Defaced Rothko at London's Tate Raises Security Questions Anew 1

Mark Rothko painting (top) and defacement (bottom) in lower right corner.

A Mark Rothko painting defaced at London’s Tate Modern museum over the weekend once again raises questions about how to balance security against the desire to give the public the best experience possible while viewing priceless works of art.

A man at the Tate was able to walk up to the Rothko’s untitled 1958 painting best known as “Black on Maroon” and mark a slogan on it in black paint. He was gone in a matter of minutes.

The slogan “Vladimir Umanets ’12, a potential piece of yellowism,” doesn’t seem to have a direct connection to Rothko or the work.

Museums have been grappling with how much security to provide for priceless works of art without compromising their mission to make the works accessible to the public. TheImproper wrote about an incident in Jan. 2010 involving a woman who tore a hole in a Picasso at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

The Met like many museums allows patrons to get close to some of the world’s greatest paintings to appreciate the subtle brush strokes and colors used to create masterpieces. But the policy comes with a price. In the Met’s case, the painting was damaged by accident when the woman fell into it, tearing a six-inch hole in the canvas.

In London, Vladimir Umanets, an artist who has published a paper called a “Manifesto of Yellowism,” admitted defacing the painting in interviews with British media. Umanets claimed the defacement was in itself a work of art and would increase the value of the Rothko canvas.

“I don’t want to spend a few months, even a few weeks, in jail.” Umanets told Britain’s ITV News. “But I do strongly believe in what I am doing; I have dedicated my life to this.”

Conservators will be able to repair the damaged Rothko, which is likely worth tens of millions of dollars. The most recent Rothko painting sold in May at Christie’s in New York. The work, a 1961 painting “Orange Red Yellow” fetched $86.9 million, a record for the artist, according to The Wall Street Journal.

Rothko, a Russian-American painter known for his abstract color fields, committed suicide in 1969. Just before his death he donated the painting to the Tate.

Visitors to the Tate Modern typically are not subject to bag searches or metal detectors. Two staffers reportedly were in the room at the time of the vandalism, but the man had fled by the time the were able to summon security.