal) or even insincere (Dali signing endless sheafs of blank paper), however, in respect to verifying the authenticity of a multi-million dollar work of art, the signature on the canvas seems like a pretty good place to start.
Then again, even when the provenance isn’t in question, that doesn’t prevent an artist from repudiating a work. In a move that must have induced heart-palpitations in high-end collectors from Soho to St. Petersburg, it was reported last summer that the heavyweight champion of the high end auction circuit, Gerhard Richter, had decided to bar from inclusion in his catalogue raisonné a tranche of figurative paintings from the mid-60s. Their parentage is not in doubt; Richter has simply disowned them. They are, we might say, dead to him.
By their very nature, bourgois imbroglios are best snickered at, but
they can still attest to salient matters. In this case they remind us that recognition is a tricky business, one that is mediated, in art as in its restoration, by the restless arbiter of expectancy. Just as Gerhard Richter declared These are not Richters of works that really don’t look like Richters, a conservator embarks upon a project by tasteful exclusion. Take the fresco Ecce Homo in Spain’s Santuario de Misericordia. Whatever possibilities for restoration were available, they did not include the efforts of 82-year old Cecilia Gimenez, an elderly parishioner and avocational artist who replaced the flaked face of Jesus with what looks like a distant relative of Gumby. The image became a worldwide sensation, with repeated salutes by Saturday Night Live and Stephen Colbert, reminders that we tend to laugh (and hard at that) at what no one could have expected.
Ecce Homo was an unexceptional fresco—hence a reaction that was neither bitter nor bittersweet at its being quite literally defaced—but the loss of something precious is no laughing matter, which is why the work of conservation, in its manifold forms, carries something of a grave burden. When I was a senior in high school, we received a visit from a mortuary cosmetologist. The class was Family Living or Christian Family Living or The Christian Family (I can’t remember) and it was taught by a teacher more beloved for his emphatic school spirit than his commitment to being an educator. Everyone called him Coach. I liked him immensely (it was hard not to) even though his class was a motley collection of made-for-TV movies, domestic sketches, advice from the gridiron, and, on one occasion, a Betty Crocker survey from the early ‘70s.
We also had guest speakers, the handy cheat of any teacher looking to pad his schedule. Consistent with the rest of the class, it was an odd assortment—a young lady told us about an eating disorder that left her infertile, an officer begged us not to do drugs—and it included what was initially billed as a series of Career Day speakers but featured only a single professional from a nearby funeral home. She was waiting for us one spring afternoon when we arrived for seventh hour, a middle- aged woman in a shapeless beige dress standing just inside the doorway. Coach introduced her in his effusive way and promptly retired to the teacher’s lounge. She came before the class and told us her story, speaking in a slightly stilted manner that seemed almost haunted, as if not infrequently in her life people had come up behind her and shouted BOO!
When Delores was in second grade (that is not her name and not necessarily her grade, but for story purposes, both will do) a classmate of hers (Edie, we’ll call her) developed a terrible condition. She was diagnosed, struggled on, and then disappeared altogether sometime in the dead of winter from the small Catholic school (a single empty seat in a room full of wooden desks). Eventually, the dreadful news was shared with the students: Edie, in another, more definite sense, was no longer with them.
A showing was held, a field trip determined. The yellow school bus was dispatched. The children filed into the funeral home (a frigid day, in their coarse woolen coats, the girls looked like a string of red and blue bells, the boys miniature admen). The adults parted, and the room became even more hushed. At the end of the aisle was a tiny casket. It was open.
Unavoidably, the children formed a line.
Delores was scared, she said, and, frankly, who could blame her. She knew nothing of death but that it was black, irredeemable, and distant; it shared nothing of the honey-colored carelessness of childhood. She waited her turn to “pay her respects” (whatever that might mean) while, one-by-one, another head at the front of the line wavered and bobbed briefly in prayerfulness. She came before the coffin. She had been staring at the steeple of her fingers—she could not bear to look—but she had no choice. Slowly, she raised her head and gazed at the recumbent figure in the white satin crib. Delores was stunned. Edie looked like an angel, she told us. “She looked like she was asleep.”
It was then that Delores decided the dead should always look like dolls when they were laid to rest. This was not her expectation when she came before the casket, but the discovery was decent and comforting; she knew in a moment it was the makings of a lifelong commitment. She would paint the flesh to hide the handiwork of death. She would do her part to support the necessary fiction of a funeral: Nothing, fundamentally, has changed.
Death undressed can be gorgeous, of course, as Rothko too well understood. “If I choose to commit suicide,” he told his assistant, “everyone will be sure of it.” He wasn’t kidding. Beset by depression, reeling from the fallout of a recently failed marriage, and harrowed by two of death’s assistants, emphysema and heart disease, Rothko decided to lend a hand to the inevitable. Having taken a large dose of a painkiller prescribed by his psychiatrist, alone in his 69th Street studio, he removed his shoes and suit, laying his pants over a nearby chair. With a double-edged razor blade, guarded on one side by Kleenex (incongruently, it seems, to keep him from cutting his finger), he made a single incision (2 1⁄2 inches long and 1⁄2 inch deep) in his left arm and then another (2 inches long and 1 inch deep) in his right, both just below the crook of the elbow. Then, he lay on the floor, his arms outstretched, an image that would seem trite if it weren’t so truly awful. His assistant found him sometime later in a crimson canvas of Ccongealed blood, 6 by 8 feet, as if he were the sole shape in his final painting.
Crimson is the official color of Harvard University and, not coincidentally, the primary color of one of the five Holyoke murals. I waited until 3:30 p.m. to discover them in the main room of the show. The gallery had been organized according to the same dimensions of the dining room for which the canvases had been created with one notable difference. At either end of the room the tall windows that looked east and west (and, day-by-day, did so much damage) were only limned, giving the space the same ambience of a mausoleum.
I was alone at first with the revenant works, while the digital projectors overhead did their work of wordless invocation. There were two canvases on the north end of the gallery, a doorway dividing them, and three on the south, side-to-side. I sat on one of the pallet benches and turned back and forth again. I’ll say this for Rothko: The paintings are pretty stunning.
Or rather they were pretty stunning. Admiring them, one could easily forget (as I found myself doing) that they had been buried for 35 years, presumably with reason. The one that Harvard has given is a shameful list of curatorial mismanagement. Sustained exposure to sunlight, ample and direct, is only the worst of it. In the Holyoke dining room, the bottom of the frames were nicked and bumped by the shoulders of the wide backed wooden chairs with the VERITAS crest still favored by Cambridge dons. Gobbets of food came to decorate the lip of the canvases beside the varnish of an occasional beverage. Finally, and most unforgivably, some jerk decided to add his name to one of the works, perhaps noting the absence of a signature (Rothko preferred to sign the back of his paintings). Lacking the courage of his caprice, he settled for an abbreviation: Alan C.
I’d read about all the injuries before I arrived at the exhibit, and while the room steadily filled, I went from mural to mural like a coroner. At first, the newcomers maintained a sense of solemnity, but by the time I was done the gallery was jammed with people—I lost count at 70—and each of the flat benches looked like a children’s trolley. With the festive murmur, you might have mistaken it for a New Year’s Party, and a countdown would have been appropriate, for everyone in the room was waiting for the same moment, the daily rite of the exhibition: The five projectors would be extinguished, and the visitors shown Rothko’s remains.
“This is the place to be,” a young man said, giving his girlfriend a thumbs up.
Shortly before 4:00 p.m., a well-appointed gentleman glided into the gallery. He was smartly dressed in a check shirt, paisley tie, and glenplaid suit, monochrome entirely, like a fashionable undertaker. He had an air about him resolute and eager to please. I wasn’t surprised to learn that he was the Security Manager of the Fogg and, for the final day of the exhibition, the master of ceremonies. At 4:02, he commanded our attention, and the hubbub subsided. In his left hand he held a rectangular piece of whiteboard that looked like it had been filched from a high school science fair. He went around the room from canvas to canvas and held the whiteboard before it, blocking a window of light and showing the pointillist composite that formed each color in the murals. The crowd oooo-ed accordingly.
“They should just project the projections,” one woman suggested.
In his right hand he held a cell phone. When his circuit was complete, he held it up to explain that he would use it to turn off the projectors one-by-one. He began with the only mural to have had the blessing of a wall beside it in the Holyoke dining room, affording the better half of the canvas some protection from the sun. The assembly was silent as the Security Manager tapped away at his phone, then it gasped. The difference was shocking. The spectacle proceeded. After the third mural, the guy beside me turned to his girlfriend again, “It’s like coming to a train wreck.”
Five train wrecks, actually, with the worst one the finale. That was the painting with the lusty crimson background and a single, suggestive shape, like an archaic catch, of cotton candy pink. When the light was terminated, much like the others, the mural turned to ash.
The artist Terry Winters has said that when the digital projectors
were undone, to him, it “felt as if Rothko had entered the room.” In other words, the work of the conservators, for all its ingenuity, was a spiritual sleight of hand. Once dissolved, the real Rothko was present, whatever that might mean.
The ambiguity notwithstanding, Winters is on to something, I think. Far more than for other shows like it, Harvard’s Rothko exhibition reminded one of the unlikely overlap between art restoration and necromancy, both of which succeed by conjuration and a trick of the eye. Unlike Winters, I preferred the deception, for once the séance ended, I found it hard not to be horrified by what had become of Rothko’s body of work and longed for Harvard to bury it again.
And yet, I was in the minority, for the end was essentially the draw. Whatever the ambitions of the conservators for the immensely popular exhibit, ultimately, it was less a séance than a snuff film, and a standing one at that. For eight months, the Fogg concluded the day by a re- enactment of what it had taken 15 years for Harvard to do before: it annihilated the Rothkos in an instant.
History reverberates. When police reports of Rothko’s death were released to friends, Robert Motherwell said (with characteristic restraint), “We were surprised to learn that the death was so ritualistic.” When death itself becomes ritual, surprise makes way for impatience. Just before the works were extinguished one last time, the woman in the New Balance sneakers returned to the gallery and brought along a friend. When it was over, she turned to her and grinned, “Aren’t you an idiot for not being here every day at 4:00?”