Museums Conservation United Kingdom

Tate makes Rothko-defacing ink disappear

One of the artist’s Seagram murals is back on display after being vandalised with graffiti

A corner detail of Mark Rothko's Untitled, Black on Maroon, 1958, before and after treatment. Photo: © Tate

Rothko’s Black on Maroon, 1958, went back on display at Tate Modern this week, 20 months after a young artist defaced it with graffiti ink. A three-person team from the Tate consulted the artist’s family and international experts, including the Modern paintings conservator Jay Krueger from the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, before embarking on the 18-month conservation treatment. They spent nine months researching and conducting tests before conservators felt confident enough to treat the painting, which is one of the late American artist’s famous Seagram murals. The complexity of Rothko’s paint layers makes his paintings particularly difficult to restore.

“We knew it was going to be a challenging conservation project,” says Patricia Smithen, the museum’s head of conservation. “The ink was designed to be very black, quick drying, heavy staining and very permanent.” It penetrated through to the back of the canvas, seeping through the cracks in the paint.

According to the Tate’s senior conservation scientist Bronwyn Ormsby, they did not know much about this particular type of ink prior to the attack as it is not found in many works at the Tate. Consequently a lot of research went into testing samples of the ink to determine what types of solvents can remove it. They brought in Dow Chemicals to find the right one for the job: a blend of benzyl alcohol and ethyl lactate.

The task of removing the ink and using reversible, conservation-grade materials to restore the painting’s surface fell to paintings conservator Rachel Barker, who says having the opportunity to treat a Rothko is “the highlight of a conservator’s career”. She says the biggest challenge was replacing the egg and Dammar resin layers that Rothko applied and that the ink dissolved.

Barker says the restoration has “surpassed our expectations”, a sentiment echoed by Tate’s director Nicholas Serota who says that immediately following the 2012 attack there was some uncertainty as to what degree the work could be restored. “We have a fine conservation team that is one of the best in the world. Their expertise, rigour, patient work and respect for the painting has enabled us to return it to public view, as envisaged by Rothko.”

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