The Painting

The Painting

Thirty-two years after Willem de Kooning’s Woman-Ochre was stolen from the University of Arizona Museum of Art, it was discovered in the bedroom of a deceased woman in rural New Mexico. Only the painting knows how it got there.

On the morning of November 26, 1985, a mustachioed young man and an elderly woman entered the University of Arizona Museum of Art in Tucson just as the doors opened at 9 a.m. As they made their way upstairs, the woman paused on the first flight of steps and turned around to ask the security guard a question while the young man continued on to the second floor. Once upstairs, he walked to the far gallery, stopped before Willem de Kooning’s Woman-Ochre (1955) and sliced the painting from its frame. The elderly woman joined him upstairs as he rolled up the painting and stuffed it under his winter coat before they hurried back downstairs toward the exit together.

Something about the couple left the security guard feeling uneasy, so he went to the second floor to make sure nothing had been stolen from the collection. Moments later, he came running back downstairs and burst through the museum exit just in time to see the couple pull out of the parking lot in a rust-coloured sports car. 

Thirty-two years later, in the autumn of 2017, Woman-Ochre was discovered by an unsuspecting antiques dealer, hanging in the bedroom of the recently-deceased Rita Alter’s bedroom in Cliff, New Mexico. It was valued at $160 million USD.

The Cast
Martha Jackson: Buffalo socialite and 1950s Manhattan art gallery owner
Elaine de Kooning: Expressionist painter, editor of ARTnews, wife of Willem de Kooning
Lee Krasner: Expressionist painter, collage artist, wife of Jackson Pollock
Edward Gallagher Jr.: Art collector, son of Baltimore real estate developer
Rita Alter: NYC speech pathologist, world traveller, suspected art thief
Jerry Alter: NYC public school music teacher, world traveller, suspected art thief
Ronnie: Rita and Jerry’s nephew, executor of the Alter’s estate after Rita’s death
Joseph Alter: Son of Rita and Jerry, in and out of psychiatric wards for much of his life
Barbara Alter: Daughter of Rita and Jerry, seems to have relocated to Michigan
Olivia Miller: Curator at the University of Arizona Museum of Art
David Van Auker: Owner, Manzanita Ridge Furniture & Antiques, Silver City, NM

1955, Martha Jackson Gallery, New York, NY
Her gaze is severe, not dissimilar to Willem’s when he stands before me analyzing my lines, only vaguely aware of the ice melting in his glass of Scotch. She would look so much happier if she let her hair down. But I suppose the perm gives her a certain uptown respectability, a power of conformity that helps put food in Willem’s cupboard. Despite her bonds to polite society, no one fawns over me like Martha. Her eroticism is driven as much by her intellectualism as by her sexual desires. In me, her shackles drop to the floor. In me, “each stroke [is] a decision…answered by a new question.” How I admire her faithlessness, particularly when Willem goes to refill his drink and she hurriedly strips down before me, offering her swelling conceit. She shares this Sapphic custom with Elaine. Talent is where they diverge, and money. A gallery run by Elaine would never save a dime. Martha knows how to paint; she just has nothing particularly interesting to say.

The first time Martha noticed me was at the studio on West 22nd. Elaine and Willem were half-cocked and I was leaning against the wall with my sisters. At first, she was appalled by what she saw in us Women: grotesque depravity, overt misogyny, the semiotics of primitive thought. Martha was horrified that Elaine was proud of her husband’s work; she couldn’t see beyond the ancient hate––man’s original sin. The privilege of her youth denied her the capacity to understand that Willem and Elaine “stripped their work of all life except their own internal meanderings because they existed in a world destroyed by war, dehumanized by the death camps, and denied a future by the atomic bomb.” She would only come to grasp this through her exposure to Grace Hartigan and Mary Gabriel.

Willem drank a bottle of brandy the day the Warsaw Pact was signed. The death knell for Eastern Europe, he muttered from the dingy kitchen. It’s nothing more than a training ground for the Red Army. The war failed to leave the world a safer place. We have merely traded a house in flames for a cold cot in the rubble.

1957, Edward Joseph Gallagher Jr.’s house, Baltimore, MD
He is pathological about art. Abstract Expressionism. Cubism. Realism. Sculpture. Ceramics. His vanity precludes any allegiance to style, school or form. Armed with a trust fund and a prescription of chlorpromazine, he believes himself to be the perfect patron of the arts, taste, refinement. If he only knew what I know: the secrets hidden within these walls. You see Kandinsky’s Ruhe hanging over there? It’s a fake, a phony, reproduced somewhere in Switzerland, I'm told. The original is hanging at the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena. Look at that Degas sculpture over there, Spanish Dancer—it’s a fake, too. Edward had it mounted on that plinth and positioned in such a way as to obstruct the path of anyone who passes through the room. He adores them. I hope he dies before anyone tells him the truth. His pride couldn’t take it.

1958, University of Arizona Museum of Art, Tucson, AZ
Tucson. We must be a mile from the sun. I feel my paint drying, the micro-fissures desiccating and separating. Edward had me shipped out here as a gift to the university. No environ suits old age better than the desert, he says. What he neglects to consider is that which is advantageous for humans is seldom good for the rest of us.

February 14 – March 1, 1969, Old Banat Museum, Timisoara, Romania
I can’t say that I ever dreamed of going East. I mean across the Atlantic. Willem lost his taste for Europe at an early age, so much so that while American bohemians were seeking refuge from Puritanical Realism in the salons of Paris he snuck aboard the SS Shelly in Rotterdam and spent weeks stowed away in the engine room before furtively disembarking in the port in Newport News, Virginia. That was all during the interwar period, when Europe was still bejeweled and bedridden with gout, long before I came to be. Now it’s an elaborate thought experiment. So little changes. The weathervane swings; the winds never cease. 

“Style is a fraud,” Willem used to say to Elaine’s critic friends, who spent more time waiting for cabs outside Charles Egan and Martha’s galleries in Midtown, or slumming it downtown at the 10th Street galleries, than they spent looking at art. “I have always believed that the Greeks were hiding behind their columns.” I took him to mean both the façade of European masculinity and the provincial American yearning to revitalize it. His work, myself included, was his attempt to occupy emptiness, to fill the void with substance.

From the walls of the Old Banat Museum I can see a construction crew laying track for the new public tramline that Ceaușescu ordered to fill in the emptiness near Bastion Station. But who would ever tell him—surely not his wife or brothers—that a functioning urban transportation grid will do little to convince Kissinger and Nixon that Romania can be trusted with the keys to American capital when they arrive later this summer. They will want assurances. They can’t be under any illusions that this man is anything other than a thug and a psychopath. Of course, that won’t preclude alliances from forming, far from it. It will only mean that Kissinger will know there’s a knife hidden in every promise. 

August 17-31, 1981, Guild Hall Museum, East Hampton, NY
I saw Willem again. Can you imagine, after all these years. I hope I looked my best. He came over to spend some time with me. As did Elaine, who dragged Lee toward me as if coming face-to-face with the old days––when we were all together and ascendant––conjured up too many bitter, fractured memories. It breaks my heart. Lee was a damn saint: brilliant, unremitting, fearless, singular. I’ve heard critics whisper that she would never have been anything more than a portrait painter without Jackson. Vapid pimps. Conflicted to the end, Jackson was no fool. He knew what she was, just as she well knew that he was destined to make her suffer, and that her critics would label her a leech. Plain and predictable, they could never understand what we embodied.

I was glad to see Elaine again. Though I must admit the last time I saw her—one ugly morning back at the old loft on Broadway—I was relieved that she and Willem finally came to their senses. Charles came by to pick up one of Willem’s paintings the day after and told him straight that Elaine was staying at his place. Their commitment to adultery always struck me as a puerile convenience—a physical expression of pride and sovereignty. They were joyless affairs, all id and vacuousness. To hell with old grudges, I’m happy they’re on good terms again, if it can be said they were ever truly good. I’d describe them as spiritually indissoluble—an American variant of Diego and Frida: the elephant and the dove.

Willem is showing Matthiessen, Plimpton, and Vonnegut—the Old Sagaponack Main Set—his hideous Head statues. He either misses my sisters and me dearly or, more likely, he has grown to thoroughly despise himself. I can’t really see him with this guy in the sunglasses blocking my view. Looks like he’s trying to listen in on their conversation, but he’s been eye-fucking me from behind those dark sunglasses all afternoon. That woman, his wife I presume, has brought him three lemonades already, and he sips them with a smirk. It’s clear that Willem has also taken a disliking to this slight, overly tan man wearing a half-unbuttoned, paisley-printed shirt. But he pays him little mind, only half-consciously flicks the ash of his cigarette in his direction. Strange fellow. He looks like he’s waiting for the right moment to try to sell me a used cigarette boat in Key Largo.

November 25, 1985, University of Arizona Museum of Art, Tucson, AZ
Another long night of solitude. Spent two hours listening to Rothko’s Green Over Blue ramble on about suicidal ideation. Evidently, more than a few students think Mark was colour blind. The painting nearly lost it when one suggested that maybe he just really liked sunsets. Well, he did. A sky-full of sun-melted peaches dripping down the velvet drapes of the cosmos—that was the closest he ever felt to the essence of meaning growing up in Dvinsk. Mark once told Willem that one summer evening, when he was eight or nine years old, he felt the earth rolling beneath him for the first time, and himself with it, and in that moment it dawned on him that there is only one eternal sunset, and that he wasn’t meant to die like a dog in a pogrom or whatever terror they think of next. A few months later, his father told him they were moving to America.

What more is there for me? I still travel some, though not as much as I’d like. I levitate in timelessness in an empty museum without even the dignity of a protective glass case. I am no longer a threat to art, merely a diversion. The Sonoran desert is at my door. I have heard that the word Sonora comes from the Spanish señora or sonora, as in a “sonorous” deep resonance. But I have never seen a woman dance for me in the dunes, nor have I ever heard the desert winds howling across the hoodoos and cliff faces. What it would be like to relinquish the world’s hold on me, to slide out of this frame and vanish into the sands without a trace…

November 26, 1985, University of Arizona Museum of Art, Tucson, AZ
I hear Tony unlocking the doors downstairs—must be 9 o’clock. He’s been a security guard at the museum for as long as I can remember, and not a shift goes by without him rattling on about retiring to the road, just him and his old Indian Scout. There he goes telling that hippie artist-curator Josh Goldberg how there’s no prettier drive in the world than the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. That would make today the Friday after Thanksgiving. Can’t imagine many Tucsonians are cancelling their tee times to nurse their gin-soaked hangovers at the university art museum.

Well, I’ll be…. Someone’s coming. Strange. I thought this morning was Paul’s shift, but he has all the grace of a bumper car. Whoever it is, they’re nimble. Must have been waiting in the parking lot for the doors to open to get up here so quickly. Something’s not right. Why is this guy at a museum in Arizona wearing sunglasses and a parka like he’s about to summit Kanchenjunga? He hasn’t even bothered to glance at a painting in the first two halls. He’s coming right for me.

I remember you. Sonofabitch. You come all the way out here to sell me a fucking cigarette boat? Put that blade away, you glorified purse snatcher. Aaaagh! Fuck! If you think you can roll me up and hide me under your winter coat and walk out of here, you’re a couple french fries short of a happy meal. Don’t you dare! You swine, you cracked my fucking paint. You broke my goddamn ribs. Wait. Are those footsteps? Paul? Tony? Is that a woman whispering in his ear? It’s her?! It must be. Lemonade. After all these years…

We’re halfway down the stairs, Paul will surely notice something is off and foil our local Boris and Natasha’s plan. Paul, I’m right here! Do something! Order them to stop! You’re not just going to let them walk out the front door and traipse toward the parking lot like two high school kids sneaking away from their dates on prom night. This can’t be happening. I’m being kidnapped in broad daylight in a rusty fucking Datsun 280Z!?!

August 1, 1991, The bedroom of Rita and Jerry Alter, Cliff, NM
He fucks me again while plunging into her from behind. She teases me in the reflection of the mirror as she rides him, rocking back and forth, playing mind games with my eyes. These are the moments when my ugliness is at its most untamed. Martha was right: I am repugnant. I am the essence of man’s brutality. Which perhaps says more about Rita and Jerry than it does about Willem. Beauty may be in the eye of the beholder, but ugly goes straight to the core.

Without me, Jerry would be a total failure. He failed as a musician. He failed to get promoted to Vice Principal at PS 187 in Washington Heights. He failed to swindle the New York City school system out of two pensions. And he failed utterly as a father. But he got the girl—sweet talked her right off the porch of a Jewish summer retreat in the Catskills while she was waiting to go on a boat ride with the trumpet player in Jerry’s band. And from the look of them tonight, he will do anything to satiate her daring desires. Charlie Parker he could never be, but he would do anything to indulge his beloved Comtesse de la Motte.

This bedroom is a private peep show in which they lock the door and become voyeurs to an insatiable lust. Throughout my existence, I have been the object of unrequited love, but I have never been the scorned concubine. It is I who refuses to reciprocate. My emotional impotence is my fate. I have been despised far more often than I’ve been adored. Even Jackson pilloried my existence and that of my sisters––I was an aberration of truth. He saw form in my broken breastplate, consciousness in my colour scheme, figuration in my femininity. Hah! That drunk genius hated me more than he hated himself. Ruth––that genuine femme fatale––was the only person who could mediate Willem and Jackson’s animosity toward one another. But, of course, Jackson was buried beneath a fifty-ton boulder in Green River Cemetery by then.

December 31, 1999, The house of Rita and Louis Alter, Cliff, NM
Another New Year’s Eve alone. It was easier when the kids were around and there was at least a sense of shared loneliness in this house. Now it’s just me and the busts of Mozart, Molière, Beethoven and Brahms loitering outside in Jerry’s faux Vienna Central Cemetery rock garden. Where the hell are they right now? Namibia? Cambodia? Papua? The North fucking Pole? I shouldn’t care so much, but vanity has befallen me as the years have rolled by. Rita and Jerry live like they will never die. I admire their hubris, but when the first one goes the other won’t be long for this world. The lies we tell ourselves are not swallowed without peril. Perhaps that is why I despise the Keats poem that Jerry burned onto that wood plank in the garden:

“A thing of beauty is a joy forever,
Its loveliness increases.
It will never pass into nothingness.” 

Horseshit. The only truth is that nothing is forever. All that is becomes subsumed by all that will be. Again and again and again.

August 3, 2017, The house of Rita and Louis Alter, Cliff, NM
Who are these people at the door? Did Ronnie give them a key? Rita trusted him more than her son, but why would she risk it all, even in death? Didn’t she have an exit plan? How could she have failed to prepare for the day when she could no longer protect me? How could a woman as fastidious as Rita neglect to plan for the inevitable? Shame on me: who knows what the mind endures when dementia takes over the reins. Then again, maybe this was Jerry and Rita’s plan all along. Maybe it was all a long con and they both knew the golden calf would lose its prestige the day one of them died. Maybe they decided that to properly canonize their love, their final act of devotion to one another would be to riddle the world with an unsolvable mystery. They were, I admit with some embarrassment, more devoted to one another than to their children.

I recognize the woman who has been trying to sell the house for a few weeks, but I’ve never seen the guy who’s boxing up the West African artifacts and taking Rita and Jerry’s furniture out to his pick-up truck. It can’t be one of Joseph’s friends: why would someone from the psych ward be tasked with cleaning up this place? Nor is it one of Barbara’s friends; she and her parents never did manage to reconcile their differences. There are some who believe that it was I who perpetuated all the problems. That’s patently false. Barbara never forgave her parents for dragging a teenage girl from Bergen County, New Jersey to the middle of nowhere without considering how hard it would be to make friends in a ranch town of 300 people in the New Mexico desert.

They’re finally leaving. Lock the door and drive away… Oh shit, he’s back… He’s coming toward the back of the house… He’s opening the door to the bedroom… He’s checking out Jerry and Rita’s photos on the nightstand. Alright, take one last lazy gander and go about your business, stranger. Let sleeping dogs lie. There’s no reason to pay any mind to the cheap, knock-off painting behind the door. (Why did Jerry mount me on such a grotesque piece of wood?)

Wipe the disgust from your brow, stranger. I can see you’re wondering why a hermetic old woman with dementia hung the ugliest painting you’ve ever laid eyes upon in her bedroom. Stick with your gut, stranger. Let whoever buys this house decide what to do with me. Go on home with your flatbed truck full of two-dollar Igbo relics and a matching set of mid-century velour settees. Let the cobwebs wrap me in a cocoon and the Chihuahua sun blanch all the evidence to dust. Oh no. No you don’t. You scoundrel. Have you no damn respect for the dead!? 

So this is to be my latest defilement…tossed in the cab of a beat-up pick-up truck heading to hell knows where.

July 2017, Getty Conservation Institute, Los Angeles, CA
Only three women have ever looked at me like that: Martha, Rita, and now Olivia. She knelt before me and cried, turning her face upward toward David’s nervous, resplendent gaze. It was confirmation, I suppose, of his own decency. He had finally done something truly noble in his life, and he realized it fully in that moment. He could say: this is the man I am. No one can take this away from me. I may die in bumfuck Silver City, New Mexico—75 miles west of Truth or Consequence—but I understand Nietzsche

Olivia took me back to Tucson in an FBI van. I can’t say the experience felt like a home-coming. You don’t forget love so easily, even though lust is far more stubborn and vindictive. You don’t forget the kind I felt, at least. The air was less musty; the tenderness far less furtive. The wallpaper was smoke-stained and the carpet flammable. Olivia doted on me like an orphan who had once been her own. I was twice her age, but it didn’t matter. I reveled in the euphoria of my reflection in her eyes. I am vain and blessed, for I have never lacked what I truly desired: adoration. Grotesque though I may be, I know well that those who have loved me are somehow possessed: Willem, Martha, Elaine, Edward, Rita, and Jerry, and now Olivia. I am as precious as I am hideous.

But no longer. Here I lay beneath a blinding light next to the sarcophagus of King Tut, a Mycenaean mosaic, and the gilded frames of dead masters. Here we are all immaculate. Here we are all equal. How I miss the dingy carpet in Rita and Jerry’s bedroom, the cobwebs spreading across my frame. How I resent Edward’s doltish entitlement, though I miss terribly his visits every year on the anniversary of his young son’s unfortunate death. What layer of me would I not scrape off in exchange for a few dreary months in the loft on Broadway amidst the bacchanalian mayhem of Willem and Elaine’s crumbling marriage. I am beautiful and ordinary in my worst moments. May they never last long. 

Filed Under: Poetry & Prose

Written by

Justin Kiersky is a journalist and editorial consultant at ArtsEverywhere. He lives in Denver, CO with his wife and two children.

Illustrated by

Ken Krimstein's recently published graphic novel/biography of Hannah Arendt, The Three Escapes of Hannah Arendt — A Tyranny of Truth (Bloomsbury 2018), was a finalist for the 2019 Society of Midland Authors’ Award, a finalist for the Jewish Book Council's 2018 National Jewish Book Awards, a finalist for the 2019 Chautauqua Literary Prize, named one of the best graphic novels of the year by Forbes, and included on the top ten list of The Comics Journal.

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