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Following the recent vandalism of a Mark Rothko painting at the Tate, we reached out to David Anfam, a Rothko scholar and head of the Rothko catalogue raisonné project, to ask about the importance of the vandalized work “Black on Maroon” (1958), which he clarifies is titled “Untitled (Black on Maroon)” (1958), and the possible challenges facing the conservation of the work after Sunday’s incident. He provided us with the following response:
The Seagram murals obviously occupy a key position in Mark Rothko’s trajectory — the point at which he first really began to move beyond the easel painting per se and to think of his art in environmental terms. This direction would ultimately culminate in the Rothko Chapel. “Untitled (Black on Maroon)” (1958) is one of some thirteen of the Seagram canvases in which Rothko developed his classic format in such a way that his erstwhile horizontal rectangles became instead uprights, prompting many to associate this imagery with portals or similar architectonic elements. The work’s tonality is more keyed to the dark-brown end of the spectrum than some of the other canvases that orchestrate brighter, albeit still somber, reds.
In total my catalogue raisonné recorded thirty paintings in the series altogether: another set belongs to the Kawamura Memorial DIC Museum of Art in Japan, while others are at the National Gallery of Art, Washington DC, and in various private collections. “Untitled (Black on Maroon)” is not the smallest of the Seagram Murals but neither is it of the dimensions that he attained in 1959, such as that of “Mural, Section 2” (105 by 180 inches).
The first reports about the vandalism at Tate seemed to suggest that the inscription may have been done with some kind of marker pen. If that were the case, it would be particularly worrying if the ink were relatively indelible. Fortunately, however, it appears that the person instead used a brush, as the drips in the images of the affected area strongly suggest. In that event, I would be very surprised if the Tate could not do an excellent conservation job, especially since the proverbial “ink” is barely dry!
What should also help matters is that when the murals were shown at Tate in the exhibition, Mark Rothko: The Late Series (September 2008–February 2009), the catalogue (for which I wrote one of the essays) contained the results of recent conservation studies on the paintings. Consequently, Tate should be extremely well positioned to do the necessary work to get this picture back into very good shape, as it were. To be sure, it’s true that Rothko’s surfaces are often ultra-friable in texture etc — yet I think the current damage, deplorable as it is, could have been a great deal worse. At least the canvas was not slashed — as happened with the Stedelijk’s Barnett Newmans.
Lastly, it was Rothko himself who in 1947 wrote that it was “a risky and unfeeling act to send it [one of his pictures] out into the world.” Hence I think he might not have been altogether surprised by this kind of physical assault. On the other hand, he absolutely wanted the spectator to experience his art in the flesh — at first hand, that is, and not encased in a glass tomb of sorts, as, say, the “Mona Lisa” is. Glazing might be fine for Francis Bacon’s canvases — but definitely not for Rothko’s. So, unfortunate as this incident is, at the end of the day we have to regard it as a reflection of the exigencies of the real world in which art, as a physical object, has to live and survive.