8 Oct 2012

Rothko attack was act of ‘yellowism’, says artist

The man who defaced Mark Rothko’s Black on Maroon painting says he was acting on behalf of the yellowism movement. But how often is art attacked, and can it be restored? Chanel 4 News investigates.

Visitors to the Tate Modern on Sunday afternoon were in for a shock when a man, thought to be in his late 20s, walked up to Mark Rothko’s Black on Maroon (1958) and scribbled a tag in the bottom right hand corner before walking away.

Vladimir Umanets, who says he is co-founder of an artistic movement he calls yellowism, has owned up to the act and says he expects to be arrested. Scotland Yard is on the case.

But Mr Umanets sees himself as artist rather than criminal, and says his act was an expression of the movement he represents. “The main difference between yellowism and art is that in art you have got freedom of interpretation. In yellowism you don’t have freedom of interpretation, everything is about yellowism, that’s it,” he told newswires.

The words he scrawled with either a black marker or paint appear to read “Vladimir” and “a potential piece of yellowism.” And regardless of the ethics of his act, it has garnered him huge amounts of media attention.

The Tate Modern has said it does not have a price for the defaced piece. Another Rothko painting, Orange, Red, Yellow, sold for almost $87m at auction in New York – among the highest for a piece of contemporary art.

Gallery: Art attacks, from Rothko to Rembrandt

Previous art attacks

Mark Rothko’s Seagram murals [pictured top] are among the Tate Modern’s most prized paintings. They were gifted to the gallery by the artist himself in 1969 – the year before he died – under the instruction that they be displayed “as an immersive environment”.

The Tate Modern welcomes around 240,000 visitors, for no charge, each year, and acts of “art vandalism” are not unusual. In 2000, two Chinese performance artists attempted to urinate on Marcel Duchamp’s urinal sculpture Fountain, while a recent incident saw small stickers mysteriously appear on paintings and sculptures around the gallery.

In the wider art world, there have been numerous incidents of attacks on art, and often, as in the case of Vladimir Umanets, they are driven by the perpetrator’s own artistic vision. One recent incident occurred when Tracey Emin’s installation, My Bed, was jumped on by Yuan Chai and Jian Jun Xi while on display at Tate Britain in 1999.

Older pieces have also been victim to attack, such as Leonardo da Vinci’s Burlington House Cartoon which was shot at in 1987 and Valasquez’s Venus with the Mirror which was subject to a political attack by the suffragette Mary Richardson.


However in most cases, including the defacement of Rothko’s Black on Maroon, it will be possible to restore the artwork. Most major galleries, including the Tate Modern, have a department dedicated to restoring art with top of the range X-ray machines and spectral analysis equipment that can break down the art work into layers and see what needs to be cleaned.

Tate Modern has released no details about the type of ink or paint used on Black on Maroon, but art restorer Peter Schmidt said it is likely that the whole painting will need to be cleaned.

“You will have varnish over the whole painting. If you just clean that area, there will be a mark in that area. Depending on the type of varnish, it might be sitting on top, which will be easier. But there is no magic sponge,” he told Channel 4 News.

Most of Mr Schmidt’s work is for commercial clients. Paintings need restored if they have been aged – or occasionally if an artwork falls victim to a disagreement among a couple. “I’ve had paintings that were slashed in a dispute,” he said. “A knife went through one person’s favourite painting.”

The artist’s children, Kate Rothko Prizel and Christopher Rothko, said in a statement that they were “greatly troubled” by the incident, but confident the Tate would do everything it could to remedy the situation.

It should be possible to restore Black on Maroon to its former glory, added Mr Schmidt: “With reservations, you can repair most damage. There’s almost always a way of doing it.”