Restoring Rothko's Black on Maroon

Sir Nicholas Serota and the Tate conservators tell Phaidon how they restored the vandalised painting
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A sample of original Rothko canvas the Tate experimented on
A sample of original Rothko canvas the Tate experimented on

We’ve just got back from breakfast at Tate Modern with Sir Nicholas Serota and the dedicated conservators who have been working on Mark Rothko’s vandalized Black on Maroon (1958) for the last 18 months. The Tate unveils the newly restored masterpiece today and, as Sir Nicholas said this morning, “What you see now is what Rothko painted.”

The painting was vandalized with graffiti ink in October 2012. Serota said this morning: “It’s really nice to see all the letters removed. Rothko’s Seagram murals are among the best-known and most loved paintings at the Tate. The news that one of them had been damaged was devastating. When it happened it was immediately clear that the work was seriously damaged. It was not watercolour it was made by the most indelible of graffiti inks. The fact that it was in our care… it was appalling and ghastly to see the extent of the damage. We had no idea whether we would be able to restore it.”

Tate conservators Bronwyn Ormsby, Patricia Smithen and Rachel Barker worked with Rothko scholars and conservators across the world as well as the Rothko family who gave them previously primed canvases from the artist. Smithen told us about the immediate aftermath of the vandalism.

“I was on a flight in under an hour. When I arrived the work was already touch dry. Rothko’s painting is not just oil on canvas. It’s very thin layers. As a result, it’s very delicate. Solvents could remove the ink but damage the canvas. The ink had permeated quickly. It soon became clear that the challenge was to exploit the tiny differences in the paint, in order to remove the ink."

Smithen said there were three distinct stages to the revival of the painting. November 2012 to August 2013 was spent researching and testing. September 2013 to March 14 was spent removing the ink and February to May of this year were spent restoring the surface of the painting.

 

Restored: Rothko's Black on Maroon (1958)
Restored: Rothko's Black on Maroon (1958)

Bronwyn Ormsby said the Tate “was fortunate in that we were able to buy the graffiti ink used and test the binding agent, the behavior of the ink and the solubility. It was very soluble in many solvents which was both good and bad news.”

Ormsby said that the Tate contacted the Dow Chemical Company and fed in a series of computations into their bespoke software which resulted in 16 solvents that would theoretically dissolve the graffiti ink. After more research this number rose to 18. Then the conservators whittled the 18 down to 6 possibles and then, to the all important one solvent that would do the job. 

“The Rothko family donated a previously primed sample of a canvas Mark had worked on. It was accelerated-aged to understand how the treatment might affect it,” she said.

 

Sample Tests on Rothko canvas
Sample Tests on Rothko canvas

The Tate’s Rachel Barker carried out the treatment using one solvent blend. She described the moment the painting began to emerge unscathed viewed through the lens of a Hirox digital microscope.

“It was a lovely moment. You could see the beautiful matte paint emerging from underneath this intractable slick of black ink.” Barker used a zero-sized paintbrush to apply the solvent 2 millimetres a time. This was left for seconds then dabbed with an tissue. 

“Rothko’s paint is notoriously sensitive to retouching mediums. I wanted to bring out as much of Rothko’s painting and as little of my own material,” she said. “I used modified water colour to make it more matte or more glossy. In the black the glaze was dissolved. So what I had to replace was the whole egg and dammar layer. That was the biggest challenge.  

"I was taken to see those murals as a child so to play a part in caring for them is a privilege. Yes I was nervous but I had a job to do. When we stood round the microscope and saw it happen the relief in the room was palpable. Some days I could make 2 cms clean, other days I took a whole letter off. It’s been a very successful restoration.”

 

Serota said the Tate had reviewed security in the wake of the attack, “I’m not going to tell you what it is but it’s important for us not to turn Tate into Fort Knox. This is a gallery not a prison.” 

Estimates put the price of the painting at the time as £50m with £5 million wiped off due to the vandalism. “I have no idea what the value of this painting is and we are never going to sell it,” Serota said.

You can see the painting from today at Tate Modern. And of course you can learn a lot about Rothko in a number of Phaidon books. Among themAbstract ExpressionismThe Art Book and The Art Museum


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