Red in Yellow: The Rothko Vandal Makes His Marx

Tim Wright’s photo of Vladimir Umanet’s vandalism.

On October 8th, a homeless Russian émigré named Vladimir Umanets defaced a Rothko painting hanging in the Tate Modern in London with his name, the year, and the following fragment: A POTENTIAL PIECE OF YELLOWISM. “Black and Maroon” (1958), originally sporting a signature Rothko black rectangle on a signature Rothko maroon field, is valued at around 50 million pounds. The values of Yellowism are a little harder to get a hold of, though there is a Manifesto online, which outlines the aims of the movement with statements that are either obscure or silly, such as: “Every piece of Yellowism is only about yellow and nothing more. … ” and “Interpreting Yellowism as art or being about something other than just yellow deprives Yellowism of its purpose.”

While Umanets, the alleged and confessed vandal, is presumably in hiding and therefore has not been arrested, he appeared in court to answer charges by videolink, and he has made several statements to the press, some by telephone. Luckily, each of these statements is more coherent than his Manifesto, although the latter does have a clue buried in its last sentence. Between the Manifesto and the statements to the press, I think it is possible to contextualize Umanets’s act, if not actually to decipher Yellowism.

Umanets’s expression of Yellowism sits squarely in the long-established tradition of modern art vandalism, which itself sits squarely inside the conceptual wing of modern art, kind of like the cipher of a wingnut spray painted inside a rectangle inside a rectangle. Umanets’s quotes in the press suggest that he is well aware of this family relation.

For more along these lines, go to A.

The Manifesto of Yellowism betrays a Marxist sensibility, through a telltale though unattributed quotation of Marx: you can take the communism out of Russia, but you can’t take it out of the Russian.

For more along these lines, go to B.

A. So here is one way to understand the vandalous act: in signing a readymade art object, Umanets cites Marcel Duchamp, for whom signing stuff could turn it into art — and sure enough, in interviews, Umanets explicitly cited his sense of affinity with Duchamp; as he told The Guardian, “Marcel Duchamp signed things that were not made by him, or even Damien Hirst.” In this meta- way, Umanets’s work is in line with a conceptualist tradition of Modernist art.

At the same time, Umanets’s poverty and homelessness situate his act in a long tradition of high-art vandalism. In 1907, Valentine Contrel, an impoverished French dressmaker, slashed an Ingres in the Louvre in order to get herself sent to prison, where she thought she could expect to be sheltered, fed, and protected from working for unlivable wages. Indeed, Umanets claimed not to mind the prospect of prison, as he has “nothing more interesting to do,” according to Time. In 1987, Robert Arthur Cambridge took a shot at a Leonardo drawing in the National Gallery in London, which he justified like this: “the relevance in my action can be seen in the comparison between the great achievements of mankind contained in the National Gallery, and the scene of degradation and decay as witnessed under the railway arches at Charing Cross” [Cabinet]. The Evening Standard printed Umanets’s version: “I am homeless and can’t afford this painting.”

In yet another venerable tradition, art vandals begin with an act imagined to enhance the meaning or value of a canonical art masterpiece, and end up with entree into the art practice and business of the day. Tony Shafrazi, who gained notoriety by spray painting “Kill Lies All” on Picasso’s “Guernica” at MoMA in 1985, was attempting to amplify the painting’s ever-urgent appeal for peace, an appeal he felt was silenced by the context in which it hung — a super-civilized high-art institution in which patrons milled about and opined in hushed tones. He wanted to “retrieve it from art history and give it life … get involved with the making of the work.” Shafrazi is now a blue-chip art dealer.

Thirty-eight years later, just this past May, Uriel Landeros walked into the Menil Collection in Houston and spray painted the word “conquista” on Picasso’s Woman in a Red Armchair. Like Shafrazi, Landeros has parlayed his notoriety into entree — his one-man show, “Houston, We Have a Problem,” opened this week in a gallery owned by James Perez. Using Shafrazi’s logic, Perez explained the act of vandalism as an act of revivification, offered in collaboration with Picasso: “It’s just taking something and making it your own. … ”

Images of Landeros’ vandalism of “Woman in a Red Armchair” (via

Like Umanets, Landeros has not yet been apprehended and is presumed to be in hiding.

Go to C.

B. Guy walks into the Tate Modern, tags a Rothko. In adding some more black paint to Black and Maroon, Umanets told The Telegraph, he added value to a painting worth tens of millions of pounds. If the tag is erased, Umanets speculated, the painting will not appreciate, but if it is allowed to remain, the scandal will have added value to the Rothko when it is sold. In fact, the Tate owns the piece, so this speculation is specious. Regardless of the future dispensation of the painting, Umanets’s act points to the problem of value itself — in direct relation to the problem of erasure.

If Umanets has added value, it is not because Yellowism is an art; according to his Manifesto, it is not. In fact, Umanets distinguishes between Yellowism and art in the final sentences of the Manifesto: “Art is forever developing ‘diverse whole.’ Yellowism is forever expanding ‘homogeneous mass.’” This last phrase is a direct citation of Book One, Chapter 1 of Marx’s Capital: “The total labour power of society, which is embodied in the sum total of the values of all commodities produced by that society, counts here as one homogeneous mass of human labour power.” What Marx means is that capital — money — as a general standard, creates an equivalence (and thus erases the difference) among different kinds of labor. Value is expressed as quantities that efface qualities, as well as the very fact of labor. Marx again, on commodity fetishism, in the same chapter: “Value… does not stalk about with a label describing what it is. It is value, rather, that converts every product into a social hieroglyphic.”

Neither does Yellowism stalk about with a label describing what it is, though its proponent does. Apparently, Umanets imagines that his piece of Yellowism potentially expands the value of one commodity in particular. (Does he also intend for Yellowism to intervene in homogeneity, to asserting the heterogeneity under various surfaces?) In any case, the Marxism to which the Manifesto of Yellowism clearly alludes is now erased from official Russian dogma, law, economy, and culture. But there it is under the surface of Umanets’s words, which label the conversion of the social hieroglyphic that is “the Rothko.”

Marx’s theory of commodity fetishism accounts for the irrational valuation of commodities over and above their use value, as well as the effacement of labor. And, Marx continues, “Later on, we try to decipher the hieroglyphic, to get behind the secret of our own social products; for to stamp an object of utility as a value, is just as much a social product as language.” Language, like value, like “all manifestations of Yellowism have the same sense and meaning and express exactly the same.”

Guy walks into the Tate Modern, tags a Rothko. But into what has he walked? The gutted and renovated Bankside Power Station, where oil was converted into electricity beginning with the postwar surge in energy consumption in 1947 until its use dwindled over the course of the 1970s. Before that, “late nineteenth and early twentieth century Bankside was an area of wharfs, engineering works, an iron foundry and a gas works.” That is to say, the Tate Modern is a monument of modern industrial capitalism. The original Tate facility (now known as the Tate Gallery) stands on the site of the former Milbank Penitentiary (Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon was almost built there), which was used, after its moment as a disease-festering prison, as “a point of departure for sending convicts to Australia” (Tate website). That is to say, the prison was a monument to British colonial expansion. And the original original Tate, not the facility, but Henry, the patron who seeded its development, was a sugar refiner. He trafficked in the triangular trade—slaves, sugar, rum. To speak about labor (not to mention sugar, qua commodity) in this context is a euphemism at best; it would be more accurate to speak of forced displacement and forced unpaid work. That is what is both effaced and congealed in the Tate. That is to say, the museum is a monument to the convergence and cooperation of British colonialism and industrial capitalism.

These are not dirty little secrets. Over and above being posted on the Tate’s website (in slightly different terminology), these are the plain old facts of capital. Umanets’s quotation of Marx’s theory of commodity fetishism calls up these bogeys; he would expose the bogus basis of value all over again.

Go to C.

C. Speaking of what’s hidden — labor, Marxist logic, the history of capitalism and of modern art and its vandalism, and Umanets himself — I offer these converging approaches to getting “behind the secret of” Yellowism. After all, Umanets cites, literally, both Marx and Duchamp. No matter what you may think of art vandalism, no thinking person can imagine that a painting valued at over 50 million pounds derives its value from anything to do with the art itself. Its value is a function of pure commodity fetishism. And art’s status as a commodity is a function of an art market in which art patrons are rich and museums are the domain of the privileged, even when they are open to a public whose admission fee is merely “suggested.”

Any act that implies a critique of this system makes a good point, though we may disagree about the value of the different modes of making that point.

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D. Sergey Larenkov [bringing the ghosts of history back to the surface]:

Bence Hajdu [effacing figures in Art History]:

The Splasher:

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