Tate Modern returns Mark Rothko's Black on Maroon 1958 to gallery after graffiti removal

By Culture24 Reporter | 13 May 2014

The Mark Rothko painting damaged by a graffiti-scribbling intruder in 2012 has gone back on public display after a clever conservation project

A photo of a woman looking at a painting inside an art gallery
Mark Rothko's Black on Maroon 1958 returns to Tate Modern© Kate Rothko Prizel / Christopher Rothko / DACS 2014
If blogger Wlodzimierz Umaniec’s defacement of Mark Rothko’s Black on Maroon 1958, in October 2012, was described by shocked onlookers as a calm and uncomplicated act, then the project to all-but restore the painting has been an incredibly intricate and emotive one for the conservators who returned the work to public view at Tate Modern today.

The science involved deciding the solubility of the ink used by Umaniec to write the message, A Potential Piece of Yellowism, which earned a two-year prison sentence for the unwanted visitor. Rothko’s technique of building multiple thin layers into a whole was recreated on a new surface, which was moved into an environmental accelerated ageing chamber to hasten its development.

A photo of graffiti on a dark red painting
© Kate Rothko Prizel / Christopher Rothko / DACS 2014
“My own reading of Rothko’s painting techniques is that he was primarily after an emotional response, and that, therefore, perhaps information that is intellectual, such as material composition, could be a distraction,” mused Bronwyn Ormsby, a Conservation Scientist who advised the initial nine months of research following the damage, discussing the mystery of precisely unravelling Rothko’s procedures.

“But from my perspective I find delving deeply into the material as mystifying and as beautiful as standing two feet away from the painting.

“I was very nervous about getting closed to it but I’m pleased to say that the painting does look really good in the gallery space under the gallery lights.”

Ormsby admitted the reproduction of the graffiti, using a similar amount of ink, was “untried and untested”. The paint was magnified 500 times in 3D analysis. Once the painting began to be tended to, during the second nine months of the cycle, the team faced a dilemma between leaving more ink on the painting and going deeper at the expense of more paint.

“When ink was applied to the bottom right corner of this painting it not only destroyed one painting, it destroyed a whole group of paintings,” said Patricia Smithen, Tate’s Head of Conservation.

“This painting is one of a series of nine at Tate. It’s incredibly important to remove this ink because it destroys the integrity of the whole series.

“I’m hoping that they [visitors] won’t be able to see it – I’m hoping that it will be invisible in gallery lighting.”

A plan to use suction techniques, pulling ink through the back and out of the canvas, was abandoned in February due to the number of solvents involved. Rothko is known for combining oils, pigments, colourants, resins, egg and glues, and a blend of benzyl alcohol and ethyl lactate turned out to provide the answer.

“Because we didn’t know how Rothko made his work we had to make a representative sample which had a layer structure similar to the painting,” said Rachel Baker, the Paintings Conservator at the gallery.

“It was a great moment removing that last remnant of ink, but then I had to start considering the huge task of retouching the painting.

“It was absolutely terrifying seeing the painting hung in the gallery and getting a sense of how the public would see the painting.”

Rothko’s son, Christopher, was consulted by Tate on the painting, which is one of the Seagram murals donated to the gallery by the artist in 1970. The family even donated a canvas to assist the testing process.

Upon seeing the restoration taking shape, Nicholas Serota, the Director of Tate, offered Baker and Ormsby a hug.

“Looking after its collection, Tate has a conservation team that is one of the best in the world,” he said.

“Their expertise, rigour, patient work and respect for the painting has enabled us to return it to public view, as envisaged by Mark Rothko.”

  • On display on Level 3, Mark Rothko (Room 6). Admission free.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

A photo of a woman walking through an art gallery
© Kate Rothko Prizel / Christopher Rothko / DACS 2014
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