Cultural Cocktail Hour

Art Review: “Conserving de Kooning; Theft and Recovery” on view at the Getty Center by Leticia Marie Sanchez

De Kooning in his studio

Art Review “Conserving de Kooning: Theft and Recovery” at the Getty Center on view at the Getty Center June 7–August 28, 2022


Leticia Marie Sanchez

Truth is stranger than fiction.  

Who could have imagined that a pair of mild-mannered New Mexico schoolteachers stole Woman-Ochre, a 160 million Dollar De Kooning painting? Not for profit. Not for notoriety. Simply for the solitary voyeuristic pleasure of viewing it in their bedroom.  

The suspected couple, now deceased, (and never formally implicated by any law enforcement agency) were like the Laurel and Hardy of art thieves. In 1985, while his wife was distracting staff at the University of Arizona Museum of Art, the husband dashed upstairs where Woman-Ochre, the De Kooning painting hung, and clumsily ripped the painting by attempting to slice it off its frame with a knife. His sloppy technique resulted in paint being chipped. The clueless art thieves made matters worse by using a stapler on the famous painting. The coup de grâce was then applying cheap varnish on top of the million-dollar painting. Ironically, Woman-Ochre, depicts a woman being tortured; death by a thousand cuts is an apt metaphor for this couple’s mistreatment of the canvas.  

Thankfully, like a knight in shining armor, the Getty Museum’s Paintings Conservation Department swooped in to restore the damsel in distress. In addition to the art mystery, what is fascinating about the exhibit is that it gives the viewer an eye into the process of restoring a painting. Particularly since Woman-Ochre was in such dire shape, the results of conservation are brought into sharp relief.  

The current exhibit illuminates the innovative steps in the conservation process, including Macro X-Ray Fluorescence (XRF). GCI scientists conducted scans to reveal what pigments De Kooning had used in his work. The scans also helped to expose the damage caused by the art thieves. For instance, a scan for calcium revealed the paint cracks caused when the thief tore the painting off its original canvas. The restorers had a tall order, and among many treatments, the Getty Paintings Conservators used specialized solvent mixtures to remove the thieves’ discolored  varnishes and uncover the original painting. The conservators also had to fill in each section where De Kooning’s original paint was lost. These steps are a mere fraction of what the conservation team had to do  with the De Kooning, and the exhibit illustrates more details in the  conservation journey.  

As a viewer, it was helpful to see the before and the after, particularly in a painting that was so dilapidated after an art crime. It opened my eyes to the  painstaking work of conservationists in creating an art historical “face lift.”  Mr. De Mille, De Kooning’s Woman-Ochre is now ready for her close-up! 

Woman-Ochre Before the “Face Lift”

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