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Vandalism and Art

Mark Rothko: Untitled (Black on Maroon).

Vandalism and its Legacy
Rachel Barker, Bronwyn Ormsby, Melinda Keefe and Scott Wills

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1Rothko’s ‘Untitled, Black on Maroon’ 1958 was vandalised on the 7th October 2012. A moment later a Tate visitor posted an image of the vandalised painting on Twitter. "We heard the sound of a pen, but by the time we turned around he was pretty much finished with his tag," said Tim Wright, who was with his girlfriend on a weekend visit to London from Bristol. "The pen ink then just dripped down the painting. Once we realised what had happened, we went to find a member of staff. They were really shocked when they came and saw what he had done." Quinn 2012.


Fig. 1 Untitled (Black on Maroon) by Mark Rothko

Fig. 1 Untitled (Black on Maroon) by Mark Rothko

Untitled (Black on Maroon), 1958 (Tate, T01170).

Credits: Tate. © Kate Rothko Prizel and Christopher Rothko 2012

3Squeezing a tag pen with force, black ink flowed from its felt nib and penetrated the delicate, absorbent surface of Rothko’s painting, staining, soaking, dripping, and drying in place very quickly. The vandal’s message spoke of possession and entitlement. This was inarguably vandalism, disguised as a declaration of ‘Yellowism’, a modern day evocation of Marcel Duchamp’s Dada thesis; “The creative act is not performed by the artist alone; the spectator brings the work in contact with the external world by deciphering and interpreting its inner qualifications and thus adds his contribution to the creative act.” 

Fig.2 Vandalized Untitled (Black on Maroon)

Fig.2 Vandalized Untitled (Black on Maroon)

Detail of the affected area on T01170.

Credits: Tate. © Kate Rothko Prizel and Christopher Rothko 2013

4Despite a natural desire to remove the ink so as to discourage further acts of this nature, the act also naturally provoked questions on appropriateness of reversal; was this quasi-Duchampian act a valid gesture worth retention?

5Only hours after the event was reported by the British Press, artist’s came forward to decry this as an act of pure defacement. The public were reassured by celebrated sculptor Anish Kapoor, who asserted his view that it was ”a stupid act of vandalism’… ”There is a big difference between being a radical and being a vandal and acts of vandalism are simply that… there is no symbolic value in it at all”.

6This act of ‘adding to’ the surface of one of the Seagram Murals had ricocheted throughout the Seagram Room at Tate Modern, interrupting the viewer’s ability to experience the nuanced visual relationships between all nine of the Seagram Murals. These works are a carefully chosen ensemble of paintings selected for a specific environment, originally envisaged by Rothko and then Director of Tate, Sir Norman Reid. The colour of the walls and level of lighting was stipulated as critical to evoking the appropriate environment for experiencing the works. Whilst the configurations of the paintings could be changed, depending of curatorial taste and vision, the effect is always the same, one of miraculous pictorial and experiential harmony. The interrelatedness of each mural is dependent of an equality of attention being cast on each panel by the viewer. So, only the successful reversal of this vandalism would facilitate the viewer experiencing, without interference, the whole ensemble once more.

7Consensus of expert opinion was that the vandalism should be reversed and Rothko’s surface recovered.

8Tate responded to this act as quickly and professionally as possible. After the incident was reported, Tate Modern went into security shutdown but the perpetrator had already exited the building. The then Head of Conservation for Programme, Patricia Smithen, arrived within an hour and carried out a spot test on the ink to test its solubility. By then however the ink had dried and formed a hard, glossy, black stain and surface crust of lettering, covering an area of the painting approximately 70cm x 70cm.

9The next day Tate’s Principal Conservation Scientist, Bronwyn Ormsby, extracted a sample of the graffiti ink from the surface of the painting for analysis, which began a process of investigation that is still ongoing, involving a number of scientists from within and outside of conservation, and in particular scientists based at the Dow Chemical Company, who had been collaborating with Tate since 2008, on various modern paint research initiatives.

10When in police custody the perpetrator was found to be carrying the ink and tag pen that had been used in the incident. Images of these materials, taken by the police, were emailed to Tate and samples were ordered. What followed were a series of parallel analytical investigations into the ink and the painting, and the solubility of the ink was explored by scientists at the Dow Chemical Company to help identify a selection of organic solvents to be evaluated as part of the ink removal strategy (Ormsby et al, 2014).

11A treatment team was set up including Rachel Barker, an experienced conservator of modern paintings, Bronwyn Ormsby, Principal Conservation Scientist and Patricia Smithen, Head of Conservation, Programme. This team, was responsible for the research and treatment aspects of the project.

12In parallel to the scientific investigations, a mock-up of the painting was made to support the development of a graffiti-ink reversal strategy. Fortunately, Tate had previously completed a number of analytical campaigns, as well as art historical and technical art historical research on the Seagram Murals. Whilst this provided information about how we might attempt to represent the painting’s structure in mock-up form, further research, into the painting including new cross section extraction and examination, and further pigment and medium identification was required. The resulting ‘representative sample’, while relatively successful at functioning as a useful tool for testing and fine tuning treatment options, bore little similarity to the composition of Untitled, Black on Maroon, as the team learned early on that Rothko’s idiomatic painting practice could not be easily imitated. Once the representative sample was complete, it was artificially aged to approximately 50 years in a museum environment, tagged with graffiti ink and used for ink solubility testing (Barker et al, 2014).

13Other testing substrates were made available, notably a large section of Rothko or Rothko-assistant primed canvas, dating to around the time the Seagram Murals were produced, which was donated to the project by Christopher and Kate Rothko Prizel. This prepared canvas, a monochromatic field of maroon priming, offered a colour and texture very similar to the maroon paint present on Untitled, Black on Maroon.

14A lengthy campaign of evaluating ink removal options followed. From over 70 options, the team short-listed 6 solvents that were taken forward for discrete testing on the painting. A two-part solvent system, 1 part benzyl alcohol in 1 part ethyl lactate was finally identified as the most effective in removing the graffiti ink from the surface of the black paint, and was partially effective in removing ink from the highly absorbent maroon field paint. These two solvents offered a slow working time, relatively low toxicity and enough swelling power to dissolve the ink in a controlled manner, thereby allowing us to preserve as much of the original paint and surface as possible. This was an unexpectedly good outcome, enabling the recovery of all but an uppermost degraded dammar glaze layer – which had been dissolved when the ink was applied. All that was left on the black figure area after the removal process was an impression of the ink lightly etched into the upper surface.

15However, whilst we could remove the surface ink from the maroon paint areas, we could not fully remove all of the ink that was embedded into the maroon layers and the underlying canvas. Further tests using suction and solvents proved to be ineffective at reducing the ink stains and concerns about the fragility of the maroon paint meant that suction-based options were abandoned. The team and wider advisory boards were naturally concerned about the prospect of leaving ink residues in situ, however it was also acknowledged that further efforts to remove these residues would be subjecting the painting to unnecessary physical and perhaps unjustifiable risk.

16The ink used has been the subject of analysis by Tate staff, and many others who either volunteered or were commissioned by Tate as part of the project. The manufacturers were contacted to no avail. Interestingly many of the museum and other professionals involved were not familiar with the types of materials used in these types of ink and hence found certain identifications somewhat elusive. It was paramount in the early days of the project to focus on determining the solubility of the ink to support the treatment process rather than to characterise the ink in minute detail. Since then, several types of spectroscopy and mass spectrometry have been used, in addition to microscopy and other techniques. The currently known constituents include ethanol and methoxy-propanol as the key ink solvents, a solvent or oil-based dye or dyes (e.g. solvent black 7) and an oligomeric film-forming material which thus far has eluded identification, though may centre around aniline compounds. Our co-authors at Dow have carried out several analyses not available at Tate and are currently focussing on the NMR analysis of solvent-separated fractions of the ink to help identify these constituents more fully, and to explore which parts of the ink may remain in the painting by carrying out separations using the benzyl alcohol-ethyl lactate ink blend used on the painting. In addition to this, there is a high chance that the dyestuffs have cross-linked with pigment ions and possibly the canvas itself. All of these aspects are slowly being investigated. The light fading and solubility of the ink were evaluated in the early days and it appeared that the ink remained soluble in similar solvents (but not water, so RH changes are not expected to cause a problem) and the ink did not fade in light. It seems unlikely that the residual ink will migrate, change colour or cause other significant issues over time, and that it will remain a part of the painting and its history; indeed it is marketed somewhat ironically as a ‘permanent material’.

17After isolating the painting from the intended retouching materials, the dark stains remaining after ink removal however required an opaque retouching system in order to disguise them, covering the affected original paint. The retouching process proved to be highly effective in restoring the surface of the painting. The residues in the maroon paint were adequately concealed and the lost glazes in the black paint were successfully in-painted using nuanced glazes of watercolour, pigment, with the specific optical characteristics of degraded dammar being imitated by adding finely crushed mica to dilute gum Arabic. Retouching was carried out under normal light levels so it was anticipated that there might be a requirement to adjust retouching/in-painting once on display in the gallery. When installed under the gallery light levels of 30 lux the gallery lights did catch some areas of over saturation in the retouching. These areas were made more matte by applying tiny dots of Jun Funori, waiting until it was semi-dry and then brushing small amount so pigment over them. The Jun Funori anchored a tiny amount of pigment enabling subtle matting down of the surface.

18Untitled, Black on Maroon re-joined the ensemble of Seagram Murals on display at Tate Modern in May 2014. The treatment was deemed successful by the press, public and those who know Rothko’s work. However, the legacy of this vandalism remains palpable. The painting is permanently changed, with ink remaining in the painting strata. We will continue to consider the longer-term effects the act of vandalism may have on the painting in a material sense. Rothko use paint containing the highly fugitive pigment Lithol red (it is speculated that Rothko, loving the intense hue of this pigment, also added it as a dry pigment to his paint) in the Seagram Murals. As a consequence, the paintings have poor resistance to light fading, expressed as a Blue Wool rating of 2-3. Whilst the painting will continue to fade, albeit very slowly under the current display light levels of 30 lux, the retouching and in-painting materials, being chosen for their stability as well as reversibility, will eventually become visible, necessitating retreatment.


Fig. 3 Untitled (Black on Maroon), 1958 by Mark Rothko (Tate, T01170)

Fig. 3 Untitled (Black on Maroon), 1958 by Mark Rothko (Tate, T01170)

After treatment.

Image: Tate. © Kate Rothko Prizel and Christopher Rothko 2014

20In terms of continued unwanted focus on the painting a quick survey of the internet reassures us that the world’s Press have long since considered the story news worthy (although the number of views for the Tate Shot film ‘Restoring Rothko’ available on Tate’s website and You Tube, continues to rise, currently at 107,198 views) (Tate, 2014). A once highly sensationalised act is now quietly archived in Tate’s conservation files and the memories of those of us involved in its repair. Gallery security has been reassessed and whilst there remains a heightened sense of potential threat to Tate’s collection on display, our visitors continue to enjoy an intimate relationship with it. Is art not dead if it is not seen?

21“A picture lives by companionship, expanding and quickening in the eyes of the il sensitive observer. It dies by the same token. It is therefore a risky act to send it out into the world. How often it must be impaired by the eyes of the unfeeling and the cruelty of the impotent who would extend their infliction universally. ” (Mark Rothko, The Tiger’s Eye, 1947)

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Barker, R., B. Ormsby, and P. Smithen. (2014). The construction of a representative sample for Mark Rothko’s Untitled (Black on Maroon) (1958). In ICOM-CC 17th Triennial Conference Preprints, Melbourne, 15–19 September 2014, ed. J. Bridgland, art. 1302, 8 pp. Paris: International Council of Museums. (ISBN 978-92-9012-410-8)

Barker, R., and Ormsby, B. (2015). ‘Conserving Mark Rothko’s Black on Maroon 1958: The Construction of a ‘Representative Sample’ and the Removal of Graffiti Ink.’ Tate Papers No. 23, Spring 2015.

Molotow: URL: Accessed 8.5.17.

Ormsby, B., R. Barker, M. Keefe, C. Tucker, F. Donate, and P. Smithen. (2014). The removal of graffiti ink from Mark Rothko’s Untitled (Black on Maroon), 1958. A collaborative approach. In ICOM-CC 17th Triennial Conference Preprints, Melbourne, 15–19 September 2014, ed. J. Bridgland, art. 1007, 9. Paris: International Council of Museums. (ISBN 978-92-9012-410-8)

Quinn, B. Rothko Painting Defaced (2012). URL: Accessed 8.5.17

Tate (2014). Rothko Restored. Accessed 8.5.17

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List of illustrations

Title Fig. 1 Untitled (Black on Maroon) by Mark Rothko
Caption Untitled (Black on Maroon), 1958 (Tate, T01170).
Credits Credits: Tate. © Kate Rothko Prizel and Christopher Rothko 2012
File image/jpeg, 556k
Title Fig.2 Vandalized Untitled (Black on Maroon)
Caption Detail of the affected area on T01170.
Credits Credits: Tate. © Kate Rothko Prizel and Christopher Rothko 2013
File image/jpeg, 696k
Title Fig. 3 Untitled (Black on Maroon), 1958 by Mark Rothko (Tate, T01170)
Caption After treatment.
Credits Image: Tate. © Kate Rothko Prizel and Christopher Rothko 2014
File image/jpeg, 753k
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Electronic reference

Rachel Barker, Bronwyn Ormsby, Melinda Keefe and Scott Wills, « Mark Rothko: Untitled (Black on Maroon). », CeROArt [Online], HS | 2018, Online since 09 December 2018, connection on 20 May 2019. URL :

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Licence Creative Commons
CeROArt – Conservation, exposition, restauration d'objets d'arts est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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