‘Woman-Ochre’ painting exhibit leaving the UA for permanent collection in May

Kayla Linderman, El Inde Arizona

“Woman-Ochre” by Willem de Kooning, UA Museum of Art. Photo by Kayla Linderman

Since it was returned to the UA Museum of Art in October, some 9,000 people have come to see Willem de Kooning’s infamous “Woman-Ochre” painting.

The exhibition, which includes evidence from the 1985 brazen daylight theft of the painting, will return to the museum’s permanent collection in May.

The exhibition has been on display since Oct. 8 after the painting was lended to the Getty Museum for the restoration that took two years to complete. The Getty Museum was the first to display the “Woman-Ochre” before traveling back to Tucson for the exhibition. 

“Woman-Ochre” was stolen on November 29, 1985 by an unidentified couple who entered the museum in the morning and distracted security while cutting the painting from its frame. The case still remains unsolved and no one has been prosecuted for the crime. 

The location of the painting was unknown for 32 years until the museum received a promising phone call from a man who said he had the “Woman-Ochre” in August 2017.

His name was David Van Auker, owner of Manzanita Ridge Furniture & Antiques in Silver City, New Mexico. He claimed he had bought the painting at an estate sale and was looking at an Arizona Republic article about the stolen painting and said, “it’s exactly the painting I have.”

Olivia Miller, the curator of exhibitions at the UAMA, was there that day when the museum got the call from Auker. 

“I mean it sounds so cliche to say that it was a rollercoaster of emotions, but it really was,” Miller said.

In 2015, the UAMA displayed the empty frame where the painting was stolen from in hopes to bring more attention to this story. Local newspapers and media published this story which helped Auker find out it originally belonged to the UA. The painting was donated first to the university in 1958 by Edward Gallagher Jr. who contacted the UA in 1953 after reading a Life article on the university’s extensive art collection. It is widely reported that it is valued at up to $160 million.

The “Woman-Ochre” exhibition at the UA Museum of Art. Photo by Kayla Linderman

The exhibition displays the process it took for the original to be recovered and how the museum determined if it was the same painting.

“I asked [Auker] for the dimensions and he said it is 39 by 29 and I knew the original was 40 by 30,” Miller said. 

The mystery of this heist continues to baffle the minds of many since the exhibition has been seen by 9,200 visitors so far since October of last year. 

“It’s really sad when your job is to care for and preserve artwork to see something that has been treated so poorly[…] comprehending just the amount of work that would have to go into making sure this piece could be available for the public to see again without all of the scars of its experiences was pretty daunting,” said Kristen Schmidt, registrar at the UAMA.

After May 20, the painting will relocate back upstairs where it was stored in 1985. Albert Chamillard, the exhibition specialist at the UAMA, who specializes in preparing the exhibition and installation said the exact location of the painting is still unknown but they hope to place it where it originally was.

“[It’s] part of not just our museum’s history and the U of A’s history but it’s part of Tucson’s history. I hope that when people come and see it, they kind of find that connection between our museum, this piece and this fascinating story about the recovery of this painting,” Chamillard said.

The frame in which the painting was found was given to the three men who discovered “Woman-Ochre” which they then donated to the exhibition until it is no longer on display.  

The FBI has not commented or concluded that the deceased couple were the thieves of this heist.

If you go:

What: Restored: The Return of Woman-Ochre

Presented by: The University of Arizona Museum of Art

When: Oct. 8 – May 20

Where: The University of Arizona Museum of Art, 1031 N Olive Rd, Tucson AZ 85721

Tickets: $8 for general, $6 for Seniors 65+ and groups of 10+, free for students and faculty/staff

More info: Visit the UA Museum of Art website

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