June 28, 2022
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LOS ANGELES — Ulrich Birkmaier’s job as senior work conservator on the Getty Museum entails painstakingly repairing getting older 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 alternative 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, creating a sample of skinny cracks operating throughout the canvas. Inside minutes the image was his.

Birkmaier was re-enacting one of the brazen artwork heists in latest reminiscence: the 1985 theft in broad daylight of Willem de Kooning’s 1955 painting “Woman-Ochre” from the College of Arizona Museum of Artwork. A white, middle-aged couple — the person wore glasses and a mustache, the girl a scarf 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 art work. There have been no vital leads in 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 performed with a low cost photographic copy however it “regarded eerily unique,” he mentioned, and the method felt fraught. “To go at it with a knife was upsetting. It went in opposition to all the pieces we’re educated to do.” He did so for the sake of a brief video in the brand new Getty Museum exhibition, “Conserving de Kooning: Theft and Recovery,” which he curated with Tom Learner, the pinnacle 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 “Girl-Ochre” in over three a long time.

The exhibition additionally brings the portray one step nearer to its homecoming on the University of Arizona Art Museum on Oct. 8. There will probably be the centerpiece of a related show, “Restored: The Return of Woman-Ochre,” which additionally seems at how the portray got here to the museum in the primary 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 immediately 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 art work’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 kind, in a completely different gentle.

“Girl-Ochre” was controversial even earlier than the theft, as a part of de Kooning’s influential however polarizing “Girl” sequence. Within the Fifties, after gaining recognition as an summary painter, the artist brought about a stir with six huge “Woman” paintings which can be numbered as such, in addition to a number of smaller canvases like “Girl-Ochre.” With broad, typically slashing brushwork, this sequence stretched the feminine determine in grotesque methods, giving her options that embrace gaping eyes, fang-like enamel and large, sagging breasts.

The works have 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 reasonably 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 in the ‘Girl’ sequence.”

Olivia Miller, the exhibitions curator on the Arizona Museum of Artwork, acknowledged the art work’s aggressive content material but additionally argues that it has acquired a new mystique due to the theft. She even mentioned it as a “sacred object” when requested to talk in a non secular research class.

“It grew to become so treasured — the museum wished it again so badly, and a lot time was devoted to taking a look at this picture and excited about this picture,” she mentioned. “After which to have it returned, have so many individuals rally round it and have the Getty spend years taking good care of it, this human aspect has imbued the portray with new significance.”

Miller nonetheless remembers her shock at receiving a cellphone name, 5 years in the past, from a New Mexico antiques vendor who found that the estate-sale portray he had simply positioned in his store was in reality “Girl-Ochre.” The vendor, 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. That they had hung it in their bed room in an odd spot, obscured by the bed room door at any time when it was open.

As shown in the colorful, 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 in the realm the day earlier than the crime to police sketches that match their options. (In keeping with an FBI agent in the movie, the investigation is not energetic.)

The portray’s worth has been extensively reported to be near $100 million primarily based on one other, bigger canvas from the sequence selling privately for around $135 million, however Miller was not approved 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 have been accessible, a superbly conserved “Girl-Ochre” “would occupy the highest finish of the market, as a result of the sequence 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 work notably interesting in {the marketplace},” mentioning Andy Warhol’s “Shot Marilyn” sequence, a few of which have been truly pierced by a bullet.

One other instance is the Mona Lisa. Whereas considered necessary, the portray didn’t really develop into a family identify till after its theft from the Louvre in 1911, when the French police plastered images of it all around the metropolis streets and it made the headlines.

John Elderfield, who curated the final huge de Kooning survey for the Museum of Modern Art, mentioned that initially the Girl sequence upset completely different individuals in alternative ways. Whereas some have been dismayed by the vulgar remedy of the feminine kind, mates 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 in massive half from their explicit mixture of a basic medium and aggressive material. “He was utilizing thick brushes and broad swaths of oil portray in this manner in which Venetian painters have for hundreds of years,” Elderfield mentioned. “He was utilizing conventional strategies to make alarmingly fashionable work, and I believe this hybrid high quality made individuals uncomfortable.”

Different artwork historians proceed to wrestle with the sequence’ material, with a lengthy record of feminist students discussing the imagery in phrases of violence in opposition to girls. Complicating the difficulty, Fionna Barber has argued that every portray’s content material shouldn’t be fastened however shifts with different spectators, whereas Marlene Clark just lately revealed a guide, “The Girl in Me,” exploring the Girl portraits as self-portraits.

The Getty exhibition doesn’t handle the persisting query of whether or not “Girl-Ochre” is sexist. “I can see how the portray would have been surprising and perhaps nonetheless is,” Birkmaier mentioned. “However that’s effectively past the main focus of our exhibition, tracing the fabric historical past of this explicit portray.” He and Learner are its curators, he provides, “however we’re not artwork historians.”

Their objective in 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 may learn it correctly with out noticing harm first.”

A significant stage concerned stabilizing the floor of the canvas the place, as a results of the harm by the thieves, paint was flaking off or displaced. A conservator, Laura Rivers, labored to re-adhere paint flakes in the best place, one at a time, with using “light 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 convey the portray nearer to what it regarded 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 new backing.

On the very finish, Birkmaier himself “inpainted” a variety of cracks so they’re much less seen. He additionally addressed a few 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 in case you look carefully sufficient. Across the edges of the canvas you may see slight dimples made by the thieves when stapling their cutout canvas over a new stretcher bar. You’ll be able to detect some unevenness near the body the place the slicing befell. And, if you recognize the place to look, you may in all probability make out a few of the tears that have been repaired, like one beneath the artist’s signature. (The signature is so outstanding it’s laborious to think about a couple residing with the de Kooning for many years and never noticing it.)

However as Learner identified, for all of the harm “Girl-Ochre” suffered, there isn’t one huge tear that might distract viewers. What’s extra, he added, “There’s a lot motion in 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 perhaps in this unusual method the violence of the theft and the violence of de Kooning’s imagery will now work collectively, woven into the very material of this newly conserved portray.

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