Call it a clash of mid-century titans.

Superstar painter Jackson Pollock once called art giant Willem de Kooning a traitor to the cause of Abstract Expressionism. 

“Bill, you betrayed it,” Pollock declared in the early ’50s at a party after a New York exhibition of de Kooning’s new work. “You’re doing the figure. You’re still doing the same goddamned thing.” 

De Kooning’s wild new paintings of the female nude struck Pollock as a grievous offense against the abstract ideal of pure painting, unpolluted by narrative.

The Woman paintings—including “Woman-Ochre,” newly returned to the University of Arizona Museum of Art 31 years after it was stolen—fulfill most of the prerequisites of Abstract Expressionism. They’re action paintings with energetic gestural strokes of paint careening across the canvas, spontaneous drips of paint, an ambiguous relationship between the foreground and background space.

But each of the works unmistakably pictures a recognizable figure, a cardinal sin in Pollock’s eyes. 

Those figures outraged another camp of critics, for different reasons. The Woman paintings were not only wild gesturally, they were savage pictorially. The women had huge and terrifying breasts, pointy teeth, body parts flung hither and yon in multiple pieces.  

De Kooning “flays [the women], beats them, stretches them on racks, draws and quarters them…” critic Emily Genauer charged.

To Genauer and others, they were monstrous monuments to misogyny. 

Of late, de Kooning has been lauded as one of the greats. After a major retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in 2011, New York magazine critic Jerry Saltz rhapsodized over the “19 magnificent paintings and drawings of women” in the show, works that explosively launched art into “an entirely new world.”

Tucson art lovers can decide for themselves where they stand in, oh, about a year’s time. 

The UAMA’s prized “Woman-Ochre” was damaged during its mysterious three-decade absence and it won’t be displayed anytime soon.  

“We can’t show it in its present condition,” said curator Olivia Miller. “The canvas is very brittle. It was without temperature and humidity controls. Considering its history, it’s fortunate that there isn’t more paint loss.”

A conservator recommended by the Willem de Kooning Foundation will undertake the restoration of the work. Luckily, the piece “is stable enough to travel” to the conservator’s studio, Miller said. “We hope the work will be done within a year.” 

The Wild West tale of the theft of “Woman-Ochre” and its recovery in a house in an obscure former mining town in New Mexico is just the latest episode in the tumultuous history of the Woman paintings. And it’s a tantalizing new chapter—albeit a post-mortem one—in the larger-than-life bio of the late painter (1904-1997). 

The very model of the macho, hard-drinking, womanizing artist, the Dutch-born Kooning was painting like a Rembrandt by his early teens. He was apprenticed out at 12 to a design firm and did formal art studies at night, imbibing the lessons of the great masters.

At 22, he stowed away on a ship bound for Argentina and managed to slip into the U.S. at a Virginia port of call. He made his way to Hoboken, where he worked as a house painter, amassing experience in wielding a wide brush and painting in big strokes. A short jump over the Hudson River brought him into the energizing New York art scene.

The Dutchman worked for the Depression-era Works Progress Administration designing murals until his “alien” status was discovered; his firing deprived American post offices of potential masterpieces. In New York, de Kooning palled around with painters who would become household names, immersed himself in avant-garde shows at the Museum of Modern Art and painted nonstop. Giving up the old master styles of his youth, he made startling works that drew on cubism, surrealism and dada. Eventually, he burst into art-world fame with MOMA’s landmark purchase of “Woman 1.”

Improbably, “Woman-Ochre,” painted in 1954-55, made its way to sleepy Tucson just a few years later, in 1958. How did the outback desert town latch onto a work by a top-flight New York artist?

Tucson’s dude ranches can take partial credit. Life magazine had published an article about an UAMA exhibition of Renaissance works, curator Miller said. The article fell into the hands of  Edward Joseph Gallagher Jr., a Baltimore collector who liked to come out to Arizona and play cowboy at the ranches. Inspired, Gallagher called up then-UA President Richard Harvill and said he’d like to donate some works to the up-and-coming museum.

That call ultimately led to a gift of more 200 American and Europeans works, including invaluable Abstract Expressionist paintings by Mark Rothko and Pollock, de Kooning’s critic,  and de Kooning’s “Woman-Ochre.”

That painting, featuring bold black lines, rich passages of turquoise and burnt sienna and a morose woman colored ochre, hung peacefully on an upstairs wall in the museum for 27 years. Then, early on Black Friday in November 1985, an unlikely pair—a young man and an older woman—slipped up the stairs, and stuck a knife into “Woman-Ochre.” They sliced the canvas away from its frame, leaving tell-tale fibers behind, rolled it up and stole away.  

The FBI was on the case, but as time passed with no real breaks, the museum placed a blank ochre-colored canvas on the woman’s spot on the wall to memorialize the loss. As the years rolled by, de Kooning’s reputation soared. The painting, valued at $400,000 in 1985, today could be worth as much as $160 million. 

Thirty-one years after the painting vanished, David Van Auker happened upon it behind a door in a house outside Silver City, a violent 19th-century boom town turned art haven and hikers’ paradise. A local antiques and furniture dealer, Van Auker and his partners had agreed to a bulk buy in an estate sale at the home of a late couple identified as Rita and Jerry Alter by the Silver City Daily Press.

Early in August when the  team went to the house, Van Auker was checking out the mid-century modern furniture in the master suite. To get a better look at one of the pieces, he shut a door in the room. There on the wall, behind the door, was something he thought was a “great, cool mid-century painting,” he said later, at press conference in Tucson. The next day, the dealers returned, piled their car with the late couple’s pottery and African works, and laid the priceless de Kooning atop the heap.

The next day, Auker propped the “great, cool” work in the showroom. The first customer who arrived took one look at and demanded, “Have you guys researched this? I think it’s a de Kooning.”

A second client said the same thing. When a third customer also invoked de Kooning, a nervous Van Auker hid the painting in the gallery bathroom. He took to the internet, and within minutes, “there on the screen was a picture of the painting.” 

“I called UAMA and told the receptionist, ‘I have a painting stolen from you,’” he recounted. The young woman replied, “Hold please.” 

The call was forwarded to curator Miller. 

“I will never forget that phone call,” she said. 

She had Van Auker send cellphone photos of the work. Once she saw the images, including a rear view of telltale marks on the back of the canvas, she was convinced that Van Auker had the long-lost de Kooning. The museum team set out for Silver City the next night. 

Arriving late in the evening, the staffers drove directly to a house where Van Auker had brought the painting and were greeted by the Grant County sheriff. The homeowner, celebrating the occasion with a party for his friends, led Miller into a room where the painting was propped up on the floor. She knelt in front of it, and gasped.

Tucson’s de Kooning returned home in a convoy a few days later. New Mexico state police escorted the museum cars to the state border; Arizona’s state police met the cavalcade at the crossing and stayed with them all the way to the museum. 

Nancy Odegaard, Ph.D, a renowned conservator at the Arizona State Museum, gave the painting a thorough inspection after it had been allowed to “rest” a few days. Odegaard was able to precisely match the threads on the canvas with the cut threads that had been left on the museum walls so many years ago. Earlier repairs, documented by the museum, had also left telltale remains. After a thorough examination of several hours, Odegaard  declared it to be the real “Woman-Ochre.”   

Once it’s restored, students, scholars and Tucsonans of all stripes will be able to see an important work in the history of 20th century art, whether they love de Kooning or hate him. 

“This painting is seminal to our collection,” a delighted Miller said. “We all felt its loss.”

Meanwhile, the investigation of the theft is still open. And giddy museum staffers, Miller said, are “all wondering who will play us in the movie.”


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