A Mark Rothko masterpiece that was severely damaged in a graffiti attack has gone back on display at Tate Modern after a painstaking 18-month restoration programme.
“Black on Maroon”, part of a series by the US abstract artist and one of Tate’s best-loved works, was defaced in October 2012 after a man climbed over the barrier and wrote on the surface.
Sir Nicholas Serota, Tate director, said the restoration following the “devastating” incident had been “more successful than any of us dared hope”.
Rothko’s delicate technique made it “notoriously difficult” to restore his paintings, conservators said. The graffiti ink had sunk deep into the layers of the painting, in some places penetrating through to the back of the canvas. Rothko applied thin layers of oils, colourants, resins, egg and animal glue to create his large-scale works.
Conservators turned to scientists from Dow Chemical, the US manufacturer, and academics at the National Gallery of Washington to find a solvent that would clean away the ink while leaving the original paint intact.
In a process that took nine months, they tested options on a specially made version of the painting – which they subjected to an accelerated ageing process in the laboratory – eventually hitting on a solution of benzyl alcohol and ethyl lactate, never before used in restoration.
Patricia Smithen, Tate head of conservation, said the project had been “incredibly challenging”. “The graffiti ink was designed to be very black, very quick drying, highly staining and permanent,” she said.
The dark-hued mural was one of a series that Rothko was commissioned to paint in the late 1950s to adorn one of New York’s top restaurants of the time: the Four Seasons in the Seagram building on Park Avenue.
To get a sense of the works as they would be in situ, the Russian-born artist built a scaffold in his studio to the exact dimensions of the fashionable venue. But he later changed his mind about the commission, deciding that a luxury restaurant was an unsuitable place to host works he believed demanded the viewer’s uninterrupted attention.
Instead, he donated nine of the paintings to the Tate in 1969, a year before his death, where six are now are displayed in a purpose-built, low-lit room according to the artist’s instructions.
Tate would not speculate on the value of the painting, but Rothko’s works fetch tens of millions at auction. His “Orange, Red, Yellow” sold for £53.8m at Christie’s in 2012, breaking the record for a postwar artwork at auction.
Sir Nicholas said security had been reviewed following the incident but he did not want to see visitors’ experience of the gallery suffer. “It’s important for us not to turn this in a kind of Fort Knox … This is a gallery not a prison,” he said.
Wlodzimierz Umaniec, the Polish national who defaced the painting, was convicted of criminal damage to property worth more than £5,000 in December 2012, receiving a two-year sentence.
Christopher Rothko, the artist’s son, said conservators had “realised the only satisfactory resolution to a terrible situation: the work is once again on display for the public as our father intended”.