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Rothko mural vandalized, Chicago museums take note

Are the city's artworks easy targets for defacement?

By Kristin Scharkey |

Last fall, Mark Rothko took center stage at the Goodman Theatre in Red, John Logan’s play about the late artist’s struggle to complete a series of murals for the Four Seasons restaurant. Rothko reentered the limelight on October 7, when a painting from that same commission was vandalized at the Tate Modern in London.

A 26-year-old Polish artist, Vladimir Umanets, was charged with defacing Rothko’s Black on Maroon (1958), writing vladimir umanets ’12 a potential piece of yellowism in black ink.

Is art in Chicago susceptible to similar crimes? Spokespeople for the Museum of Contemporary Art and the Art Institute declined to comment when asked if their museums tightened security policies in light of the high-profile incident. “It’s one of the rare things I won’t comment about,” MCA spokeswoman Karla Loring says.

An Art Institute security staffer discloses that, while no changes were made to daily procedure, the guards were shown a picture of the defaced Rothko painting as an example of what could happen if they’re not watchful. The guard says the staff was reminded to make quick transitions while rotating between rooms. “It only takes a few minutes for someone to vandalize the art in the other gallery we’re heading towards,” the guard says. “I just don’t understand how they got away with so much [vandalism] to that Rothko. I could understand a small splash of paint, but it just seems that they had too much time to do too much damage to that piece. I’m asking myself, ‘Where was the security guard at that time?’ ”

In addition to human monitors, DePaul Art Museum director Louise Lincoln says the Lincoln Park building has security cameras in every exhibit space. Still, she acknowledges the Rothko incident could contribute to stricter procedures. “Sometimes things like this will set off a little copycat activity,” Lincoln says. “So we will be watching more closely for people getting too close to works on the wall, people getting within touching range of sculptures. We will be more vigilant about collecting people’s bags when they come into the museum so they’re not walking around carrying a bag full of Sharpies.”

Even stringent security doesn’t always deter crafty saboteurs. Police and federal authorities were on high alert the week of the NATO summit in May when a protester managed to mar Daley Plaza’s Picasso statue with a sticker reading ttfra: tax the f****** rich already. Plenty of Chicago artists can speak of the sting of having a work vandalized. In 2010, SAIC grad Anida Yoeu Ali’s 1700%, a piece depicting hate crimes against Muslims, was defaced with drawings during her M.F.A. show at Sullivan Galleries. The perpetrators were never found.

“I was shocked, sad, disturbed, confused, angry, hurt,” Ali recalls via e-mail. “I asked myself, ‘Why did this happen to me, to my work and how could this happen in such a public setting?’ I was ultimately baffled that someone would openly project their hate onto my wall like that.”

During the 2006 show “Laugh Seriously” at the now-defunct Near West Side gallery Butcher Shop Dogmatic, several pieces by Meg Duguid and Catie Olson were destroyed. In response, the artists threw a post-show “destruction party” to “redirect” the vandalism.

Rahmaan “Statik” Barnes has been on both sides of vandalism: His murals on business establishments across the city have been defaced, but in 1997, when he was 17, the artist was arrested for tagging. “[Having a piece defaced is] heartbreaking and disappointing,” Barnes says. “It feels as if you’ve done all that [work] and no one cared.”