Rothko Vandalized at the Tate Modern

The defaced Rothko

On Sunday afternoon at the Tate Modern a man walked up to this untitled Mark Rothko mural and painted over the work. The man then left the building. The Guardian report has the reaction of a witness to the criminal act:

Tim Wright, who posted a picture on Twitter of the canvas after it was defaced, said that he saw the man sitting quietly in front of the painting beforehand. “Then we heard the sound of a pen, but by the time we turned around he was pretty much finished with his tag,” said Wright, who was with his girlfriend on a weekend visit to London from Bristol. “The pen ink then just dripped down the painting. Once we realised what had happened, we went to find a member of staff. They were really shocked when they came and saw what he had done.” The museum said in a statement: “Tate can confirm that at 15.25 this afternoon there was an incident at Tate Modern in which a visitor defaced one of Rothko’s Seagram murals by applying a small area of black paint with a brush to the painting. The police are currently investigating the incident.” The gallery was closed for a short time after the incident. The canvas, one of a number by Rothko owned by the Tate, was in a room with several other works painted by the Russian-born artist, who emigrated to the US at the age of 10 and went on to become one of America’s most important postwar artists.

These incidents keep happening with alarming regularity. Proactive museum security may have been able to prevent this. The museum will certainly be taking a look at its own security, but the very small amount of time it probably takes to deface a work in this way makes the task difficult. Large museums which are very accessible to the public are a real challenge for security. Given the Menil tagging here in our neighborhood in Houston this summer, are we exaggerating too much to say the street art tagging movement is moving inside museums.

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Picasso Vandalism at the Menil in Houston

The vandal used a stencil to spray a bull and the Spanish word Conquista (conquer) in gold paint on Pablo Picasso's painting Woman in a Red Armchair.

 A moron has decided to vandalize a Picasso work at the Menil in Houston. This is a few blocks from our house—but we are away in Amelia at the ARCA summer program finishing up my teaching and preparing for the annual conference this weekend. If we were home the spaniels and I would be scouring Houston looking for this dimwit. From the chronicle:

Police are searching for a suit-jacketed suspect who spray-painted graffiti over a Picasso painting at Houston's Menil Collection art museum last week.

Menil communications director Vance Muse, reached in Germany Monday, said the painting was rushed down the hall, with the paint barely dry, to the museum’s renowned conservation lab, where chief conservator Brad Epley quickly began its repair. The vandal, who fled the building and has not been identified, stenciled an image of a bullfighter killing a bull and the word “Conquista” on the painting.

 The vandal used a stencil and spraypaint to damage Picasso’s Woman in a Red Armchair. The work may have been rushed down to the conservation lab, yet the museum security was nowhere to be seen. One of the great charms of the Menil is you can wander in and have the place to yourself on a hot afternoon, but perhaps security needs to pay a little closer attention. 

  1. Molly Glentzer, Picasso vandal hits Menil, Houston Chronicle, (last visited Jun 20, 2012).

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Protecting Art from Vandalism

The Gauguin, attacked for a second time

Emily Wax reports for the Washington Post on the attempt by a woman to damage a Gauguin painting for the second time. She gets a number of comments from various security professionals, but the best response was this one:

 Mike Kirchner, director of security for Harvard Art Museums, says the first line of defense is alert guards and museum employees. 

“Everyone has to start a relationship with a smile, a nod, a good morning with people coming into the museum,” he said. “You can scan the crowd, you can try to look for people who don’t want to make eye contact. Everyone should always be on alert.” 

The National Gallery declined to comment on Friday’s attack because the incident is under investigation. According to D.C. Superior Court records, Burns, who has schizophrenia, is under observation at St. Elizabeths. Nonetheless, some guards at the museum said Sunday that they had photocopied her mug shot and put it in their coat pockets. 

For this time, no harm done, and in the future, the best line of security (which still allows us to enjoy the art) is a friendly and active security guard.


  1. Emily Wax, Museums’ fine art of protecting masterpieces (2011), (last visited Aug 16, 2011).
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Mona Lisa hit by mug, no harm done

Mona LisaIt is certainly an iconic painting, and an important work of art, but it can be a real paing fighting the crowds and amateur photographers trying to catch a glimpse.  But do you really need to start throwing things at it?

One woman felt compelled to do so, as the Mona Lisa was attacked by a Russian woman last week who threw a mug at the painting, but it only smashed on the bullet-proof glass with no harm done.  The woman was apparently “unhinged” according to a Louvre spokesperson.  This isn’t the first time the painting has been the target of vandals.  It was of course stolen for a few years in 1911; doused with acid in 1956; and hit by a rock later that year by an angry Bolivian. 

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