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

Kayla Linderman from El Inde Arizona

“Woman-Ochre” by Willem de Kooning at the UA Museum of Art.

Since it was returned to the UA Museum of Art in October 2022, over 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, runs through May 20. It will then return to the museum’s permanent collection.

The exhibition opened Oct. 8, following an extensive two-year restoration project by the famed Getty Museum in Los Angeles. For its efforts, the Getty was the first to display “Woman-Ochre” before it came back to Tucson. 

“Woman-Ochre” was stolen from the UA Museum of Art on Nov. 29, 1985, by an unidentified couple who cut the painting from its frame. The case still remains unsolved, although the painting was eventually discovered in the home of a New Mexico couple. 

The location of the painting was unknown for 32 years until the art museum received a promising phone call in August 2017 from David Van Auker, owner of Manzanita Ridge Furniture & Antiques in Silver City, New Mexico. Auker and his partners had bought the painting at an estate sale and soon learned through news articles of its backstory. 

Olivia Miller, the curator of exhibitions at the art museum, was at the museum the day Auker called. 

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

“Woman-Ochre” was donated to the university in 1958 by Edward Joseph Gallagher Jr. The painting at the time was valued at $6,000, according to a published report. Its value today is $160 million.

The “Woman-Ochre” exhibition at the UA Museum of Art. Pictured are the composite sketches of the couple thought to have stolen the painting in 1985.
The “Woman-Ochre” exhibition at the UA Museum of Art. Pictured are the composite sketches of the couple thought to have stolen the painting in 1985.

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. 

Since it opened, 9,200 visitors have come to see the painting, which is a testament to how much people are still intrigued by the mystery surrounding it. 

“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 art museum.

After May 20, the painting will relocate back upstairs, where it was displayed in 1985. The art museum’s Albert Chamillard, 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 UA’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.

What to know if you go

What: “Restored: The Return of Woman-Ochre”

Presented by: The UA Museum of Art

When: Oct. 8 2022 through May 20

Where: The UA Museum of Art, 1031 N. Olive Rd.

Tickets: $8 general admission, $6 for seniors 65+ and groups of 10+ and free for University of Arizona students, faculty and staff

More info: Visit the art museum website

*El Inde Arizona is a news service of the University of Arizona School of Journalism.

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