What is The New Yorker? I know it’s a great magazine and that it’s a tremendous source of pleasure in my life. But what exactly is it? This blog’s premise is that The New Yorker is a work of art, as worthy of comment and analysis as, say, Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Each week I review one or more aspects of the magazine’s latest issue. I suppose it’s possible to describe and analyze an entire issue, but I prefer to keep my reviews brief, and so I usually focus on just one or two pieces, to explore in each the signature style of its author. A piece by Nick Paumgarten is not like a piece by Dana Goodyear, and neither is like a piece by Ian Frazier. One could not mistake Finnegan for Friend, or Bilger for Lepore, or Collins for Khatchadourian. Each has found a style, and it is that style that I respond to as I read, and want to understand and describe.

Friday, April 3, 2015

Rothko's Harvard Murals

Mark Rothko's Harvard Murals, Holyoke Center, 1964

A special shout-out to Louis Menand for his terrific "Watching Them Turn Off the Rothkos" (“Cultural Comment,”, April 1, 2015), on the restoration of Mark Rothko’s Harvard murals, “Panel One,” “Panel Two,” and “Panel Three,” originally installed, in 1964, in the penthouse of Harvard University’s Holyoke Center, now hanging in the Harvard Art Museums, and revivified through the use of what’s known as “compensating illumination.” Menand explains:

Five digital projectors have been programmed to light the canvases so that the original colors reappear. At four o’clock every day, the projectors are turned off one by one, and the colors revert to (mostly) muddy blacks and grays. You can still see the bones of the murals, the formal architecture—Rothko’s floating blocks, made to resemble portals in these pieces—but the glow is gone. As one observer put it, when the lights go off, comedy turns into tragedy.

Menand says that the restoration story gets people hooked “because it raises ancient and endlessly fascinating philosophy-of-art questions. In this respect, the restored murals are really a new work, a work of conceptual art. To look at them is to have thoughts about the nature of art.”

Well, maybe. Could it also be that to look at them is to experience the exhilaration and pleasure of reading red on maroon, purple-black on purple, and maroon on pink? Menand is a tad too thinky. But he’s onto a great subject.  

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