Daniel Grant explains in the Wall Street Journal how Harvard is restoring a set of Rothko paintings that have been badly faded without touching the paintings at all:
A team of conservators at Harvard’s Center for the Technical Study of Modern Art and Straus Center for Conservation & Technical Studies, with help from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Media Lab and Switzerland’s University of Basel Imaging & Media Lab, came up with an original, if highly unorthodox, way of seeming to do something while actually not doing anything to the canvases. They used X-rays and spectrometers to distinguish paint layers and identify the pigments in Rothko’s paints, as well as enhancements of the original Ektachrome photographs taken of the murals when they were installed. Scanning all that information into a computer, they then began creating custom-made software that will use a digital projector as a light source to augment those now missing colors on the original canvases. When all the software is written and the paintings installed again at Harvard—somewhere else on campus, this time, and no one knows quite when—the murals should look to viewers the way they did back in 1963.
“It’s the ideal restoration, where you don’t actually touch the artwork,” said Carol Mancusi-Ungaro, director of the Center for the Technical Study of Modern Art and also the associate director for conservation and research at New York’s Whitney Museum. “We are restoring the appearance of the murals and restoring the experience that viewers can have when seeing them.”
Fixing Without Touching (Wall Street Journal)