"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," a museum spokeswoman wrote in an e-mail.
Museum-goer Tim Wright witnessed the act of vandalism and posted an image on Twitter.
The 23-year-old Bristol resident said he was at the Tate during a day trip to London with his girlfriend when the couple realized what was going on. He noticed a man walk into the exhibit, but he thought nothing of it until he heard a "smashing sound."
“It was very surreal. It wasn’t something we expected to see. One minute he sat down, and the next minute he put his foot over the barrier,” Wright said of the vandal.
Wright said they saw the man as he finished up the tag and then made his getaway. He and his girlfriend stayed at the exhibit while a group of nearby women went to find museum staff. An alarm soon went off, and the museum was evacuated. Wright said he and his girlfriend gave a description of the event to a museum employee.
Tate confirmed that the gallery was "briefly closed" due to the incident.
“It’s just not the thing you expect to see in an art gallery," Wright said. "I’ve never seen anything like it. It's quite shocking, actually.”
The defaced painting was a mural from Rothko's famed Seagram series. The Russian-American abstract expressionist was commissioned to do a series of paintings for the Four Seasons restaurant of the Seagram building in New York in 1958. Though he started the series of murals, he famously reneged, deciding the swanky New York restaurant wasn't an appropriate home for his art.
Rothko rejected the commission but completed paintings stemming from the project, many of which made their way into the halls of museums. The murals arrived in London as Rothko killed himself in 1970.
The murals have been on display at many of the Tate's locations as well as the National Gallery of Art in Washington.
Rothko's children, Kate Rothko Prizel and Christopher Rothko, said in a statement that they were thankful for the support of others after the incident.
"The Rothko family is greatly troubled by yesterday's occurrence but has full confidence that the Tate Gallery will do all in its power to remedy the situation," the family said. "Our father donated his legendary Seagram paintings to the museum in 1969 sensing the commitment of the institution to his work and impressed by the warm embrace it had received from the British public. We are heartened to have felt that embrace again in the outpouring of distress and support that we and our father have received both directly and in public forums."
Speculation about the culprit's identity is starting to swirl, but police have offered few specifics. A Met police spokesman said the vandal is "a white man aged in his late 20s who subsequently left the scene, and there have been no arrests at this time.”