Saturday, November 10, 2012

Rothko Painting Defaced

The fact that a Mark Rothko painting was defaced has been big news, reported by every British newspaper as well as the the BBC. In Rothko's homecountry the Washington Post reported, with horror, that the vandal was still "on the loose", making it sound like it was dangerous to let your children out of your sight with such a maniac at large.
On October 7th a man walked up to the Mark Rothko painting "Black on Maroon" and, with a thick black ink pen, defaced a work held in great reverence, by writing "Vladimir Umanets, 12, A Potential Piece of Yellowism". Cries of outrage were widely issued – how dare anyone vandalize a work from Saint Mark (though, it has to be admitted, with this particular painting experts don't even know which side is up). 

Entering the Rothko space in the Tate Modern is like entering a sacred sanctuary. The pilgrims talk in hushed tones; they gaze at the pictures, like the Eastern Orthodox bowing down and praying before their sacred icons.  The fact that Rothko committed suicide simply adds to his aura.  He must have been touched by the ineffable; his mysterious paintings provide gateways into another realm, an escape from our tedious everyday existence. If you can drag yourself away from your iPhone briefly, and gaze into the depth of Rothko’s paintings, like the priesterly Simon Schama, you too will be saved, for a few moments. That’s why the Rothko space has more worshippers these days than Saint Paul’s cathedral. Never mind that Rothko and his fellow American Abstract Impressionists owed their popularity, and their inflated prices, to the CIA, operating covertly behind their front, the Congress for Cultural Freedom.

The 21st century vandal, was operating in the name of Yellowism, whatever that means. Their manifesto seems as silly as, well, admiring a Rothko painting only to discover later that it was hanging the wrong way round.

What the Yellowist's action has done is simply add another layer to the Rothko mythical narrative. We will no longer simply stare at Rothko’s painting, yearning intently for the promised calmness to embrace us, but we will then take a further moment to look at the bottom right hand corner, to assure ourselves that, once scared by a defacer, it has survived this crucifixion and been resurrected to its former sacred self.


  1. I don't understand or enjoy Rothko's paintings, but the vandalism regarding Black on Maroon begs two important questions:

    1. Why would a vandal purposefully damage an important work of art, unless he was going to become very rich or very infamous? Neither happened in this case.
    2. With all the art thefts and experiences with vandalism in the world, didn't the Tate's security seem very slack?

    1. Hi Hels,

      I actually do really like Rothko's paintings. But I can't stand (as you will have guessed), the silly spiritual posturing that surrounds his work. Regradingf security - public museums simply do not have the budgets to allow high quality security. A great number of paintings in many museums are not even insured, security is nearly always at a low level - which is why most major museums (like the Louvre) cannot afford to have all of their rooms open at the same time - they rotate their guards between the rooms and always keep some of them shut.
      The vandal explains why he did it on one of the links that I included. If you can call it an explanation.