Famous painting by Willem de Kooning, heavily damaged in a robbery, has finally been restored

Written by Jacqui Palumbo, CNN

Nearly four decades after a Willem de Kooning painting was forcibly cut from its frame in a museum and kept in a couple’s bedroom, the recently restored work, believed to be worth more than $100 million, will appear in the museum for the first time. be seen publicly.

“Woman-Ocher” was missing from 1985 until 2017, when it was found in an antique store in Silver City, New Mexico. The shop owner had bought it and other belongings for about $2,000 in a post-death estate sale — in 2012 and 2017, respectively — of Jerry and Rita Alter, the couple who owned the painting. A customer who suspected the artwork was an actual de Kooning set in motion the chain of events that led to its recovery, according to a podcast about the theft by the Getty Center in Los Angeles, which the painting is exhibiting this summer.

“Woman-Ocher” took years of painstaking conservation work after thieves stole it from the University of Arizona Museum of Art and attempted an amateur restoration. Credit: © 2022 The Willem de Kooning Foundation/Artists’ Rights Association

The exhibition ‘Conserving de Kooning: Theft and Recovery’ takes place after years of careful restoration at the Getty Conservation Institute (GCI). De Kooning painted the canvas in 1954-55 as part of his famous “Woman” series of six paintings, which marked a return to figuration for the artist at a time when abstract expressionists, including Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock, reigned. In 2006, another work of art from the series, “Woman III”, sold for a whopping $137.5 million. “Woman-Ocher” is widely quoted as being rated for an even higher price tag: $160 million.

After the show at Getty, “Woman-Ocher” will finally return to the University of Arizona Museum of Art (UAMA), where it was brutally stolen the morning after Thanksgiving Day in 1985 when the guards took their mail.

Motive unknown

Stealing the painting only took about 15 minutes, as the museum was just opening. Olivia Miller, curator of exhibitions for the UAMA, told the podcast that a woman distracted one of the guards while her partner cut the curtain. They left just before the guard arrived at her post and noticed it was missing. There was only one witness, who gave a description of a “rust colored” car but was not given the license plate information.

The robbery, which stumbled investigators over a lack of video or fingerprints, continues to baffle the curators and conservationists who worked closely with the painting.

Willem de Kooning was one of the most important abstract expressionist painters.

Willem de Kooning was one of the most important abstract expressionist painters. Credit: Henry Bowden/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

“It’s strange,” Ulrich Birkmaier, senior curator of painting at GCI, said in a video call to CNN Style from the Institute’s studio. “Nobody knows why (it was stolen). I mean, we know how, but we don’t know why.”

The “who” has never been definitively proven either. Although photos taken during the estate sale show that the Alters — a seemingly normal retired couple living in New Mexico — had the painting hanging behind their bedroom door, the FBI case is still open.

The Alters had De Kooning's "Woman-Ocher" hung behind their bedroom door.  It was only discovered after they both died.

The Alters had De Kooning’s “Woman-Ocher” hanging behind their bedroom door. It was only discovered after they both died. Credit: Rick Johnson

But as Miller said in the podcast, the Alters family lived in Tucson, where UAMA is located. Jerry also wrote a series of short stories, one of which was about jewel thieves who embarked on an emerald robbery for the pleasure of viewing it in private.

“I don’t know if we’ll ever know … exactly whether they were indeed the people who stole the painting,” Miller said. “What we do know is that they were very adventurous people… We know Jerry loved to paint and we know they had family in Tucson, so maybe this was just another adventure for them to cross off their list.” . It’s really hard to say.”

Irreversible damage

It took GCI scientists and conservationists years to repair the most egregious damage to the artwork. Most of the destruction occurred during the theft itself, but an amateur restoration attempt with putty and paint further altered the painting while it was lost.

“You can’t really reverse what happened to the painting,” Birkmaier said.

Prior to the theft, and during an earlier conservation process at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the painting had been pasted onto a second canvas. This meant the thief had to forcefully rip the artwork in a downward and sideways motion to free it, Birkmaier said, creating a topographical map of horizontal ridges across the surface.

“It was just a staggering amount of paint loss,” Birkmaier added.

The thief who cut the painting was forced to tear the canvas down and from side to side to free it, leaving "a staggering amount of paint loss," according to Getty's foremost conservationist Ulrich Birkmaier.

The thief who cut the painting was forced to tear the canvas down and side to side to dislodge it, causing “a staggering amount of paint loss,” according to Ulrich Birkmaier, Getty’s chief conservationist. Credit: © 2022 The Willem de Kooning Foundation/Artists’ Rights Association

“When they cut it out of the frame and pulled it off the other canvas, it must have been a moment of panic and shock when they realized all this paint was peeling off,” he said.

Before the process began to repair and clean “Woman-Ocher”, four members of the GCI scientific team – Vincent Beltran, Lynn Lee, Douglas MacLennan and Joy Mazurek – conducted an analysis of de Kooning’s materials and process. , as well as the impact of the damage.

That included mapping pigments across the canvas using Macro X-Ray Fluorescence (XRF) technology, which identifies chemical elements; examining cross-sections of the layers of the painting; and studying how colors had faded over time.

According to Tom Learner, chief of science at GCI, the fact that De Kooning often mixed house paints and artists’ oil paints made the surface much more prone to flaking.

“When paint dries on a door frame, there’s no deflection like canvas, so they’re pretty brittle,” Learner said in a video call with CNN Style. “So if you have house paint on a canvas painting…(it) is probably another factor as to why there was so much damage.”

A ‘scrupulous’ process

To repair the surface, Birkmaier said, the curator of the paintings, Laura Rivers, spent two years working with fine dental tools.

“Every flake of paint that had come up when it was pulled from that canvas during the theft had to be put under the microscope, in a very painstaking and time-consuming process,” explains Birkmaier.

After the show at the Getty, the painting will be returned to the UAMA collection.

After the show at the Getty, the painting will be returned to the UAMA collection. Credit: © 2022 The Willem de Kooning Foundation/Artists’ Rights Association/J. Paul Getty Trust

Then Birkmaier spent months reattaching the edges of the painting to the edge it was cut from, and filling in areas of the paint loss.

During CNN Style’s video interview with Birkmaier, he wore a magnifying glass with visor and worked on that delicate retouching process — or “in-painting” process — with “Woman-Ocher” on an easel behind him. At the time of the interview in mid-May, he estimated that he still had about 200 hours to do.

Despite the fact that de Kooning used oil and house paint, it’s important to retouch artwork with materials such as acrylic paint, which can be removed if necessary in the future, Learner explains.

He said his team’s studies reveal the full extent of the thieves’ damage, down to the calcium normally found in the bottom layer of the paint but can be seen through their scans, visible among the web of cracks.

“(The theft) is an important part of its history and will remain so forever.”

Preserving the Kooning: Theft and Recoverywill be on display at the Getty Center from June 7 through August 28.

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