Defaced Mark Rothko work repaired, displayed at Tate Modern
How do you rebuild a Rothko? Slowly and with great care.
London's Tate Modern put Mark Rothko's 1958 mural Black on Maroon back on display Tuesday, more than a year and a half after it was defaced with indelible black ink by a vandal trying to draw attention to an obscure artistic movement.
Tate director Nicholas Serota said he'd had "a sickening feeling" when he learned the large abstract painting had been attacked. But the restoration — which took a team of full-time conservators 18 months — was "far more successful than any of us dared hope."
"The damage has been removed, and what you see is what Rothko painted," he said.
The Russia-born Rothko, who died in 1970, was a leading figure in American abstract painting, renowned for large-scale works featuring bold blocks of colour.
The defaced painting was one of a series intended to decorate the Four Seasons restaurant in New York. Rothko changed his mind about the commission and gave the works to galleries, including the Tate.
Wlodzimierz Umaniec, also known as Vladimir Umanets, received a two-year jail sentence for scrawling his name and "a potential piece of yellowism" on the painting in October 2012 to draw attention to an artistic movement he had co-founded.
Prosecutors said the painting had been valued between £5 million to £9 million (about $9.2 million to $16.5 million Cdn).
Restoration work was especially tricky because Rothko created the painting from layers of oil, pigment, resin, egg and glue. The ink soaked in as far as the back of the canvas, requiring delicate work to remove it.
Conservator Rachel Barker removed the ink with a carefully chosen chemical solvent, looking through a microscope so she could daub away the damage 2 to 3 mm at a time, before doing "a tiny amount of retouching" to the surface.
She said working on the painting had been daunting — and the highlight of her career.
"I came to see these murals as a child," Barker said. "To play a part in caring for them is an extraordinary privilege, but it's my job as well. Yes, I was nervous. But I had a job to do."
It's very important to us not to turn this into a kind of Fort Knox...This is a gallery, not a prison- Nicholas Serota, Tate director
The restored Black on Maroon hangs with several other Rothko murals as part of the gallery's free-to-visit permanent collection. No damage is visible.
It's not the first time an artwork at Tate Modern has been attacked. In 2000, two Chinese performance artists attempted to urinate on Marcel Duchamp's urinal sculpture Fountain.
Serota said the gallery, which attracts 7 million visitors a year, had reviewed its security. He would not elaborate.
"It's very important to us not to turn this into a kind of Fort Knox," he said. "This is a gallery, not a prison."