If only he’d been caught red-handed. But the man who vandalized Mark Rothko’s “Red on Maroon,” one of nine paintings that comprise The Seagram Murals at the Tate Modern Museum in London — also known as the paintings that inspired John Logan’s Tony Award-winning play “Red” — is still on the loose.
British authorities are pursuing Vladimir Umanets, a Russian-born artist who scrawled his name, the date and the phrase “A potential piece of yellowism” in black marker on the Rothko painting Oct. 7. “Yellowism” is an art movement that Umanets created, though in his manifesto, he states “Examples of Yellowism can look like works of art but are not works of art.” He has taken credit for the vandalism, telling various British media outlets that he felt his addition to the canvas would increase the value of the art.
“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.”
The Tate says it believes the work can be cleaned and restored. The paintings were donated to the Tate, but other Rothko paintings have fetched up to $86.9 million at auction.
Rothko’s Seagram Murals are among his most famous works — and they were made even more so by the play, which came to Arena Stage in Washington last year. Rothko’s studio was faithfully reproduced for the show, which earned a great review from our theater critic, Peter Marks, but less warm words from our art critic, Philip Kennicott, who wrote that the play “gets pop art and minimalism all wrong.” While the play was at Arena Stage, the National Gallery displayed three of the Seagram Murals, but not the one that was recently defaced.
Eyewitness Tim Wright posted a picture of the vandalism on Twitter (Click below to see the image). Other witnesses said that Umanets lingered near the painting for a while before hastily scrawling his message and bolting from the gallery.
Art vandalism tends to be perpetrated by people who are mentally ill, as in the case of the woman who attacked a Gauguin painting at the National Gallery last year, or those who, like Umanets, seek fame and attempt to redefine the vandalism as performance art. He follows a long line of similar vandals, including:
— Tony Shafrazi, who in 1974 spray-painted “LIES KILL ALL” on Picasso’s “Guernica” at the Museum of Modern Art. When he was arrested, he shouted, “Call the curator. I am an artist.”
— Canadian artist Jubal Brown who, in 1996, ate blue foods and intentionally vomited onto a Piet Mondrian painting at the Museum of Modern Art (and did the same, in red, to a Raoul Dufy painting in Toronto). He was not arrested, and no legal action was taken against him, though he did issue an apology.
— Two performance artists who, in 2000, urinated on Marcel Duchamp’s sculpture “Fountain,” which was crafted from a urinal.
— French artist Rindy Sam, who in 2007 applied red lipstick and kissed an all-white Cy Twombly painting. “I thought the artist would have understood,” Sam told the court when she was arrested in France.
The Pace Gallery, which represents Rothko’s estate, issued a statement from Rothko’s children, which read in part: “Our father donated his legendary Seagram paintings to the museum in 1969 sensing the commitment of the institution to his work and impressed by the warm embrace it had received from the British public. We are heartened to have felt that embrace again in the outpouring of distress and support that we and our father have received both directly and in public forums.”