Curating Media Coverage of the Rothko Incident

Curating Media Coverage of the Rothko Incident

Today, BBC News (and others) reported that the Rothko painting defaced by Vladimir Umanets at the Tate Modern will take “up to 18 months to repair.”  Tomorrow, Vladimir Umanets is scheduled to be sentenced by London’s Crown Court for criminal damage to the Rothko.  At first this feels like a very standard slice of the news cycle.  However, not a single press report today mentioned that Umanets is being sentenced tomorrow, despite it being published on the court’s website.  That is some very savvy and cynical media management by the Tate.

First, from this morning’s BBC radio report:

Presenter:  Will, I used the word vandalised.  I think his explanation was rather different.  It was part of the Yellowism movement.  Is that right?
Arts Editor:  I think vandalism was probably the right word to use Sarah.  He’s caused significant damage.

That was Will Gompertz, the BBC’s arts editor but also the former director of Tate Media, not exactly a disinterested observer.

In fact the closer you look at the story, the clearer it becomes the Tate and the wider art establishment has made a clear push to control media discourse on the Rothko incident.  The current bout of media coverage is less forgiving than the first, in headlines “damage” and “defacement” have been replaced by the more charged word “vandalism.”  The Tate says the painting will take longer than expected to fix, and the implication is that Umanets has committed a crime more grievous than was first perceivable.

Keep your eye on the painting

In pre-empting tomorrow’s court sentencing, the Tate has shortened the news story’s shelf life, as most editors will be reluctant to publish two updates on an old story two days in a row.  If Umanets gets a lenient sentence tomorrow he will get less prominent coverage, and that coverage will get less of an audience.  More importantly, if Umanets gets a harsh sentence, say two years, the very human story of a man being imprisoned will be told against the backdrop of his crime, brightly recounted the day before.  Whatever prison time he is given, it will invariably be compared to the putative 18 month restoration period.

But how long does it take to fix a painting?  It can take days or it can take years, the answer depends on what level of accuracy you want in the recreation.  It also depends on whether you value the idea behind the image, or the materiality of the painting.  The restorers at the Tate did not discover a job that would take 18 months, they decided it.

As far as the art establishment is concerned, this story must remain a story about a crime, and not be allowed to evolve into a debate about the nature and value of art.  Likewise it must remain a story about Rothko the artefact, and cannot descend into a story about people, least of all the unfortunate Pole who, sick of spending years at the fringes of the art world, made the one gesture he could think of that would get the attention he craved.  But fascinatingly, it cannot even be allowed to turn into a story about Rothko, the artist behind it all.

Rothko painted Black on Maroon as part of a set of murals on commission for the upmarket Four Season restaurant, in New York’s Seagram Building, home to three investment banks.  The murals were influenced by Michelangelo’s Laurentian Library.  Rothko wrote that the library, with its blocked windows and deliberately oppressive atmosphere, achieved “just the kind of feeling I’m after” as it “makes the viewers feel that they are trapped in a room where all the doors and windows are bricked up.”  In other words, the paintings were intended as a gigantic “Fuck You” to the moneyed elites of New York.

Rothko never delivered the paintings to the Seagram.  His reasoning remains a mystery, but Jonathan Jones argued in his excellent essay that Rothko feared his message would be lost in the opulent setting of the Four Seasons.  He feared that the moneyed elites he was targeting would instead appropriate his work and use it to demonstrate and recreate their status and prestige.  Instead he gifted the paintings to London’s Tate Modern in perpetuity.  The morning the paintings arrived in London, Rothko took his own life.

The moneyed elites still managed to appropriate Rothko’s work as a vehicle for building and exchanging cultural status.  In May “a Rothko” sold for $87 million, last week another sold for $75 million.  The paintings names are nearly irrelevant (they tend to just be colours and numbers anyway), all that matters is the Rothko brand.  Abstract paintings make great commodities, their very abstraction ensures an individual work does not need to be evaluated on its own merits.  The deep, blocky colours offer sheikhs and oligarchs a blank canvas to paint their own sense of sophistication and privilege.


As curator Stacy Boldrick told The Boston Globe’s Chris Wright, there is nothing new about the destruction of art.  Britain and Europe have a rich tradition attacking art as a means of rejecting religious and political authority.  “It’s about power,” says Boldrick, “the struggle over ownership of these images.”  Wright gives a litany of more recent examples of attacks on art:

In the modern era, some acts of defacement have come to be seen as more defensible than others. When the suffragette Mary Richardson hacked Velazquez’s “Rokeby Venus” in 1914, she did so in the name of protest, and today her act is viewed with more sympathy than, say, that of Pietro Cannata, the Italian painter who took a hammer to the toe of Michelangelo’s “David” in 1991, and who had no discernible reason for doing so.

It’s only relatively recently that these attacks have been perpetrated in the name of art itself. In 1974, a young artist named Tony Shafrazi walked into New York’s MoMA and sprayed “Kill Lies All” on Picasso’s “Guernica,” calling this an “art action.” In 1994, an artist named Mark Bridger expressed himself by pouring ink into a Damien Hirst tank containing a pickled sheep. In 1996, at MoMA again, an art student vomited onto a Mondrian as part of a performance piece he called “Responding to Art.” Earlier this year, a Houston street artist tagged a Picasso at the Menil Collection.

Material art is the least democratic of the arts.  Literature and poetry can be learned and republished, music can be shared and copied, film can be snuck out of the cinema on a camcorder, photographs can be reprinted, and performance art can be rehearsed and reenacted.  All can be experienced but never owned.  In all cases, the art is recognised as something ephemeral, a set of ideas and emotions, and the artwork is merely a single representation of that art.  But material art, the art of paintings and sculpture, is different.  Unlike other art forms, material artworks can be divided neatly between originals and copies.  With that division comes a natural hierarchy, and with that hierarchy comes commodification.  The original is imbued with an aura, a meaning, a vaguely spiritual layer of value that is supported and reproduced with the cooperation of artist, curator, dealer, and investor.

Gompertz elevates the materiality of the Rothko painting to that of a sacred, wounded creature:

The ink from the pen has bled all the way through the canvas causing a deep wound, not a superficial graze.

He then describes it as if it was a fantastic, alchemic contraption, built very precisely on principles only the original creator understood:

The conservators are going to have to remove the paint, layer after layer after layer in a meticulous fashion, and then rebuild it, very very difficult because Rothko’s materials were strange.  He didn’t just use oil paints, he added artificial resin to it, he added eggs to it, he added all sorts of things, and then they’re going to have to build it up, to repair it, and make it look as if nothing had ever happened to it.

Every object has a physical biography, a long life, from the first draft through to the finishing touches and grand unveiling, and onwards to a long, interminable decay and, ultimately, destruction.  The object also has a mental biography, a biography of perception, it gathers meaning as it is associated with the initial critical reception, the artist’s wider work, exhibitions, the first buyer, and all the speculation and reevaluation that comes with the art market.  The market value is based on the dubious premise that the physical biography of an object can be frozen in time, while the mental biography will continue to grow over time, accumulating ever more status and value.

The truth is, if Rothko had made a slightly different decision for his final brush stroke, the painting would still essentially be the same piece, because the true art is the idea behind the painting.  The painting does not need to be recreated atom-by-atom to exactly the form it held two months ago, it simply needs to repainted in the spirit of the work.  In this case the spirit of the work was a blocky, uncaring, black-on-maroon defiance of the elites.

*Update: On 22 November the sentencing was delayed on a technicality until 13 December, when Umanets was sentenced to two years in prison.

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