Sacred or sexist? After a brazen theft, seeing de Kooning in a new light

Senior paintings conservator Ulrich Birkmaier fills in the cracks on the painting Woman-Ochre by Willem de Kooning. PHOTO: NYTIMES

LOS ANGELES - Ulrich Birkmaier's job as senior paintings conservator at the Getty Museum involves painstakingly repairing ageing canvases and removing botched varnishes or restorations so artworks can return in full health to public view.

He is, by profession, pretty much the opposite of an art thief.

But in early March, he played the role of one.

The Munich-born conservator grabbed a box cutter and began to slice a painting from its frame, starting from the top left.

When the canvas would not come free from its backing, he tugged forcefully, creating a pattern of thin cracks running across the canvas. Within minutes the picture was his.

Mr Birkmaier was reenacting one of the most brazen art heists in recent memory: The 1985 theft in broad daylight of Willem de Kooning's 1955 painting Woman-Ochre from the University of Arizona Museum of Art.

A white, middle-aged couple - the man wore glasses and a moustache, the woman a scarf over her hair - entered the museum right upon opening.

She distracted a guard, while he walked upstairs to the painting, and within 10 minutes, they fled with the artwork.

There were no significant leads in the case until five years ago, when the painting was recovered by antique dealers in New Mexico.

Mr Birkmaier's reenactment of the theft was done with a cheap photographic reproduction, but it "looked eerily original", he said.

He did so for the sake of a short video in the new Getty Museum exhibition, Conserving de Kooning: Theft And Recovery, which he curated with Mr Tom Learner, the head of science at the Getty Conservation Institute.

Sharing the story of the painting's theft and their two-year conservation process, the exhibition, opening on June 7, marks the first public viewing of Woman-Ochre in over three decades.

The exhibition brings the painting one step closer to its homecoming at the University of Arizona Art Museum on Oct 8.

There, it will be the centrepiece of a related show, Restored: The Return Of Woman-Ochre, which also looks at how the painting came to the museum in the first place: as part of a donation by Baltimore collector Edward Gallagher Jr, in honour of his 13-year-old son, who had died in a boating accident.

But the painting today is not exactly the same one donated by Gallagher in 1958.

A tear in the canvas just below the signature on the painting Woman-Ochre by Willem de Kooning. PHOTO: NYTIMES

The theft has left its imprint not only on the surface of the canvas, where some scars are visible despite a meticulous conservation, but also on the minds of viewers fascinated by art crimes.

The artwork's return to view raises the question of to what extent visitors will see the painting, with its grotesque - some say sexist - depiction of the female form, in a different light.

Woman-Ochre was controversial even before the theft, as part of de Kooning's influential but polarising Woman series.

In the 1950s, after gaining recognition as an abstract painter, the artist caused a stir with six huge Woman paintings that are numbered as such, in addition to several smaller canvases like Woman-Ochre.

With broad, sometimes slashing brushwork, this series stretched the female figure in grotesque ways, giving her features that include gaping eyes, fang-like teeth and enormous, sagging breasts.

The works were seen as misogynistic by some early on, to the point that de Kooning's wife, Elaine de Kooning, insisted that she was not the inspiration, but rather that his mother was.

The artist did not help his cause by telling a writer in 1956: "Women irritate me sometimes. I painted that irritation in the Woman series."

Ms Olivia Miller, the exhibitions curator at the Arizona Museum of Art, acknowledged the artwork's aggressive content, but also argues that it has acquired a new mystique because of the theft. She even discussed it as a "sacred object" when asked to speak in a religious studies class.

"It became so treasured - the museum wanted it back so badly, and so much time was dedicated to looking at this image and thinking about this image," she said.

"And then to have it returned, have so many people rally around it and have the Getty spend years taking care of it, this human element has imbued the painting with new significance."

She still remembers her shock at receiving a phone call, five years ago, from a New Mexico antiques dealer who discovered that the estate-sale painting he had just placed in his shop was in fact Woman-Ochre.

The dealer, David Van Auker, had bought the canvas as part of the estate of Jerry and Rita Alter, retired schoolteachers who lived nearby with the painting for decades.

They had hung it in their bedroom in an odd spot, obscured by the bedroom door whenever it was open.

As shown in the colourful, caper-like new documentary The Thief Collector, all signs point to the Alters having stolen the painting for their own private enjoyment, from photographs that place the couple in the area the day before the crime to police sketches that match their features.

The Getty exhibition does not address the persisting question of whether Woman-Ochre is sexist.

"I can see how the painting would have been shocking and maybe still is," Mr Birkmaier said.

"But that is well beyond the focus of our exhibition, tracing the material history of this particular painting."

The goal in the conservation, Mr Learner said, was "returning the painting to the walls, where people could enjoy it as a de Kooning".

It is likely that for most viewers, especially from a distance, any damage still visible after all the Getty work will blend into the artist's furious brushstrokes.

And maybe in this strange way, the violence of the theft and the violence of de Kooning's imagery will now work together, woven into the very fabric of this newly conserved painting.

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