Yesterday afternoon I received a phone call from a friend and fellow art lover exclaiming “we have just been evacuated from Tate Modern because someone has defaced a Rothko!”. It was a rather exciting yet upsetting piece of news yet the first thing that came to mind was “why Rothko?”, his paintings often criticised by those who don’t favour their abstraction, but rarely deemed politically or socially motivated to a point that they might provoke vandalism. It now transpires that there was no distinct reason, but that Vladimir Umanets, co-founder of a contemporary movement in Russia named ‘Yellowism’, believes he found “the perfect choice” after arriving in the gallery with intent to write on a painting but without a plan of which painting it would be.
The canvas in question, Black on Maroon, was painted in 1958 as part of Rothko’s Seagram murals, which were intended for Manhattan’s Four Seasons Restaurant but were instead presented to the Tate by the artist in the late 1960s. On the same day that they were received by the gallery in 1970, the death of the artist was announced. The paintings in the series all use the same sombre palette of dark reds and black, and adopt the compositional feature of uniform rectangular patches. They are displayed together in Tate’s Rothko Room.
Umanets, who has admitted to the act but denies he is a vandal, believes the writing, which says ‘a potential piece of Yellowism’, has “added value” to the piece but the public have been quick to demonstrate their disgust via social media, as one BBC journalist tweets “The defacing of the Rothko is not a work of art – Duchampian or otherwise – it is an act of vandalism.”. However one cynical comic commented, “Defacing Rothko painting more difficult than painting it”.
Some have already formed the opinion that ‘it could be worse’, especially when compared to a woman punching, wiping her bare bottom and attempting to urinate on a $40m Clifford Still in 2011, or the man who in 1972 took a hammer to Michelangelo’s Pieta in belief that he was Christ himself.
This incident reminds me of something I once read about the artist Edvard Munch, whose life works incidentally are currently on display in the same building. He had expressed the wish for his paintings to live organic lives – to be taken wherever they must be taken and to display the effect of the journey on their physicality, rejecting any conservation and restoration. An art historian commented at a time of similar outrage, when the Scream was famously stolen from Oslo’s Munch Museet, that perhaps the artist would have been quite excited by the event! Yet however there is something much more upsetting, disturbing and offensive about scribbling over an artist’s completed work than the theft of a canvas in tact. Despite his best intentions, it appears to me that Mr Umanets might be just a little mad, and has only wasted his and the gallery’s time. Fortunately, Tate announced today that the work can be fully restored.