And it was all yellow
Vladimir Umanets was a name unheard of in the art world and beyond until now. Through one misaligned act, he has become the most immediate topic of conversation among all concerned with art, after he came forward as the person responsible for defacing Mark Rothko’s Black on Maroon (1958) at the Tate Modern.
The painting by the late abstract expressionist pioneer, who is particularly vogue at the moment, especially at auction, was defaced by the Russian, who effectively “tagged” it.
A tag is basically a way in which graffiti artists visualise their name. In this instance, Rothko’s painting, which comes from one of three series of canvasses painted by the artist between 1958 and 1959, was scrawled upon with black paint. It appears to say: “Vladimir Umanets, A Potential Piece of Yellowism.”
Yellowism is a movement founded by Umanets and Marcin Lodyga, which they describe as “not art or anti-art”. Though the artist claims responsibility for the act itself, he denies that it constitutes criminal damage.
“Some people think I’m crazy or a vandal, but my intention was not to destroy or decrease the value,” the 26-year-old explained. “I am not a vandal. I am a Yellowist. I believe what I am doing and I want people to start talking about this. It was like a platform.”
Umanets added that he wasn’t courting fame, money or even attention, suggesting that the action in itself was utterly redundant, whimsical even, though it evidently was not. However, he soon backtracked on the latter part of his statement, confirming that yes, maybe he did want people to notice him and ask “what is Yellowism, what is art?”
Yellowish is, at best, ambiguous, a sort of misaligned over-intellectualisation of what art should be about. For example, on the duo’s website, which they reference as being a “superficial blog”, the manifesto explains in bombastic language that examples of Yellowism can “look like works of art, but are not works of art”.
“Pieces of Yellowism are not visually yellow, however sometimes can be,” the manifesto goes on to state. “In Yellowism the visibility of yellow is reduced to minimum; yellow is just the intellectual matter. Every piece of Yellowism is only about yellow and nothing more.”
The same fuzziness jargon was expounded in a blog post from Lodyga. In court, such a defence would leave, one can reasonably predict, a judge and jury unreservedly mystified.
Lodyga wrote that in signing Rothko’s painting, he had made it a potential piece of Yellowism. The result of this is that the work of art no longer exists as it did – its natural state has become extinct – and it can therefore exist in a non-gallery space known as a “yellowistic chamber”.
“Don’t call Umanets an artist,” he continued. “He is not an artist, he is a Yellowist. He resigned from art. Yellowism is not a form of art. It is a new context in which the value of Rothko’s painting increase.”
Formless words like this purport to be full of artistic integrity, but it’s vacuous at best, a consequence of some distorted sense of grandeur. This was a Rothko he vandalised after all, one of the greatest modernists in history. Rothko was a man who knew how to cut a new definition of art…without pretention, misunderstanding or haughtiness.
“Vladimir Umanets isn’t the first person to deface a modernist masterpiece,” commented Alastair Sooke, the Telegraph’s art critic. “Tony Shafrazi spray painted Picasso’s Guernica to make a political point back in the 1970s. As an artist, it’s a shortcut to notoriety, which can mean sales.”
While Umanets is currently in police custody and answering questions, work is underway to save the painting. Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, the art conservationist Julia Nagle remained optimistic that it can be restored to its original quality.
“The first thing you need to know is what the painting was originally made of, in order to distinguish between the solubility of what you want to get rid of and the original painting,” she revealed. “Fortunately, in the case of Rothko, there’s a massive body of research into his techniques – and a great conservation department at Tate.”
Umanets has compared himself to the great surrealist Marcel Duchamp, who famously made a urinal a work of art with Fountain (1917). How could such a thing have any artistic quality? Duchamp was asking, half-jokingly, why this could not be art. It was a criticism of convention. He wanted to shake things up.
From this avenue, it can be argued that Yellowism, in the spirit of Duchamp, attempts to do the same thing. However, so far – from wrecking a Rothko to the self-aggrandising manifesto – suggests anything of value in this curious art movement. As Mr Sooke commented, it doesn’t inspire. The only thing it does do is remind us of the song that catapulted Coldplay to fame.
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