A Mark Rothko painting worth tens of millions of pounds was defaced in what was the worst security breach ever to hit Tate Modern.A man has claimed responsibility for defacing a valuable Mark Rothko at the Tate Modern art gallery, but denied he was a vandal.
Astonished witnesses saw the culprit, described as a man in his late 20s, calmly walk up to Black On Maroon (1958) and scrawl a graffiti message in black marker pen or paint yesterday afternoon.
The graffiti read: “Vladimir Umanets, A Potential Piece of Yellowism.”
Mr Umanets, who is originally from Russia, admitted today that he had written on the painting, but insisted his aim was not to destroy or deface it.
“Some people think I’m crazy or a vandal, but my intention was not to destroy or decrease the value, or to go crazy. I am not a vandal,” he said.
Mr Umanets, who studied art, is one of the founders of “Yellowism”, which he describes as “neither art, nor anti-art”.
He said: “I don’t need to be famous, I don’t want money, I don’t want fame, I’m not seeking seeking attention.”
He was pleased people were shocked about what he had done, he added.
Refusing to reveal his age or where he lived, he said he knew he was likely to be arrested, but added: “I believe that from everything bad there’s always a good outcome so I’m prepared for that but obviously I don’t want to spend a few months, even a few weeks, in jail. But I do strongly believe in what I am doing, I have dedicated my life to this.”
He said he did not plan exactly which painting he would write on, but thinks he found “the perfect choice”, and said he feels he may have increased the value.
Police were called after witnesses saw the work being defaced, but the culprit could not be located and last night no arrest had been made.
The Tate’s conservationists are currently assessing the damage.
Julia Nagle, a painting conservator, suggested the painting was not ruined forever.
She said: “I have every faith it will be cleaned off. They’re delicate surfaces and it’s important not to rub them but there’s a massive body of research into Rothko and his techniques and a great conservation department at the Tate.
“I’ve no doubt they will manage to take it off.”
Ms Nagle told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that the “good news” was that whatever had been applied to the painting was very recent, while the painting was more than 50 years old so “the new paint is much more soluble.”
This would increase the chances of it being removed, she explained.
The defaced painting was one of a series, known as the Seagram murals, gifted to the Tate by the artist in 1969. The last Rothko work to sell fetched £53.8 million at Christie’s in New York earlier this year, a new record for contemporary art.
One of the witnesses to the attack, Tim Wright, posted a picture of the defaced painting on Twitter. He said: “This guy calmly walked up, took out a marker pen and tagged it. Surreal.
“We gave a description to the gallery. Very bizarre, he sat there for a while then just went for it and made a quick exit.”
Mr Wright, 23, described the culprit as a “trendy” man with facial hair and a tattoo on his neck.
The witness, a marketing executive from Bath, said: “He was sitting down in the middle of the room and we were all looking at the paintings.
“It was quite strange, we kind of heard before we saw that sound of a pen scratching on canvas.
“We looked around and he was finishing a tag and was off like a shot.”
He and the other gallery-goers who had seen what had happened rushed to inform staff.
“They were shocked but I think the overwhelming feeling was disappointment because the damage had been done by that point,” he said.
Mr Umanets said yellowism was “an element of contemporary visual culture” and not an artistic movement.
“It’s not art, it’s not reality, it’s just Yellowism,” he said. “It can’t be presented in a gallery of art, it can be presented only in a Yellowistic chambers.
“The main difference between Yellowism and art is that in art you have got freedom of interpretation, in Yellowism you don’t have freedom of interpretation, everything is about Yellowism, that’s it.
“I am a Yellowist. I believe what I am doing and I want people to start talking about this. It was like a platform.
“Maybe I would like to point people’s attention on what it’s all about, what is Yellowism, what is art?
“It’s good people are shocked about what happened. No-one is realising what actually happened, everyone is just posting that the piece has been damaged or destroyed or defaced.
“But I believe that after a few years they will start looking for it from the right angle. So that’s why I did it.”
Tate Modern is the world’s most-visited art gallery and was packed with visitors when the vandal struck in the ‘Rothko Room’.
The gallery is covered by CCTV and police are studying the footage. A Scotland Yard spokesman said: “We were alerted at 3.35pm to a report of criminal damage at Tate Modern.
“The suspect was a white male, believed to be in his late 20s. No arrest has been made at this time.”
The Tate said a visitor had defaced one of the Seagram murals “by applying a small area of black paint with a brush to the painting”.
Questions will be asked about security at the gallery, where the Rothkos are not protected by glass and are separated from visitors only be a low-level barrier that can easily be stepped over.
Typically, each room is monitored by a single gallery attendant.
It was Rothko himself who stipulated how his work should be displayed at the Tate.
The defaced painting was one of a series commissioned from Rothko in 1958 for the Four Seasons restaurant in New York’s Seagram Building, but never installed.
In 1969, the artist donated nine of the paintings to the Tate on the proviso that they be displayed “as an immersive environment”. He died the following year.
Last year, the National Gallery also fell victim to vandalism when two 17th century masterpieces were defaced. A man sprayed red paint from an aerosol can over Nicolas Poussin’s The Adoration of the Golden Calf and The Adoration of the Shepherds.
On that occasion, the culprit was swiftly arrested.
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