LOS ANGELES — Ulrich Birkmaier’s job as senior curator of paintings at the Getty Museum involves painstakingly repairing outdated canvases and removing failed varnishes or restorations so artworks can return to the public in full health. By profession, he is almost the opposite of an art thief.
But in early March, he played the role of one. The neat Munich-born restorer grabbed a box cutter and quickly and violently began to cut a painting from the frame, starting at the top left. When the canvas wouldn’t come off the back, it pulled vigorously, creating a pattern of thin tears across the canvas. Within minutes the photo was his.
Birkmaier reenacted one of the most brutal art thefts in recent history: the 1985 broad daylight theft of Willem de Kooning’s 1955 painting “Woman-Ocher” from the University of Arizona Museum of Art. A middle-aged white couple – the man wore glasses and a mustache, the woman a scarf over her hair – entered the museum immediately after opening. She distracted a guard as he walked upstairs to the painting, and within 10 minutes they fled with the artwork. There was no significant lead in the case until five years ago, when the painting was recovered by antique dealers in New Mexico.
Birkmaier’s reenactment of the theft was done with a cheap photographic reproduction, but it “looked eerily original,” he said, and the process felt fraught. “It was disturbing to go at it with a knife. It went against everything we were trained for.” He did this because of a short video in the Getty Museum’s new exhibit, Conserving de Kooning: Theft and Recovery, which he co-created with 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 marks the first public viewing of “Woman-Ocher” in more than three decades.
The exhibition also brings the painting one step closer to its return home to the University of Arizona Art Museum on October 8. There it will be the centerpiece of a related show, “Restored: The Return of Woman-Ocher,” which also looks at how the painting came to the museum in the first place: as part of a donation from Baltimore collector Edward Gallagher Jr., in honor of his 13-year-old son, who was killed in a boating accident.
But the painting today is not exactly the same as the painting Gallagher donated in 1958. The theft left its mark not only on the surface of the canvas, where some scars are visible despite careful conservation, but also on the minds of viewers fascinated by art crimes. The return of the artwork raises the question to what extent visitors will see the painting, with its grotesque – some say sexist – depiction of the female form in a different light.
“Woman-Ocher” was controversial even before the theft, as part of de Kooning’s influential but polarizing “Woman” series. In the 1950s, after gaining recognition as an abstract painter, the artist caused a stir with six huge “Women” paintings numbered as such, in addition to several smaller canvases such as “Woman-Ocher”. With a broad, sometimes cutting brushwork, this series stretched the female figure in grotesque ways, giving her features such as gaping eyes, fangs and huge, flabby breasts.
The works were seen early on by some as misogynistic, to the point that de Kooning’s wife, Elaine de Kooning, insisted that she was not the inspiration, but that his mother was. The artist did not help his cause by telling a writer in 1956: “Women sometimes irritate me. I painted that irritation in the series ‘Woman’.”
Olivia Miller, the curator of the Arizona Museum of Art, acknowledges the artwork’s aggressive content, but also argues that the theft has given it a new mystique. She even discussed it as a “sacred object” when asked to speak in a religious studies class.
“It became so dear — the museum wanted it back so badly, and so much time was spent looking at this statue and thinking about this statue,” she said. “And then to get it back, to gather so many people around it and let the Getty take care of it for years, this human element has given the painting new meaning.”
Miller recalls her shock when she received a call five years ago from an antique dealer in New Mexico to discover that the painting he had just placed in his shop was, in fact, “Woman-Ocher.” The dealer, David Van Auker, had purchased 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 an odd place in their bedroom, obscured by the bedroom door when it was open.
As seen in the colorful, caper-like new documentary “The Thief Collector,” all signs point to the Alters stealing the painting for their own private pleasure, from photos showing the couple in close proximity the day before the crime to police sketches that suit their characteristics. (According to an FBI agent in the film, the investigation is no longer active.)
The painting’s value is reportedly close to $100 million based on another, larger canvas from the series selling privately for about $135 million, but Miller was not authorized to disclose the university’s insurance value. She did say that the university has no intention of selling it.
New York art consultant Allan Schwartzman said that assuming it was available, a beautifully preserved “Woman-Ocher” would “occupy the top end of the market because the series is so unique in its meaning and examples are so rare.” with almost all of them owned by museums. He said that “an infamous story related to the history of the artwork can make a work particularly attractive in the market,” citing Andy Warhol’s “Shot Marilyn” series, some of which were even pierced by a bullet.
Another example is the Mona Lisa. Though it was considered important, it only became a household name after the theft from the Louvre in 1911, when French police posted images of it all over the city’s streets and made headlines.
John Elderfield, who compiled the latest major de Kooning survey for the Museum of Modern Art, said the Woman series originally upset different people in different ways. While some were baffled by the vulgar treatment of the feminine form, friends such as Jackson Pollock accused De Kooning of betraying the cause of abstraction by returning to human subjects. According to Elderfield, the strength of the paintings stems largely from their specific combination of a classical medium and aggressive subject matter. “He used thick brushes and broad strokes of oil paint in this way that Venetian painters have done for centuries,” Elderfield said. “He used traditional techniques to create alarmingly modern paintings, and I think this hybrid quality made people uncomfortable.”
Other art historians continue to grapple with the series’ subject matter, with a long list of feminist scholars discussing the images in terms of violence against women. Fionna Barber further complicates the issue by stating that the content of each painting is not fixed, but changes with different viewers, while Marlene Clark recently published a book, ‘The Woman in Me’, which examines the women’s portraits as self-portraits.
The Getty exhibit doesn’t address the persistent question of whether “Woman-Ocher” is sexist. “I can see how the painting would have been and may still be shocking,” Birkmaier said. “But that goes well beyond the focus of our exhibition, tracing the material history of this particular painting.” He and Learner are the curators, he adds, “but we’re not art historians.”
Their goal in conservation, Learner said, was “to bring the painting back to the walls, where people could enjoy it like a de Kooning.” Birkmaier added: “We have done the minimum to bring the painting back to a stage where you can read it well without noticing damage first.”
An important step was to stabilize the surface of the canvas where, as a result of the damage done by the thieves, paint flaked or scattered. One restorer, Laura Rivers, worked to reattach paint flakes in the right place one at a time, using “gentle heat and small dental tools,” Birkmaier said. She then removed two layers of varnish, one from a treatment in 1974 by MoMA and the other presumably by the thieves, to bring the painting closer to what it looked like when it left de Kooning’s studio. It was then that Birkmaier reattached the painting to the canvas edges left behind when it was cut and gave it a new backing.
At the very end Birkmaier himself “painted in” a number of cracks so that they are less visible. He also tackled a few spots where the thieves had added their own paint — “amateur restoration efforts,” he said — by removing what he could safely cut away and painting over other areas.
The painting still has some visible scars if you look closely. Around the edges of the canvas you can see small dimples made by the thieves when stapling their cut canvas over a new joist. You can detect some bumps near the frame where the cutting took place. And if you know where to look, you can probably spot some of the repaired cracks, like one below the artist’s signature. (The signature is so prominent that it’s hard to imagine a couple living with de Kooning for decades and not noticing it.)
But as Learner pointed out, for all the damage “Woman-Ocher” has suffered, there isn’t a huge tear that would distract viewers. In addition, he added: “There is so much action in the painting, which works in our favor.”
In this way, it’s likely that for most viewers, especially from a distance, any damage still visible after all the Getty work will spill over into the artist’s furious brushstrokes. And perhaps in this strange way the violence of the theft and the violence of the Koonings images will now work together, woven into the fabric of this newly preserved painting.