Behind the Scenes: Art & Music at Harvard

Ancient Pigments

Thursday after work I was in the conservation labs of the Harvard Art Museum.  The director, Narayan Khandekar,  was discussing the Forbes legendary collection of pigment examples used throughout history.

Essentially a chemist who loves art, Narayan devotes large amounts of time to scientifically analyzing pigments.  He compares his work to that of a detective, or forensic scientist.  Although this collection comprises nearly every pigment used through to prehistoric times, somehow there wasn’t any indigo blue.

These new indigo samples are glorious, though soon after they were acquired a small stash was found in a storage box.

Dragon’s Blood

Despite the name Dragon’s Blood Red, the color does not come from a dragon.  Sap collected from rattan palms form the derivative substance that creates Dragon’s Blood.  A gorgeous red, this organic color fades readily as can be seen with the older brown sample next a fresh jar of color.

Plant specimens used for dying fabrics are also contained in jars. Some were gathered by a weaver who makes his own dyes.  Although foraging plants to dye yarn seems difficult enough before weaving, before that, the dyer/weaver has first to gather, clean & spin the wool.  It’s complicated!

Modern Pigments

Narayan has been rebuilding the collection to also include modern pigments so as to better analyze modern & contemporary art.   Analyzing new pigments is important.  With this information an early Jackson Pollack proved to be a fake when it was discovered the red had been invented in the 1970’s.   And nowadays artists use anything they can think of,…bits of plastic, ceramics, insects, food, and any material you can think of!  He mentions that in preparation for a show last year he discovered that aboriginal artists incorporate a variety of blacks, including one found inside used batteries.

New Black

An extraordinary new black mineral pigment has been invented.  Vantablack absorbs 99.965% of light and is the blackest black in existence! Oddly it cannot be used as artist pigment for anyone but artist Anish Kapoor, who holds an exclusive license from the manufacturer.  This infuriates many artists, nonetheless the substance was invented for technological applications and used in aerospace & for defense.  This photograph shows it grown on scrunched up aluminum foil.  The Vantablack substance absorbs so much light that the wrinkled foil on which it sits, looks like flat black!

Mel Bochner

Next we examined the work of Mel Bochner.   His inky black print is so deeply black that I wonder how Mr. Kapoor’s creations compare.  This Bochner Range example from 1975 was created with Japanese felt-tip pens, in black & red.  Check out the pattern these numbers create.  Over decades, unfortunately for those who enjoyed admiring this series hung on the wall, the red felt tip pen pigment has proven fugitive and disappeared from the paper.  The hanging Japanese brushes used in the paper restoration lab, seem themselves like an art installation.  Behind the scenes exploring is such fun!


“Create Art and Live It”

Afterwards I met a friend at the Signet Society.  In honor of their newly restored 19th century Steinway, the Society hosted a concert. To celebrate we heard a senior perform Rachmaninoff in honor of his father who worked at Sikorsky Helicopters.  Apparently Rachmaninoff provided the funds Sikorsky needed to get his business of the ground.  The student also brilliantly performed Ravel and will be pursuing a career as a professional pianist.  Associate members then played original compositions of jazz and humorous show tunes. The evening topped off with a great American song written by Randy Newman.  The pomegranate lemonade and homemade chocolates were yummy.  When the concert ended I enjoyed discussions with associates, including a scholar who just returned from Palestine hoping to woo the Aspen Institute to establish an office there.  Stay tuned for more on the Signet Society as I spend time there in the spring.





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