Vija Celmins • Night Sky #16 • 2000-1 • oil on linen mounted on wood panel • 31x38 in •
The Art Supporting Foundation to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
One of Celmins' Night Sky paintings on view at the Carnegie International in Pittsburgh was completely destroyed by a museum guard there.
A guard at the Carnegie Museum of Art is accused of using a key to deface a $1.2 million painting, reports Jerome L. Sherman and Timothy McNulty in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. The piece—from Vija Celmins's "Night Sky" series—was on display as part of the 2008 Carnegie International exhibition, according to a police affidavit. It was damaged beyond repair on May 16; a "large vertical gouge" runs down its middle. A surveillance tape caught Timur Serebrykov in the act of defacing the work, the affidavit said. "I didn't like the painting," Serebrykov told police when they arrested him at the museum on May 20. He added, "I'm sorry." Serebrykov was charged with one count of institutional vandalism. He has waived his right to a preliminary hearing. James Sheets, whose law firm represents Serebrykov, said he may use a mental-health defense.
Ellen Baxter, the museum's chief conservator, told police that the art piece was a "total loss." The painting was one of at least eight “Night Sky” paintings on display in the museum's Gallery Fifteen, part of "Life on Mars," the latest version of the Carnegie International. All were done by Celmins, a prominent artist who was born in Latvia and is now based in New York. Neither she nor her gallery could be reached for comment yesterday.
Hopefully Serebrykov will be sentenced very harshly, cases like the slap on the wrist the French woman received for kissing a Cy Twombly in July of 2007 set a dangerous precedent. Those seeking to express their opinion about a work of art with violence or in the case of the French mental patient "love" should be severely punished. Acts against art are a strange form of censorship, the criminal says, "you do not have the right to express this, make this or for this expression to exist," with action. something far more extreme and unacceptable than words. Someone who would disrespect and attack a work of art are a different flavor from the spectrum of miscreants that includes people who torture and abuse animals, burn books, smash CDs or use holy books for target practice. This is a tragic thing, especially when one who's very purpose at the museum is to prevent such disasters. Also saddening are the lumpen that "don't get art" and comically support actions against works they don't think count or aren't art or simply "don't like." An interesting experiment would be to deface things the defacers and their supporters find dear and see how they feel about it.
Another odd note is that both the Celmins and the Twombly aren't offensive. At least in a moral sense, they do not depict any hot button topics like a Mapplethorpe, Serrano or Ofili. What is so crazy is how reductive or abstract art work can still draw so much ire and hate from people. Barnett Newman is the most defaced artist in the world. Why is this? What is it about a minimal blank sky, a mostly white canvas or a large color field that more people find necessary to destroy than an image of sex or religion?