Can you destroy a Rothko painting that is available everywhere?

Courtesy of Tim Wright - The defaced Mark Rothko painting "Black on Maroon" minutes after a man walked up and wrote "Vladimir Umanets, a potential piece of yellowism" on the painting.

Vladimir Umanets, a Polish man arrested this past week for allegedly defacing Mark Rothko’s 1958 painting “Black on Maroon,” insists he is not a vandal. Umanets says he was acting in the name of “Yellowism,” an art movement with a cryptic manifesto. “All interpretations possible in the context of art, are reduced to one, are equalized, flattened to yellow,” reads a statement on ThisIsYellowism.com.

While their prose is pretty incoherent, it seems that the Yellowists wanted to destroy the Rothko by making it their own. That raises an age-old question: How do you destroy a piece of art that’s been reproduced millions of times? Where does destroying an object end and destroying an idea begin?

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Neither the art world nor the justice system will long ponder this philosophical dilemma.

Fortunately, there’s not a lot for Rothko devotees to fear. The damage done to “Black on Maroon” isn’t likely to be more than museum conservators can manage. And even if the painting is irreparably damaged, it does nothing to diminish Rothko’s standing. Rothko fans, after all, outnumber Yellowists.

Still, even without the intervention of graffiti terrorists, Rothko’s legacy will eventually fade. As Yellowists may be trying to point out, art does a pretty good job of dating — and destroying — itself without outside help.

With the Google Art Project putting entire museum collections online, the Internet forces viewers to ask what seeing art means. Looking at the Mona Lisa on the Web, for example, might be just as good as seeing it at the Louvre, where Leonardo da Vinci’s masterpiece is housed under glass and throngs of tourists prove distracting. Under such circumstances, a .jpg of the Mona Lisa is no less authentic than the painting — especially since questions about reproducibility or authenticity never bothered Leonardo.

Such problems predate the computer. In the early 1950s, Robert Rauschenberg asked fellow artist Willem de Kooning for a drawing he could erase and, in 1953, completed “Erased de Kooning Drawing.” Had Rauschenberg destroyed one artwork to create another? Or was de Kooning’s piece, altered by Rauschenberg, still a de Kooning? Modern conservation complicates the question: In 2010, scientists at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art used infrared digital processing to trace the original drawing, revealing the lost de Kooning. In so doing, did they erase Rauschenberg’s erasure?

At least since the era of mass production began, artists have questioned how much of the artist’s hand an artwork even requires. Dan Flavin, who had a major retrospective at the National Gallery of Art in 2004, built sculptures from commercial light fixtures. These works sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars, but in a sense, Flavin never made a thing. In the 1980s, some of the companies that manufactured the fluorescents he favored ceased production. This put a time limit on his art — once all of Flavin’s bulbs burned out, so would Flavin.

The artist embraced this limit: In 1984, he said that his pieces last as long as their bulbs, about 2,100 hours. But before his death in 1996, his studio scrambled to acquire fluorescent tubes while it could, even chemically re-creating burned-out bulbs’ colors — raging, as it were, against the dying of the light.

Artists such as Flavin renounced everything that abstract expressionists such as Rothko stood for: his emphasis on the artist’s touch, his dictatorial control over the circumstances of his work’s viewing and his authoritarian interpretation of a work’s meaning. Rothko and the elite “ab ex” artists wanted immortality. For Flavin, immortality was a joke. Art, he thought, should be disposable.

In their peculiar way, Yellowists and their art-vandal peers may be onto a similar idea. Rothko paintings have sold for as much as $87 million. What better way to point out that a paint-covered piece of canvas might be overvalued by society than by tagging it?

But even if Yellowists had billions to buy and destroy every Rothko on Earth, the artist’s work would persist in monographs, articles, prints and reproductions. This would be cold comfort for Rothko, who was always bothered by his paintings being seen by the wrong people, in the wrong places or for the wrong reasons. “Black on Maroon” is part of a series commissioned in the 1950s for the Four Seasons restaurant in New York’s Seagram Building. Rothko, who once dreamed of becoming a labor leader, agonized over whether these paintings should be seen in such a bourgeois environment, so he surrendered the commission and gave them to Britain’s Tate Modern museum. (This decision was the subject of a play, “Red,” performed at Arena Stage this winter.)

Houston’s Rothko Chapel — the artist designed not just the works but the venue, clashing with the architect over every detail, down to the amount and quality of light the room receives — is one of a handful of places on the planet that lets a Rothko . . . well, be a Rothko.

It’s almost as if artists’ immortality depends on what they think about immortality. Flavin made ephemerality his trademark and thrived, balking only near the end. If we can find the right light bulbs, his work can endure. Meanwhile, Rothko’s works grow more precious as his control over their display diminishes — the artist would be horrified by coffee mugs with his paintings on them. As his works age, they find their way into the collections of hedge-fund managers and other conspicuous consumers, negating what Rothko said his work stood for.

Perhaps all the Yellowists need to do to see Rothko destroyed is be patient.

kriston.capps@gmail.com

Kriston Capps is a senior editor at Architect magazine.

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