How to repair a stolen and damaged masterpiece of art? Use dental tools, heat gun

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You can now see a long-lost masterpiece by Dutch American artist Willem de Kooning at the Getty Center. For decades his painting titled “Woman-Ocher” (1954-1955) hung secretly in the bedroom of two retired teachers – Rita and Jerry Alter. The couple died years ago, and it’s still unclear how the painting ended up in their New Mexico home.

But the story of the painting’s theft and recovery sounds like something out of a heist movie. In 1985, a man and a woman entered the University of Arizona Museum of Art. The woman distracted a security guard while the man entered a gallery and cut the painting out of frame. He rolled it up, and maybe stuffed it under his jacket. Then the couple left.

For more than 30 years, no one knew where the painting was. Then it appeared in 2017 at an antique store in Silver City, New Mexico.

Now, after three years at Getty’s conservation site, it has been fully restored and will be on display until the end of August. Then he will return home to the University of Arizona.

When she arrived at the Getty, conservator Laura Rivers said it was the most complicated conservation job she had ever seen, as it had been horribly damaged as a direct result of the theft. It had horizontal cracks all over its surface.

“The first goal was really to stabilize the fractured paint surface and… remove the pieces that were still attached. And they almost looked like little canyons under the microscope. [I was] using dental tools and a small heat gun and sometimes silicone color modelers to gently push and reattach the paint flakes to the canvas,” says Rivers. “At the same time, there were numerous shards scattered across the surface that were simply no longer in a position where they could be re-deposited. And these needed to be removed.

She adds that in 1974, a varnish was applied during the preservation of the painting at the Museum of Modern Art. When thieves stole the painting in 1985, they applied a secondary varnish, which produced more paint chips.

Thus, Rivers’ second goal was to remove both varnishes – after spending two years stabilizing the surface of “Woman-Ochre”.

Rivers says she did the consolidation and cleanup, and her colleague Ulrich Birkmaier reattached the center portion of the painting to the tally margins. It also compensated for areas that had no paint left.

Paint replacement happens regularly, she points out. “We use very stable paints, very reversible paints. … It’s a common misconception that we would use materials the way artists did. But actually… it’s crucial that the paints we use come off the surface very, very easily. So…in the future, when it inevitably changes or fades…eventually, it can be undone and, if necessary, done again. But the hope is that… these colors have become very stable over time.

When Rivers finished restoring the painting, she says she felt a powerful feeling. “I encourage people to come take a look and learn more about the project and the history of the painting.”

Getty curator Laura Rivers consolidates paint for “Woman-Ochre” on Sept. 27, 2019. Rivers reattached paint flakes to the correct spot, one at a time using dental tools and a small heat gun. Credit: J. Paul Getty Trust.

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