Meet Katherine Van Kirk, the 2016 Chen-Yang Fellow


Katherine photographing Window


Meet Katherine Van Kirk, a Stanford student who started working in the Art+Science Learning Lab at the Cantor last summer as the 2016 Chen-Yang Fellow. Her work is learning to tackle the complex, nuanced subject of discovering and analyzing paintings beneath paintings using infrared and x-ray technology.


When Katherine first started out as an Art+Science Learning Lab Fellow, she only knew that she wanted to bring her passion and knowledge for physics to the world of art in order to contribute to the world of art history. To see beyond the visible spectrum of light and color (red, blue, purple — everything we know as color and light), she used a modified camera, able to see infrared light, to take pictures of different paintings in the collection. With hopes of discovering underdrawings or even completely alternate designs beneath paintings, she set to work.


Katherine with representatives from Bank of America and Sal Pizarro from San Jose Mercury News

The entire summer was spent examining artwork, procuring filters for cameras, consulting scientists and staff, engaging preparators to bring different paintings to the lab, and much more — and she enjoyed every minute of it. But it wasn’t long before Katherine  made an absolutely huge discovery — after examining the renowned artist Richard Diebenkorn’s Window, one of the Cantor’s most prized pieces, she discovered that there may be a completely alternate composition underneath the finished painting. Her discovery has generated enormous buzz both in the Stanford and wider art communities — so much so, that Bank of America awarded Cantor a grant for further research (read more about it here, at the official press release for the grant!). The new grant from Bank of America has provided funding for the Art+Science Learning Lab to purchase a new, state-of-the-art camera to do in-depth analysis, to offer travel funds for training and connecting with conservation scientists and conservators, and to put together an exciting, didactic installation to highlight her project. Now, Katherine is exploring other works in the collection to learn to use the camera we purchased with the grant.


Katherine and radiologist Kerstin Mueller at Stanford Hospital x-raying Window!

All throughout the summer and ever since, she’s been using various filtering techniques to obtain better infrared images of said composition towards the goal of a better  understanding of Diebenkorn’s working process. It could also assist any future conservation treatments by understanding its complex structure. Katherine worked with Cantor staff  to gain permission to help coordinate the painting’s transportation of the painting to Stanford Hospital, where dozens of x-ray films were taken of this gigantic painting. Including the x-ray films and camera images, Katherine’s sifted through over 100 images to stitch together a concrete idea of what design lies underneath Window — and still has many hours of work ahead.
Next in this whole process, Katherine plans to work with scientists and curators across the nation, using the project as an opportunity to foster discussion, community, and above all, join in on the excitement with other curators and conservators across the country who are involved in this and similar projects. Window is currently out on loan in the Diebenkorn & Matisse show, and Katherine’s work will continue after its return.

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