Watch the Tate Modern Restore Mark Rothko’s Vandalized Painting, Black on Maroon: 18 Months of Work Condensed Into 17 Minutes

“The peo­ple who weep before my pic­tures are hav­ing the same reli­gious expe­ri­ence I had when I paint­ed them. And if you, as you say, are moved only by their col­or rela­tion­ship, then you miss the point.” — Mark Rothko

In 2012, a Russ­ian artist call­ing him­self Vladimir Umanets wrote his name and the words “A poten­tial piece of yel­low­ism” in black mark­er on the cor­ner of Mark Rothko’s 1958 can­vas Black on Maroon. The dam­age to the paint­ing, housed at the Tate Mod­ern since 1970, was sub­stan­tial, and it turned out to be one of the museum’s most chal­leng­ing restora­tion projects, as well as one of its most suc­cess­ful — “far more suc­cess­ful than any of us dared hope,” said Tate direc­tor Nicholas Sero­ta. The paint­ing went back on dis­play in May of 2014.

Due to Rothko’s lay­ered tech­nique, the painting’s “sur­face is real­ly del­i­cate and it turned out that most of the sol­vent sys­tems that could dis­solve and remove the ink could poten­tial­ly dam­age the paint­ing as well.” Patri­cia Smithen, the Tate’s head of con­ser­va­tion, told The Guardian. The video above from the muse­um shows the art and sci­ence that went into restor­ing the famous work, an eigh­teen-month-long process that involved some reverse engi­neer­ing from a can­vas donat­ed by the Rothko fam­i­ly.

Black on Maroon seemed like an odd choice for a protest, as a blog­ger at Art His­to­ry Abroad wrote the fol­low­ing day: “‘Why Rothko?’. His paint­ings [are] 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.” The pres­ence of Black on Maroon and oth­er Sea­gram Murals at the Tate, in fact, mark an act of protest by Rothko him­self (who com­mit­ted sui­cide the day the paint­ings arrived at the Lon­don muse­um).

The Sea­gram Murals were orig­i­nal­ly com­mis­sioned for the Four Sea­sons restau­rant in the Sea­gram build­ing in New York, designed by Mies van der Rohe and Philip John­son. Sev­en paint­ings were com­mis­sioned, Rothko made 30. He report­ed­ly told Harper’s edi­tor John Fis­ch­er he want­ed to cre­ate “some­thing that will ruin the appetite of every son-of-a-bitch who ever eats in that room.” When he final­ly got the chance to dine at the com­plet­ed restau­rant, he was dis­gust­ed, with­drew his work, and returned his com­mis­sion, writ­ing, “it seemed clear to me at once that the two were not for each oth­er.” He spent the next decade think­ing about how and where to dis­play the paint­ings.

Umanets did not seem to care much about the his­to­ry of the murals in the Tate’s Rothko Room and claims his choice had no mean­ing. “I didn’t sin­gle out Rothko to make my state­ment,” he wrote in a pub­lic let­ter of apol­o­gy pub­lished after he spent a year and a half in prison. “I would have done the same had the artist been Damien Hirst or Tracey Emin. It was a spon­ta­neous deci­sion and noth­ing per­son­al.” Like­wise, his Dada-esqe “Man­i­festo of Yel­low­ism” out­lines a pro­gram with a dis­tinct lack of con­cern for speci­fici­ty and a vague­ly satir­i­cal desire to flat­ten art into one col­or, one pur­pose, one mean­ing.

Even as he pub­licly abjured his act of protest (maybe by order of the court?), Umanets also expressed a gen­uine con­cern for the future of art, “Art has become a busi­ness, which appears to serve only the needs of the art mar­ket. As a result the art world no longer has rad­i­cal thinkers and polemi­cists will­ing to scythe new and dif­fer­ent path­ways. Every­one is play­ing safe.” He might have made his point more clear­ly by going after Jeff Koons. Rothko was a rad­i­cal thinker, and his Sea­gram Murals rep­re­sent a final refusal to com­pro­mise with the demands of the art mar­ket.

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

A Short Doc­u­men­tary on Artist Jeff Koons, Nar­rat­ed by Scar­lett Johans­son

Watch an Art Con­ser­va­tor Bring Clas­sic Paint­ings Back to Life in Intrigu­ing­ly Nar­rat­ed Videos

The MoMA Teach­es You How to Paint Like Pol­lock, Rothko, de Koon­ing & Oth­er Abstract Painters

Great Art Explained: Watch 15 Minute Intro­duc­tions to Great Works by Warhol, Rothko, Kahlo, Picas­so & More

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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