De Kooning revealed, UAMA hosts gala for recovered painting
After more than a year and a half of waiting, the University of Arizona Museum of Art will finally share the recovered Willem de Kooning painting "Woman-Ochre," stolen over 30 years ago, with the public in an exclusive, pre-restoration gala on March 17.
Stolen from UAMA in a bold mid-day maneuver in 1985, "Woman-Ochre" was cut from the frame and disappeared without a trace. Without any leads, the investigation stopped fairly quickly and the story faded to legend.
The painting was recovered at the New Mexico estate of the late Jerome and Rita Alter, who had hidden it behind their bedroom door.
“This isn’t the movies, but it was exactly like the movies,” said Lauren Rabb, a previous curator of UAMA and a member of the Leadership Council. “The fact that it was cut out of its frame and that they kept it a secret this whole time, it’s so unusual and dramatic. That doesn’t really happen in real life, that someone would steal something for their own personal pleasure and really, truly doesn’t tell a living soul for that many years.”
It was only returned to the museum in August of 2017 through the integrity of David Van Auker, the owner of Manzanita Ridge Furniture and Antiques in Silver City, N.M., who acquired it for $200 at the estate auction.
After the initial phone call with Van Auker, Jillian McCleary, UAMA interim director and previous head of archives and preservation, was ecstatic and memorably told art curator Olivia Miller, “are we going to remember this moment for the rest of our lives?”
“I don’t think there are words to describe that feeling,” McCleary said. “It was just something Olivia and I had talked about and dreamt about. For it to become a reality was just more than I could describe.”
Since the painting’s recovery, "Woman-Ochre" has been kept in a secure location and seen by very few. The theft was still undergoing investigation by both police and the FBI, but the investigation has since closed and the painting has been made available for the next phase in its unusual journey.
In celebration of the return, the closed investigation and the movement to conservation, the UAMA Leadership Council and event-planning committee have organized a gathering complete with a live performance by dancers from the UA School of Dance and the Fred Fox Jazz Ensemble from the School of Music.
Bar service and food from “five of the best restaurants in town” will be offered as well, said Charles Geoffrion, chair of the event planning committee and a member the Leadership Council.
The museum is expecting up to 200 attendants. Tickets are $95 for museum members and $125 for non-members.
“We are hoping to make the experience fun and memorable, but, of course, the main focus is getting to share the painting with the public,” McCleary said.
"Woman-Ochre" will be put on display among other de Kooning pieces from the UAMA collection, which will be the last stop on a gallery walk that includes a short, student-made documentary about the painting’s story and a collection of rare photos by the American photographer Dan Budnick, taken in de Kooning's art studio during the 1960's.
“We think it is a great opportunity for the community to see one of the major works in the UAMA collection after missing it for over 30 years,” Geoffrion said.
According to Geoffrion, the staff has been planning for an event like this since they heard "Woman-Ochre" would be sent away for professional restoration.
“Since the day it came back, we have wanted to share it with the public,” Mcleary said. “Finally, we get that chance.”
After the gala, the next step for the "Woman-Ochre" is to find a professional conservationist. The museum has already been conducting interviews with possible conservationists, gauging the kind of work that needs to be done.
Miller said she is hopeful they can reattach the original canvas with the fragments left behind and is excited for the educational opportunities this offers to UA students. The case of "Woman-Ochre" is a special one, because UAMA has the chance to involve students in the conservation process.
“There are a lot of people in Tucson that remember the theft. Even though there are students and people on staff who don’t remember it happening, there is still a loss from when it was taken from the community, from Tucson, from the students,” McCleary said. “Now we get to bring it back for its original purpose, the reason why it was donated to us: to be shared and for people to learn from it.”
UAMA is no longer fundraising for conservation of the de Kooning piece, but rather are fundraising for future exhibitions and programs involving it.
Miller and other UAMA staff members are reportedly considering hosting a symposium on conservation and are brainstorming different ways to teach about de Kooning and his impact on art history.
“It’s really important that we show the value that this painting has to art history,” Rabb said. “This is a great opportunity for people to think about art, the value of art, how ideas change over time and why people would steal art — the sheer power that art can have over people.”
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