A man walked into a London museum and left a message on a valuable painting by American artist Mark Rothko. The Tate Modern has confirmed that at 3:25pm on Sunday, a visitor to the museum defaced one of Rothko’s Seagram murals by applying a small area of black paint or ink.
A person claiming to be an eyewitness later described the event on Twitter:
The message written Rothko’s 1958 work Black on Maroon seems cryptic at the first glance: “Vladimir Umanets, A Potential Piece of Yellowism.”
It turns out the vandal is a homeless Russian artist, Valdimir Umanets, who told London’s Evening Standard that he admires Rothko’s work and that his graffiti would only increase the painting’s value.
Rothko, a Russian-born artist from Oregon, was a leading figure of the abstract expressionism movement, known for his large canvases painted with abstract fields of color. Rothko committed suicide in 1970.
Umanets told the Evening Standard that he didn’t see his deed as a crime. All he was trying to do is to promote a concept called Yellowism, he said. “This is what I believe in,” he said. “It is pretty serious. I am a really poor man, I am homeless, I will never be able to pay for this piece.” (Speaking to ABC News, Umanets described Yellowism as “neither art nor anti-art. It is a resignation of art.”)
He said he didn’t care about the possibility of prison, since he has “nothing more interesting to do.”
He also suggested the museum needed to strengthen its security.
“After I did it I just left,” the vandal said. “I expected they would arrest me straight away, but they didn’t. They should work more on security.”
Perhaps the museum should take his advice. This wasn’t the first vandalism incident to strike the Tate Modern, according to the Associated Press. In 2000, two Chinese performance artists made headlines by attempting to urinate on a famous urinal sculpture by Marcel Duchamp.
Visitors to the exhibit on Monday were divided on Umanets’ artistic contribution. “He seems to think to that making his ‘artistic’ mark on the painting will add value, when really it’s just an act of pure vandalism,” museum visitor Jo Newcomb, from Surrey, told TIME. But Robyn Cusworth, an art student from Doncaster, Yorkshire, agrees that it will increase the worth of the painting. “He’s making a statement that will raise its value,” he says. “Now this will be known as the painting that had such controversy over it.”
The Independent argues that the Russian man’s actions are hardly the most outrageous in the history of artistic vandalism. Earlier this year, a Denver woman attempted to wipe her bottom on a painting by Clyfford Still valued at nearly $40 million. And several people have attempted to destroy Leonardo Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, which has been attacked with acid, red spray paint and a cup of tea.
Although Tate Modern doesn’t have an exact estimate on the value of the defaced work, Rothko’s paintings are now among the most sought-after in the world, AFP reports. In May, one Rothko was sold at auction for $86.9 million — setting a record for contemporary art.
The London Metropolitan Police are currently investigating the incident. No arrests have been made yet.
— With reporting in London by Sorcha Pollak.