by Natasha Khandekar
Recently, I had the opportunity to interview my husband and colleague, Narayan Khandekar. Narayan has a Ph.D. in organic chemistry from Melbourne University and a Post-graduate Diploma in the Conservation of Easel Paintings from the Courtauld Institute of Art. He has worked at the Hamilton Kerr Institute, Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge University; Melbourne University Gallery; and the Museum Research Laboratory, Getty Conservation Institute. He is currently Senior Conservation Scientist in the Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies, Harvard Art Museums and Lecturer on the History of Art and Architecture, Harvard University.
Your career trajectory is very diverse. Can you tell us about your move from a chemistry educational background to your profession as a conservation scientist? And importantly what inspired you to begin thinking about art.
Education in Australia leads you to a science or humanities path early on in high school. I found that I had a knack for organic chemistry, so it was only natural that I study it at university. Growing up in Canberra, I distinctly remember the opening of the National Gallery of Australia in 1982. I remember being blown away by the amazing paintings by Jackson Pollock, Roy Lichtenstein, Jim Dine, Andy Warhol, and sculptures by Sol Lewitt, Marcel Duchamp and Robert Smithson—impressions still with me today. I wanted to understand these works of art and why we value them. They were mysterious to me and I was curious. I found myself spending a lot of my spare time visiting galleries. By the time I was halfway through my PhD in organic chemistry, I knew I wanted to find a way to combine chemistry and art in some way, and conservation of cultural material seemed the obvious path. I then moved to London to study conservation for the next three years. Subsequently I have been able to work as a conservation scientist.
One of your first conservation projects was on an outdoor sculpture in Melbourne, Australia. Did this give you an appreciation for the field of conservation in the outdoor public sector?
My first paid conservation job was to assist in the cleaning of the outdoor sculpture of The Honorable George Higinbotham outside the Treasury Building in Melbourne. The amount of contact with the public and the amount of time I spent answering questions made me realize that people are very engaged with public art. Everyone I had spoken to at the time had heard about the project, had passed by, and was interested in the details about what was going on. Further to thinking about art and the public, within the new Harvard Art Museums, the conservation department is visible to the public; and the process of treating the museum objects is now a transparent process, in every sense.
Collaboration and exchange of research and information is something that you have founded your work upon. Can you speak to us about your recent collaborative projects?
All my projects are collaborative in one way or another. Bringing experts together and listening carefully is the best way to gain an all around understanding of a problem and come up with a solution. The novel approach we have used to restore Mark Rothko’s Harvard Murals is a good example of collaboration, which I will talk about further in a moment. Our study of Australian Aboriginal bark paintings is another team project. Currently we are analyzing the pigments and binders and are also speaking to artists, museum curators, conservators and art center coordinators to inform our study. We could not have carried out this project if we were not able to collaborate with our colleagues, have discourse, listen to their critique, and use all of the feedback to make our research stronger. Another example is the restoration of the J.S. Sargent murals in the Boston Public Library. The publication coinciding with the project showcased the teamwork that was carried out by art historians, conservators, and conservation scientists. In addition, on most projects, when we have the opportunity to publish, there are multiple authors reflecting the many valuable and original voices of each of our colleagues.
Conservators, scientists, and art historians all bring a specific way of looking at art to the table. Your work has often focused on the importance of bringing these disciplines together. Can you speak to us about what you have found to be most valuable in these partnerships?
Each discipline brings its own point of view. There is no one right way to look at a work of art, and I learn the most when I listen to what others have to say. When we all work together the different viewpoints are complimentary and enhance our understanding of a work. Viewers of works of art all have different perspectives, so understanding a work of art in many different ways helps to engage a wide audience.
The Rothko Murals have been in the press quite a bit. It is very exciting to think about the upcoming opening of the exhibition at the Harvard Art Museums. In speaking of earlier collaborations, this project certainly included the research and efforts of many. Can you let our readers know the history of the project?
The Harvard murals were what Rothko described as “an image for a public place”; however, they changed significantly from their original appearance through exposure to sunlight, because of the fading of the fugitive pigment lithol red, which was used extensively. Because of the delicate surface of the paintings we knew that if we used traditional conservation techniques then the surfaces would be altered irreversibly. We decided to use light as a retouching tool, which has the advantage of being completely reversible and non-invasive. We collaborated with Rudolf Gschwind at the University of Basel to digitally restore Ektachrome transparencies from 1964, and to get the final color corrected we used unfaded passages from a completed but uninstalled panel belonging to the Rothko family. In collaboration with the Ramesh Raskar in the Camera Culture Group of MIT’s Media Lab my colleague Jens Stenger developed software to create a compensation image that is essentially a map of the faded color. When the compensation image is aligned and projected onto the actual mural it combines with the existing color to give the visual appearance of the painting as it was in 1964. The lighting in the room is carefully controlled so as not to cause further fading of the paintings. This is the first time that this technology has been used specifically to restore the appearance of a painting and it provides one more tool in the restorers’ bag of tricks. Like all the other projects, it is a collaborative work from beginning to end. The team includes: Jens Stenger, Carol Mancusi-Ungaro, Mary Schneider Enriquez, Christina Rosenberger, and myself. It is very exciting to bring together diverse experts to work towards a common goal, and in this case the public are richer for it in having access to what had previously been thought to be lost.
Mark Rothko’s Harvard Murals will be open to the public Nov. 16, 2014 - July 26, 2015