Mark Rothko’s Black on Maroon 1958 goes back on public view at Tate Modern today, following 18 months of extensive conservation work by Tate’s Collection Care team. This painting, one of the iconic Seagram murals which Rothko donated to Tate in 1970, was vandalised with graffiti ink in October 2012. It has since been the subject of detailed research and restoration, supported by Tate Patrons and donations to the Tate Fund, and is now being returned to the gallery’s free collection displays.
Rothko’s works are renowned for the subtlety of their layered surfaces, which include complex combinations of oils, pigments, colourants, resins, egg and glues. Before attempting to restore Black on Maroon, its many layers of different materials had to be analysed from microscopic samples, building on the detailed research conducted for the 2008 Rothko exhibition at Tate Modern. The graffiti ink had penetrated several of these layers, in some cases soaking through to the back of the canvas, requiring a chemical solvent to be found which could remove this ink while limiting damage to the surrounding original paint. Dr.Bronwyn Ormsby, Conservation Scientist at Tate, worked with colleagues to narrow down the field from hundreds of potential solvents in order to find the best possible solution: a blend of benzyl alcohol and ethyl lactate.
Special test canvases were then used to assess the appropriate solvents and cleaning methods. Based on extensive research, the treatment team created a large-scale painted sample which attempted to accurately represent the layers in the painting, artificially ageing the sample with heat and light to approximate the material properties of the 1958 painting. The Rothko family also donated a canvas for further testing, one which the artist had primed with maroon paint at the time of the Seagram commission in the 1950s.
Using the meticulous cleaning and retouching methods honed from this 9 month testing process, Rachel Barker, Paintings Conservator at Tate, then spent a further 9 months working on Black on Maroon itself. She painstakingly removed the majority of the surface ink before reversible conservation-grade materials were used to restore the painting’s surface. All this research and conservation work was undertaken in close consultation with the Rothko family and with international experts with long experience of working with Rothko’s paintings.
Although the damage will always remain under the surface of the work, it has now been conserved to displayable condition. It returns to public view at Tate Modern today, being reunited with other paintings in the series. In accordance with Rothko’s wishes, these works are shown at low light levels in a dedicated room, creating a meditative, immersive environment which has long been a highlight of the gallery’s free displays.
Nicholas Serota, Director, Tate said:
I am delighted that everyone can once again come to Tate Modern and see Rothko’s magnificent Black on Maroon. Looking after its collection, Tate has a 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 Mark Rothko.
Christopher Rothko said:
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.
Carol Mancusi-Ungaro, Director, Center for the Technical Study of Modern Art, Harvard Art Museums said:
The Tate team tackled the egregious damage with intelligence, professional acumen, and exceptional sensitivity. This optimal combination of talents enabled them to accomplish a particularly challenging conservation treatment and to reaffirm the brilliance of Mark Rothko’s painting.