Please Resist Ruining The Rothko
I write about the recent vandalism the Mark Rothko painting Black on Maroon (1958) with some ambivalence, [i]not because it isn’t worthy of consideration, but because I don’t want to give the perpetrator more attention. However, the Rothko incident prompted me to consider questions, regarding agency, ownership, responsibility, originality, and the responsibility of museum staff.
At around 3:30 on Sunday October 7, Vladimir Umanets entered into the Rothko gallery at the Tate Modern, and in the presence of some museum visitors, inscribed, “Vladimir Umanets a potential piece of yellowism” with paint, or a marker, or a paint marker. The Yellowists are comprised of Umanets and Marcin Lodyga. Perhaps Umanets was galvanized by the attention given to Pussy Riot, or the art St. Petersberg-based Viona Group. I tried in vain to look-up their manifesto– the Yellowist web site is apparently down. Umanets told the press that he was making an artistic statement about challenging perceptions not unlike Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain (1917), adding that Duchamp himself would have approved of this subversive action. [ii]Really Mr. Umanets?
I am fairly certain Umanets could not have appreciated the sad irony in choosing this Rothko, one of several in at the Tate. First of all, it arrived at the museum on the very day that Rothko committed suicide. Secondly, Black on Maroon, (1958) was part of Rothko’s ill-fated mural series for the Four Seasons Restaurant, located in Joseph Seagram and Sons new headquarters on Park Avenue. The commission prompted an existential crisis for the artist, which resulted in him ultimately declining to deliver the works, thus refusing a remarkable sum of money, and obliging him to return the advance. The mercurial Rothko ultimately decided that he did not want his murals to be mere icing on the Apollonian Van der Johnson cake.
In an October 12 Washington Post article by Kriston Capps, “Can you destroy a Rothko painting that is available everywhere?” [iii]Capps dismisses the potential seriousness of the vandalism by suggesting that even if the painting was irreparably damaged, because there are numerous photographic reproductions, it would still exist in a manner that was equivocal. It wouldn’t. You cannot reproduce a Rothko. Even disregarding the absence of texture and surface, scale is critical to Rothko’s work; more importantly, a Rothko painting is experiential, it envelops the viewer. It was the transcendental quality of Rothko’s work that secured him the commission from John and Dominique de Menil, for a series of paintings to be housed in the non-denominational chapel at the University of St. Thomas in Houston. [iv]Remember that scene in front of Georges Seruat’s, Sunday on the Island of the Grande Jatte (1884) in Ferris Buller’s Day Off?[v] To stand in front of a Rothko is similarly moving experience, but without The Smith’s instrumental music, though it would be well-suited accompaniment for a Rothko.
This incident reminded me of other acts of vandalism perpetrated on hapless paintings. Recall the 12 year old boy who stuck a piece of gum onto Helen Frankenthaler’s The Bay (1963), in the Detroit Institute of Arts [vi]late February of 2006, or Carmen Tisch [vii]who in December 2011, attacked with her tush, 1957-J-No. 2 (1957) at the Clifford Still Museum in Denver.
How does one manage to cause literally millions of dollars in damage during regular museum hours? On two recent occassions, museum guards at the Art Institute of Chicago informed me that I was not allowed to sketch. The first time I responded, “Alright, then, I’ll just look at it really really intensely.” This would seem an absurd statement, however I was twice admonished by a surly Guggenheim employee, for looking too closely at a Wassily Kandinsky painting. Umanets performed his act in front of museum patrons, one of whom, Tim Wright, immediately posted an image of the graffiti on Twitter. I can’t manage to doodle a Lichtenstein or ogle a Kandinsky without consequences.
Admission to the Tate’s permanent collection is free, which might increase the likelihood of such antics, but admission to the Clifford Still Museum is $10. How is it that Tisch, described repeatedly as visibly intoxicated, somehow managed to pay admission, find her way into a gallery, hit the painting several times, rub her buttocks on it, then attempt to urinate on it before any museum staff or patrons stopped her? Open less than two months, the Still Museum staff should have been operating according to strict procedure.
Our homegrown anonymous gum depositor was an adolescent, Tisch was hopped-up on alcohol and/or bath salts, but Umanets declared his act to be an artistic (or anti-artistic) statement. The vandalization of a work of art is neither brilliant nor unique. While items displayed in museum are available for the public, they are not props to be subjected to the whims of a sophomoric art punk. Vladimir Umanets, you are no Marcel Duchamp.