The University of Arizona Museum of Art and Archive of Visual Arts

Ugliness Returned: “Woman-Ochre” in the History of Art

Henderson Gretchen Headshot

Wednesday, March 22, 2023 | 5:00 PM

When Willem de Kooning’s painting Woman-Ochre (1954-55) was stolen from the University of Arizona Museum of Art in 1985, its presence grew from an aura of absence. A blank spot on a gallery wall in the UAMA represented a mystery that went unsolved for over three decades, during which time the life of the painting became overshadowed by the story of its heist. Violently cut from its frame, the painting was to some degree cut from its place in art history, obscuring the controversial Abstract Expressionist figure herself who centered the canvas: Woman-Ochre.

The return of the artwork in 2017 contributed to a revaluation of the painting whose overshadowing-by-heist has been illuminated by its careful restoration. After painstaking conservation by the Getty and with exhibitions in both Los Angeles and Tucson, questions have arisen about how this renewed interest in the painting will color its future aesthetic and cultural valuations. When Woman-Ochre was originally created and exhibited globally in the first three decades of its life, the painting’s attraction was often framed in ugly, frightening, uncomfortable, and vulgar terms. Yet the subsequent loss and damage of this “beloved painting” has amplified a sense of its beauty.

In this special in-person talk at the UAMA, writer and scholar Gretchen E. Henderson (author of the acclaimed book, Ugliness: A Cultural History) carefully replaces Woman-Ochre in art history, moving beyond the 1985 heist and 20th-century Abstract Expressionism, using an aesthetic lens of ugliness to widen ways that we view and value art and figures that it represents.

*This talk is presented in conjunction with the current exhibition Restored: The Return of Woman-OchreAll talks in the Spring 2023 Speaker Series are generously supported by Tim Hagyard with Long Realty, specializing in historic and unusual properties.