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Rothko Defaced at the Tate Modern: Vandal Accepts Responsibility But Denies Crime

On October 7th Vladimir Umanets defaced Rothko’s Black on Maroon, one of the Seagram Murals at the Tate Modern.  He wrote a message to the art world declaring, “Vladimir Umanets A Potential Piece of Yellowism” in black paint.  Umanets claims that the vandalism was an expression of his own belief in Yellowism– an art movement founded by Umanets which advances ideas of abandoning traditional forms of artistic expression for “live art.”  
Umanets accepts responsibility, but denies that the damage is criminal.  In fact, he has appeared on various news outlets stating that his signature on the Rothko will only add value (“Rothko Painting Vandalized at the Tate Modern,” Maura Judkis, The Washington Post, October 8, 2012).  No arrest has been made in the case, but Umanets admitted to the BBC that he is expecting to spend a few months in prison and that this personal sacrifice only shows his dedication to the Yellowism art movement.  He stated: “I’m expecting his– I’m not interested in spending time in prison but if I have to… I have no lawyer, I don’t have the money.”
Most art vandalism is written off with the belief that the perpetrators are mentally ill. Yet, in recent years performance artists have defaced works considered to be part of the art history “canon” in order to advance their own agendas. 
This new form of vandalism is very unlike Laszlo Toth’s infamous attack on Michelangelo’s Pieta in 1972.  Toth charged the Pieta screaming, “I am Jesus Christ– risen from the Dead!” and chipped more than fifty shards from the head, neck, and arm of the statute using a geology hammer.  Toth was deported to Australia and spent two years in a mental institution, declared by the Italian court as “socially dangerous.”
In the 1980s and 1990s, as performance art grew in popularity, the vandalism of priceless art work increased.  While there have been numerous attacks, here are four of the most renowned: 
  • In 1974 artist Tony Shafrazi spray-painted “LIES KILL ALL” on Picasso’s Guernica in the Museum of Modern Art.  When he was detained by gallery guards he yelled, “Call the curator.  I am an artist.”  He later explained: “I wanted to bring the art world up to date, to retrieve it from art history and give it life.” 
  • Barnett Newman’s Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue III was slashed with a knife in 1986 by an unnamed vandal who wished to “Take revenge on abstract art.”  
  • In 1989 art critic and curator Ed Brezinski ate Robert Gober’s ceramic donut sculpture believing it to be a “free snack.”  Brezinski noted later, “It tasted stale.” 
  • Perhaps the most vile, Canadian artist Jubal Brown vomited red food on Raoul Dufy’s Harbour at le Havre on May 15th, 1996 because he found it “was just so boring and needed some color.” On November 2nd, 1996, Brown vomited blue food on Mondrian’s Composition in Red, White and Blue in the Museum of Modern Art because he believed it to be “oppressively trite and painfully banal.”  Initially Brown told gallery guards that his sickness was an accident and apologized, but in a later interview with The New York Times he acknowledged that the acts were actually part of art performance.  He stated, “My piece was intended to be a trilogy, with one performance for each of the primary colors.  Brown has never been charged. 
While Umanets’ vandalism at the Tate Modern follows a long history, it has sparked discussion across the art community about what can be defined as art vandalism and if Umanets’ actions crossed the line.  The Tate Modern reports that it will take nine months to restore Black on Maroon.  The case against Umanets is still pending in UK courts.  Center for Art Law will have an update with any new developments.