LOS ANGELES — Ulrich Birkmaier’s job as senior work conservator on the Getty Museum entails painstakingly repairing ageing canvases and eradicating botched varnishes or restorations so artworks can return in full well being to public view. He’s by occupation just about the other of an artwork thief.
However in early March he performed the position of 1. The clean-cut, Munich-born conservator grabbed a field cutter and started to rapidly and violently slice a portray from its body, ranging from the highest left. When the canvas wouldn’t come free from its backing, he tugged forcefully, making a sample of skinny cracks working throughout the canvas. Inside minutes the image was his.
Birkmaier was re-enacting some of the brazen artwork heists in latest reminiscence: the 1985 theft in broad daylight of Willem de Kooning’s 1955 portray “Lady-Ochre” from the College of Arizona Museum of Artwork. A white, middle-aged couple — the person wore glasses and a mustache, the girl a shawl over her hair — entered the museum proper upon opening. She distracted a guard, whereas he walked upstairs to the portray, and inside 10 minutes they fled with the paintings. There have been no vital leads within the case till 5 years in the past, when the portray was recovered by vintage sellers in New Mexico.
Birkmaier’s re-enactment of the theft was accomplished with an inexpensive photographic replica however it “seemed eerily unique,” he mentioned, and the method felt fraught. “To go at it with a knife was upsetting. It went in opposition to every part we’re educated to do.” He did so for the sake of a brief video within the new Getty Museum exhibition, “Conserving de Kooning: Theft and Restoration,” which he curated with Tom Learner, the top of science on the Getty Conservation Institute. Sharing the story of the portray’s theft and their two-year conservation course of, the exhibition, opening June 7, marks the primary public viewing of “Lady-Ochre” in over three a long time.
The exhibition additionally brings the portray one step nearer to its homecoming on the College of Arizona Artwork Museum on Oct. 8. There it will likely be the centerpiece of a associated present, “Restored: The Return of Lady-Ochre,” which additionally seems to be at how the portray got here to the museum within the first place: as a part of a donation by the Baltimore collector Edward Gallagher Jr., in honor of his 13-year-old son, who had died in a boating accident.
However the portray in the present day shouldn’t be precisely the identical one donated by Gallagher in 1958. The theft has left its imprint not solely on the floor of the canvas, the place some scars are seen regardless of a meticulous conservation, however on the minds of viewers fascinated by artwork crimes. The paintings’s return to view raises the query of to what extent guests will see the portray, with its grotesque — some say sexist — depiction of the feminine type, in a distinct mild.
“Lady-Ochre” was controversial even earlier than the theft, as a part of de Kooning’s influential however polarizing “Lady” collection. Within the Fifties, after gaining recognition as an summary painter, the artist induced a stir with six big “Lady” work which might be numbered as such, along with a number of smaller canvases like “Lady-Ochre.” With broad, typically slashing brushwork, this collection stretched the feminine determine in grotesque methods, giving her options that embody gaping eyes, fang-like tooth and large, sagging breasts.
The works had been seen as misogynistic by some early on, to the purpose that de Kooning’s spouse, Elaine de Kooning, insisted that she was not the inspiration, however fairly that his mom was. The artist didn’t assist his trigger by telling a author in 1956, “Girls irritate me typically. I painted that irritation within the ‘Lady’ collection.”
Olivia Miller, the exhibitions curator on the Arizona Museum of Artwork, acknowledged the paintings’s aggressive content material but additionally argues that it has acquired a brand new mystique due to the theft. She even mentioned it as a “sacred object” when requested to talk in a spiritual research class.
“It grew to become so treasured — the museum needed it again so badly, and a lot time was devoted to taking a look at this picture and fascinated by this picture,” she mentioned. “After which to have it returned, have so many individuals rally round it and have the Getty spend years caring for it, this human factor has imbued the portray with new significance.”
Miller nonetheless remembers her shock at receiving a telephone name, 5 years in the past, from a New Mexico antiques seller who found that the estate-sale portray he had simply positioned in his store was in reality “Lady-Ochre.” The seller, David Van Auker, had purchased the canvas as a part of the property of Jerry and Rita Alter, retired schoolteachers who lived close by with the portray for many years. They’d hung it of their bed room in an odd spot, obscured by the bed room door at any time when it was open.
As proven within the colourful, caper-like new documentary “The Thief Collector,” all indicators level to the Alters having stolen the portray for their very own personal enjoyment, from images that place the couple within the space the day earlier than the crime to police sketches that match their options. (In keeping with an FBI agent within the movie, the investigation is not lively.)
The portray’s worth has been extensively reported to be near $100 million based mostly on one other, bigger canvas from the collection promoting privately for round $135 million, however Miller was not licensed to reveal the college’s insurance coverage valuation. She did say the college has no plans to promote it.
The New York artwork adviser Allan Schwartzman mentioned that, assuming it had been out there, a fantastically conserved “Lady-Ochre” “would occupy the highest finish of the market, as a result of the collection is so singular in its significance and examples are so uncommon,” with nearly all held by museums. He mentioned that “a infamous story associated to the historical past of the murals could make a piece notably interesting within the market,” mentioning Andy Warhol’s “Shot Marilyn” collection, a few of which had been really pierced by a bullet.
One other instance is the Mona Lisa. Whereas thought to be vital, the portray didn’t really change into a family identify till after its theft from the Louvre in 1911, when the French police plastered pictures of it all around the metropolis streets and it made the headlines.
John Elderfield, who curated the final large de Kooning survey for the Museum of Fashionable Artwork, mentioned that initially the Lady collection upset totally different individuals in several methods. Whereas some had been dismayed by the vulgar remedy of the feminine type, associates like Jackson Pollock accused de Kooning of betraying the reason for abstraction by returning to human topics. Elderfield’s take is that the work’ energy stems largely from their specific mixture of a basic medium and aggressive material. “He was utilizing thick brushes and broad swaths of oil portray on this method by which Venetian painters have for hundreds of years,” Elderfield mentioned. “He was utilizing conventional methods to make alarmingly fashionable work, and I feel this hybrid high quality made individuals uncomfortable.”
Different artwork historians proceed to wrestle with the collection’ material, with a protracted record of feminist students discussing the imagery when it comes to violence in opposition to ladies. Complicating the difficulty, Fionna Barber has argued that every portray’s content material shouldn’t be fastened however shifts with totally different spectators, whereas Marlene Clark lately printed a e book, “The Lady in Me,” exploring the Lady portraits as self-portraits.
The Getty exhibition doesn’t tackle the persisting query of whether or not “Lady-Ochre” is sexist. “I can see how the portray would have been stunning and possibly nonetheless is,” Birkmaier mentioned. “However that’s nicely past the main focus of our exhibition, tracing the fabric historical past of this specific portray.” He and Learner are its curators, he provides, “however we aren’t artwork historians.”
Their purpose within the conservation, Learner mentioned, was “returning the portray to the partitions, the place individuals might get pleasure from it as a de Kooning.” Birkmaier added: “We did the minimal wanted to return the portray to a stage the place you’ll be able to learn it correctly with out noticing harm first.”
A serious stage concerned stabilizing the floor of the canvas the place, because of the harm by the thieves, paint was flaking off or displaced. A conservator, Laura Rivers, labored to re-adhere paint flakes in the correct place, one by one, with the usage of “mild warmth and tiny dental instruments,” Birkmaier mentioned. She then eliminated two layers of varnish, one from a 1974 remedy by MoMA and the opposite presumably by the thieves, to deliver the portray nearer to what it seemed like leaving de Kooning’s studio. At that time Birkmaier reattached the portray to the canvas borders left behind when it was sliced off and gave it a brand new backing.
On the very finish, Birkmaier himself “inpainted” a variety of cracks so they’re much less seen. He additionally addressed a number of spots the place the thieves had added their very own paint — “amateurish restoration makes an attempt,” he mentioned — by eradicating what he might excise safely and portray over different areas.
The portray nonetheless has some seen scars for those who look intently sufficient. Across the edges of the canvas you’ll be able to see slight dimples made by the thieves when stapling their cutout canvas over a brand new stretcher bar. You may detect some unevenness near the body the place the slicing passed off. And, if you understand the place to look, you’ll be able to in all probability make out a number of of the tears that had been repaired, like one beneath the artist’s signature. (The signature is so outstanding it’s arduous to think about a pair dwelling with the de Kooning for many years and never noticing it.)
However as Learner identified, for all of the harm “Lady-Ochre” suffered, there isn’t one large tear that may distract viewers. What’s extra, he added, “There’s a lot motion within the portray, which works to our benefit.”
On this method it’s seemingly that for many viewers, particularly from a distance, any harm nonetheless seen after all of the Getty work will mix into the artist’s livid brushstrokes. And possibly on this unusual method the violence of the theft and the violence of de Kooning’s imagery will now work collectively, woven into the very cloth of this newly conserved portray.