Over 30 years after Willem de Kooning’s painting Woman-Ochre was unceremoniously, and rather viciously, removed from its frame and stolen from the University of Arizona Museum of Art (UAMA), the work will return to public view at the Getty Center in Los Angeles in the forthcoming exhibition Conserving de Kooning: Theft and Recovery.
The painting, executed around 1954-55, suffered a great deal of damage during the heist and had to undergo an intense, meticulous conservation process once it came to the Getty. “The painting came to us in very poor shape,” said Ulrich Birkmaier, senior paintings conservator at the Getty Museum, in a press release. “The brutal way in which it was ripped from its lining caused severe paint flaking and tears, not to mention the damage caused by the blade that was used to slice it from its frame. To bring a painting from such dire condition to a place where it can now be safely exhibited is an immense achievement.”
Woman-Ochre was stolen from the UAMA in a brazen, daylight robbery on Thanksgiving Day in 1985. When the museum opened at around 9am, a man and woman followed a staff member inside the building. While the women distracted a security guard, the man cut Woman-Ochre from its frame, tore it from the backing and hastily rolled it up. The couple left the museum less than 15 minutes later.
According to a press release from the Getty, in August 2017, David Van Auker, Buck Burns, and Rick Johnson purchased the painting, along with other items, from the estate of a deceased couple in Cliff, New Mexico. They took the items to their store—Manzanita Ridge Furniture & Antiques—in nearby Silver City and displayed the work. Two years earlier the UAMA, in coordination with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, began to publicise the 30th anniversary of the theft, which left an impression on the public. When customers started comment on the painting’s authenticity, Van Auker began to research his purchase. He ultimately connected it with the decades-old crime and contacted the UAMA, who retrieved the picture.
“We are thrilled that the Getty generously agreed to partner with the University of Arizona and take on the complex conservation work that our de Kooning so desperately needed,” says Andrew Schulz, vice president for the arts at the University of Arizona. “Woman-Ochre is a crown jewel in the collection of the University of Arizona Museum of Art, and we can’t wait to have it back in our galleries this fall.In the meantime, we very much look forward to the upcoming exhibition at the Getty and the opportunity to share this extraordinary work—and its equally extraordinary story—with a broad audience.”
The painting will be on view at the Getty Center this summer, from 7 June to 28 August, after which it will return to the University of Arizona in fall 2022. A feature documentary about the theft, The Thief Collector, directed by Allison Otto, will be released in 2022.