If you're seeing this message, it means we're having trouble loading external resources on our website.

If you're behind a web filter, please make sure that the domains *.kastatic.org and *.kasandbox.org are unblocked.

Main content

Restoring Rothko

A man vandalized a Mark Rothko painting, part of a series at Tate. The damage affected the whole series. Experts used science and art restoration techniques to remove the black ink. They analyzed Rothko's layering method and replicated it for testing. The restoration was successful, preserving Rothko's legacy.

Learn more about Mark Rothko and his work in the Tate Collection here.

Created by Tate.

Want to join the conversation?

Video transcript

It's time to bring you some news that's come into us which is a man has been jailed for two years for defacing a painting by the artist Mark Rothko. This is the work of Mark Rothko. A fine example of his sombre, thoughtful, abstract art. It is an important group of works because it was the first time he made a sequence that he conceived of as a sort of environment. At 3.25 yesterday a visitor defaced one of Rothko's Seagram Murals with black paint. It was the work seen here on the right that was targeted. A visitor used black paint and a small brush... ...and scrawled over the corner of a mural by the artist Mark Rothko. They have a particular location at Tate which is incomparable. When the ink was applied to the bottom right corner of this one painting it not only destroyed one painting it destroyed a whole group of paintings because this painting is one of a series of nine at Tate. The piece has now been removed from public view and taken to the gallery's conservation department. Despite the damage experts say there's still hope that it could be restored. It's incredibly important to remove this ink because it destroys the integrity of the whole series. If you are trying to remove something that you don't want from a work of art the key concept is solubility. So, one of the first things we did in the science lab is to find out what is in the ink in order to understand the solubility of the ink. We were able to then guide Rachel towards using solvents that we know would be useful. Because we didn't know how Rothko made his work we had to make a representative sample which had a layer structure similar to the painting. Scientists before me, as well as myself, have spent time looking at the different layers of Rothko's paintings. He painted with a lot of thin layers and they merged into one big heterogeneous layer so they're very difficult to sample and they're very difficult to analyse. What we're aiming to do is to create an approximation of the layer structure with the same materials that Rothko used so that we can then do our own testing. We cut it up into sections and we put sections of it into our environmental accelerated ageing chambers. What we're aiming to do is accelerate the ageing of the samples Rachel and I made so that the materials approximate the age of the painting a little better because the painting we're dealing with is now 55 years old, around that, and it's just easier for us to test our cleaning strategies on an aged sample. Not only is it important that we try and produce a similar form of graffiti but that we use a similar amount of ink. What kind of level would it be appropriate to take it to, how much ink are we going to be happy leaving. There're just so many unknowns, that's a really untried and untested process. How best to manipulate the solvent in order to remove the ink in a way that removes as much ink as possible but minimises any damage to the underlying paint film. And, I think part of that is about science but part of that is about hands on skills and the manipulation of materials, and that's very much a conservator's realm rather than a scientist's realm. Time's up. Gel has taken up softened and swollen ink but it has not been terribly effective. My own reading of Rothko's painting techniques is that he was primarily after an emotional response and that therefore, perhaps, information that is intellectual, such as material composition, could be a distraction. But from my perspective I find delving deeply into the material as mystifying and as beautiful as standing two feet away from the painting. I do find that exploration of the detail fascinating and enlightening. So, here we are at the border between two layer of paint. This is 3D made at 500 time magnification so you can see very well the surface. What was the initial impact of this vandalism on you? Well, fortunately I'd seen some photos in advance so I had a sense of it. It's almost like a physical attack, I mean, I was shocked that someone would do that. It's a part of the history of it and that you'll have photo documentation. If it can be removed why on earth would you keep it? It's irrelevant to the work of art and so it should go. So, I've been very keen to show you this Carol, something very exciting that we found in the warehouse in New York. Wow. It's so surprising to see. Wow, see how methodical this is and Rothko thinking this through. For some reason I feel closer to his hand with this than I do with some of his painting. Started with a base layer, I guess, as an initial priming layer and then added colour. Yeah. I think it's just a result of what he's done. He's just trying to tone it down. But it's also, I mean, it's also a steady piece; it doesn't have any of the magic, any allure of the final work. This is just about material. This isn't about making a painting but in the end it's going to be your interpretation of what you see on the surface. It's exciting. It's very, very slow but it's worth it because the slower I go the more effective it is. You either leave ink and leave more of Rothko's material intact or you go slightly deeper and you forfeit a little bit of Rothko's pigment in order to get more ink out. And, the ink that had gone through the canvas has that been removed as well or is that still there? No, that'll still be there. So, you've just taken it off the surface. Yeah. Yeah. I want to give you both a big hug. It's really amazing. Do you want to get that on camera? Doesn't it look wonderful? I was so excited. I looked at it and I thought, hold on, I thought he wrote his whole name. We're approaching the end of removing the ink from the black. We're starting to look a lot more closely at options for cleaning the maroon paint. The maroon paint has at least one layer of paint less than the black and it also has no glazing layers on it. And, as a result the maroon paint on this painting is more vulnerable to physical disruption, it's more vulnerable to solvents and it's generally more porous. So, in that sense it was also more vulnerable to the ink that applied to the surface during the incident. We've decided that it's unlikely that we'll be able to remove enough ink from the front of the painting. So, we're embarking on another period of research using suction techniques; trying to pull ink through the back and out of the canvas. I'm quite nervous about using suction techniques purely because up till now I've had absolute control over the application of solvent because I've been using my own hand and I've been able to apply the solvent with a very high level of precision. There is always the worry that as the solvent is dragged through the paint system and through the canvas that it might cause the ink to spread both at the front and at the back. After extensive testing with suction techniques on the test samples we decided not to take it forward on to the painting because of the amount of solvent we were using and the amount of pressure we were also exerting on the surface of the painting to get just very, very minimum results. What we're going to do in the next couple of days is to rethink the solvent blend, possibly work with something that's a little faster evaporating so it doesn't spend so much time in the paint film. Wow. Look at this. This has been cleaned and it looks exactly like the area...like the original painting. Really, look at this. It's impossible to tell. Oh my god, you've just made my day. We got a lot of penetration of the ink right into the paint and we tried lots of different solvent which Bronwyn can expand on. I guess that's a testament to the fact that you're pretty confident that you know how to get this off at this point. Yeah, it is, it's a great reference. It gives you an idea of just how far you've come. Yeah. It's funny because I was just revisiting aspects of my father, the big biography written about my father in the early 90s and all these people were saying he was so secretive and he didn't want to talk to anyone about his techniques. I'm not convinced that he was so much secretive and trying to his special technique as he didn't really want the focus on that, he wanted people to experience the paintings. Yeah. But the back set of that is for people like me, and especially like you, it makes everything much more complicated because he didn't document. It was how he was working; he wanted you to deal with the end result. I mean, I have to say that what's unique about this project, for me, is that I've had access 12 hours a day to a conservation scientist. You know, Tate allowed us to collaborate. We've had the time to really think and test the system out. Yeah. I mean, I saw this, what, about a month ago. It's come on leaps even in that period. It's just extraordinary. So, this is the last bit; a climactic occasion. Wohoo! Good job. It's really nice to see all the letters removed. It was a great moment removing that last remnant of ink. But then I had to start considering the huge task of retouching the painting. It's not going to sort it everywhere but in the more matte areas. And, if you can alter that combination of the other types you could get it more glossy and less translucent. It's going to look very consistent. What about this area? It could also be more fully integrated if you felt it was still too prominent. But I think it was a good balance, and we'll see if it still shows a little bit too white. No, I mean, I think under the conditions of gallery lighting it might be slightly different. I can't see it. I was very nervous about getting close to it but I'm pleased to say that the painting does look really good in the gallery space under the gallery lights. It was absolutely terrifying seeing the painting hung in the gallery and getting a sense of how the public would see the painting. And, I'm hoping that they won't be able to see it. I'm hoping it will be invisible in gallery lighting. One hopes that people will walk in, not notice and be returned to that miraculous feeling that Rothko aspired to in making the works in the first place.