Mark Rothko's Black on Maroon restored

Don’t rush things. Take your time. Labour over something and give it the attention it deserves. That’s the way to truly exist, except most of us do not. So much of modern life is defined by a false sense of urgency and, in turn, this exigency results in the proliferation of noise, of spam, of getting things done for the sake of it.
The absence of something adds. Isn’t that something? 18-months have passed since Mark Rothko’s Black on Maroon at the Tate Modern was attacked by Wlodzimierz Umaniec (also referred to as Vladimir Umanets) and the void has been heavy.
That unease, of the absence of greatness, has been sensibly deliberate. The restoration has required patience, craftsmanship and knowledge, the kind that cannot be churned out with reckless speed.
Now Mr Umaniec would perhaps disagree, seeing as his act of vandalism, for which he was sentenced to a two-year jail sentence, was done in haste. He called it an act of Yellowism, the uber-fringe art movement (i.e. not one at all) that he co-founded.
A snippet of the movement’s philosophy is suggestive of its empty, duplicated ethos: “Examples of Yellowism can look like works of art but are not works of art. We believe that the context for works of art is already art … There is no evolution of Yellowism, there is only its expansion.”
Pretty mindless stuff, but devastating when carried out. Nevertheless, the work executed by Rothko in 1958 is back on display. Prior to the attack, the value of the painting was £5 million to £9 million. It is a moot point though, as the gallery says it has no plans to ever sell it.
From the outset there were two major challenges to overcome. One concerned the ink used to tag Rothko’s masterpiece, which just happened to be one of the most indelible around, Patricia Smithen, Tate’s head of conservation, noted. Quick drying, it stained deeply.
The second barrier was down to the post-war abstract expressionist himself. Rothko painted in a very complex manner, often using – as in the case of this work – many different types of paint, which were thinly applied, layer after layer.
Complicated to say the least, it is no surprise to learn that it took the team of experts nine months to figure out what solvents and cleaning methods to use on the masterpiece.
Finally, it was established that a zero-sized brush was the tool of choice, which was used to apply a delicate mix of benzyl alcohol and ethyl lactate. However, this process required staying power – conservator Rachel Barker worked on 2mm areas (using a microscope, of course) at any given time. Less was more in this instance.
Speaking to the Guardian, the Tate’s director Nicholas Serota said: “We set out to do as little as possible. Ultimately now we have a painting which has been restored, the damage has been removed and what you see is what Rothko painted.”
The late artist’s son Christopher added: “The Rothko family has been repeatedly impressed by the thoroughness and dedication of the Tate conservation team. They have realised the only satisfactory resolution to a terrible situation: the work is once again on display for the public as our father intended.”
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