A painting by famed artist Willem de Kooning that was stolen from the University of Arizona Museum of Art in the 1980s and found 32 years later will be restored and studied by conservators at the J. Paul Getty Museum and scientists at the Getty Conservation Institute, it was announced Thursday.
DeKooning’s “Woman-Ochre” was cut from its frame, ripped from its backing and taken from the college’s museum the day after Thanksgiving in 1985.
It was recovered in August 2017 by the owners of an antiques store in New Mexico, who immediately returned it to the museum.
Through an agreement reached with the University of Arizona, restoration experts from the Getty organizations will undertake technical study and conservation treatment of the damaged painting.
“At the Getty, we were thrilled to learn that this once-lost painting — a remarkable de Kooning — was returned to its rightful place in the collection of the University of Arizona Museum of Art,” Getty Trust President and CEO James Cuno said. “We are deeply honored to lend our expertise in conservation to bring this painting back to its best state and on view for the public once more, and to use this as an opportunity to advance the field of conservation.”
Conservators at the Getty will join to study, repair, clean, conserve and document the painting. The work will include reuniting it with the original frame, as well as repairing and restoring remnants of the canvas that were left behind after the theft and retained by the university museum since 1985.
The project will begin in April and is expected to take about a year.
The plan is for the painting to go on view at the Getty Museum in the summer of 2020 before being returned to the university.
“I am thrilled that the (Getty is) taking on the challenge of restoring `Woman-Ochre,”’ University of Arizona President Robert C. Robbins said. “This brings us significantly closer to returning this masterpiece to the campus community and public for examination, education and appreciation.”
The project will be overseen by Ulrich Birkmaier, the Getty Museum’s senior conservator of paintings, and Tom Learner, head of science at the Getty Conservation Institute.
The Getty and the university will use the project as a teaching tool, providing access to students such as a University of Arizona doctoral candidate in chemistry with experience in materials analysis on paintings.
Willem de Kooning, who was born in the Netherlands and moved to New York in 1926, was one of the pioneers and leaders of the abstract expressionist movement that began in New York after World War II.
In 1950, de Kooning began his best-known body of work, his “Woman” series, considered monumental in the way it imagines the human figure.
Some paintings from the series have sold for tens of millions of dollars.
Among the series is “Woman-Ochre,” completed in 1955. The work — considered a classic — was gifted to the museum in 1958 by donor Edward Joseph Gallagher Jr.
The painting was regularly exhibited at UAMA and loaned for several important exhibitions on de Kooning and related artists at major museums around the world.
But on Nov. 29, 1985, two people, a man and a woman, followed a staff member inside as soon as the UAMA opened about 9 a.m. The woman distracted a security guard while the man went upstairs and cut Woman-Ochre from its frame with a sharp blade and rolled it up to conceal it.
The two — who had been inside for less than 15 minutes — hurried out of the museum and never returned. The heist remains an ongoing FBI investigation.