Light: projected. Authenticity: reflected.

Considerations of authenticity with Stuart Ringholt’s nude tours of James Turrell’s light art retrospective and Harvard Art Museum’s compensating illumination of 50-year-old Mark Rothko murals.

Photo: Christo Crocker/National Gallery.

Photo: Christo Crocker/National Gallery.

What experience are we as audiences evolved to expect, as the fields of art scholarship, curation, and conservation techniques have progressed? Authenticity of art provenance and authenticity of experience are two separate concerns that are consequently contemplated in art museums. Most art museum experiences present a reductive environment, a tool that focuses attention to art pieces by minimizing sensory outlets surrounding it. Alternatively, museums have also started to employ participatory and performative experiences in exhibits. It’s all in the name of creating authenticity that represents the artist’s intentions.

Untitled (Study for Harvard Murals) (recto and verso)

Harvard Art Museum presents Mark Rothko murals through July 26. These murals, installed in 1964, are now faded, defaced, and beaten. Curators and conservators decided that the eight and a half foot murals needed a walker to help them stand in their original glory. With the help of the MIT Media Lab, digital projection technology becomes the overlay and mediation between the authentic work and audience. Does the projection come between the work and the audience, or does it lend itself to the work and become part of the authentic experience? Mary Schneider Enriquez, the museum’s associate curator of modern and contemporary art, who organized the exhibition poses the question, “What is the original work of art when you project light on it?” (Sheets, 2014). Technology is so advanced, does the original need to be behind the projection at all to evoke the painting? I believe that this light technology needs to be preserved and associated with the work, to be considered a historic remount presented in new times, to new audiences.

AMQS on an off-white 5.5 x 3.5 card. Prokofiev pens three bars of music from “Romeo and Juliet op 64,” signing underneath, “Serge Prokofiev, 1937,” and adding a brief inscription. A small circular photo and caption have been affixed to the left side of card.

AMQS on an off-white 5.5 x 3.5 card. Prokofiev pens three bars of music from “Romeo and Juliet op 64,” signing underneath, “Serge Prokofiev, 1937,” and adding a brief inscription. A small circular photo and caption have been affixed to the left side of card.

Some artistic presentations and performances are simultaneously transformative and authoritative to an original work. After political sabotage, Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet score was allowed to be performed with choreography in 1946 (with protest from the composer). Seventy-three years after its composition, the original work was finally heard with new choreography in 2008. Simon Morrison, the Princeton University professor of music who uncovered the original manuscript in a  Moscow archive said of the score: “I don’t think this version is going to replace the current version which has a history all of its own…. It’s just another chapter in the strange and beguiling history of a masterpiece” (Jones, 2008). Similarly, the current Harvard exhibit presents Rothko masterpieces–literally in new light–in another chapter in the history of its exhibitions. If offered out on tour, will museums prefer to show the originals alone or with projected enhancement?

The digital imaging software and tools used to calibrate the color corrections onto the damaged Rothko paintings. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

The digital imaging software and tools used to calibrate the color corrections onto the damaged Rothko paintings. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Masterpieces can be declared at the time of creation, and more notably, after the passing of time. When Harvard and MIT technologists use light as an inpainting tool, they are actually manipulating the end product of selective blocking and reflecting of white light as it hits the original Rothko. Only the reflected colors contribute to the viewer’s perception of color. Unlike Harvard’s exhibit which uses light to refresh a set of 50-year-old murals, American light artist James Turrell manipulates spaces to “apprehend light for our perception, and in some ways gather it, or seem to hold it” (“James Turrell: Introduction,” 2015). Instead of the perception of a color range, the artist asks viewers to consider perception itself. The National Gallery of Canberra’s 50-year retrospective presents the artist’s body of work with holograms, drawings, prints, photographs, and his signature practice of making art from light; or total darkness. Turrell says, “my work is more about your seeing than it is about my seeing” (“James Turrell: Introduction,” 2015).

James Turrell, Wide Out (Installation), 1998

James Turrell, Wide Out (Installation), 1998

One can imagine that by relying on the consistency of light energy, Turrell’s 50-year old works of art are less affected by the aging effects of time than works of canvas and paint, and that his works need no mediation. However, curatorial creativity prevails and the experience of the work is diversified. Being “skyclad” was another way to experience the exhibition, however the last nude tour of “Light and Perception” was April 2 (“Nude tours of James Turrell…,” 2015). Perhaps the gallery will bring them back if there is enough demand–petition your local nudist club. Or, follow Stuart Ringholt, who holds naturalist tours for various exhibitions (“Stuart Ringholt: News,” n.d.). Ringholt’s naturalist tours contributed to a minimalist experience of the art: the experience was described as “skinny-dipping in the void” and “swimming in a pool of light” (Tan, 2015). The optical effects of light are unique to different bulbs: neon, argon, ultraviolet, fluorescent, LED. Light has enduring and metamorphic qualities, its energy can be projected and refracted. Light perceived as art parallels art authenticity. The physical laws that govern light refraction can be shaped, just as art curation can influence the context within which an artwork is seen.

When we talk about authenticity of experience, reliance on authentic provenance is assumed: authentic condition in an artwork implies an authentic experience for the viewer. However, contextual information is carried through the life of the objects. “Intention and meanings of an artwork are not fixed but change, rooted in the mental and social lives of the ages through which it passes, not in its physical fabric” (Phillips, 1997, p. 3). Similarly, Turrell often cites the Parable of Plato’s Cave to introduce the notion that we are living in a reality of our own creation, subject to our human sensory limitations as well as contextual and cultural norms (“James Turrell: Introduction,” 2015).

The authentic experience may be impossible to recapture. Art curators work to preserve and present masterpieces to extend their life and meaning in changing times. Art relies on its visibility. As individuals, we decide which experiences are essential to us and define our existence. Reflecting on our interactions with art–recordings of engagements at any given point in time–elevate our awareness and the meaning of objects in our lives.


Sheets, H. M. (2014, October 23). A return for Rothko’s Harvard murals. The New York Times. Retrieved from

Jones, A. (2008, July 2). The dictator’s cut: Prokofiev’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’. The Independent. Retrieved from

James Turrell: Introduction. (2015). Retrieved from

Nude tours of James Turrell: A Retrospective with Stuart Ringholt. (2015). Retrieved from

Stuart Ringholt: News. (n.d.). In Milani Gallery. Retrieved April 3, 2015, from

Tan, M. (2015, April 2). Skinny-dipping in the void: the day I toured James Turrell’s art show naked. The Guardian. Retrieved from

Phillips, David (1997). Exhibiting authenticity. Manchester University Press. ISBN 0-7190-4797-8.

Other References:

Exhibitions, Mark Rothko’s Harvard Murals. (2015). Retrieved April 3, 2015, from

Hylton, W. S. (2013, June 13). How James Turrell knocked the art world off its feet. The New York Times Magazine. Retrieved from

Authenticity in art. (n.d.). In Wikipedia. Retrieved April 3, 2015, from

James Turrell: A Retrospective. (2015). Retrieved April 3, 2015, from

Menand, L. (2015, April 1). Watching them turn off the Rothkos. The New Yorker. Retrieved from

Three Oranges, No. 17. (2009, May). This issue of the Prokofiev Archive Journal features Romeo and Juliet.


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