365 Days of Art: March 21 – Vandalism of Newman Painting Leads to Botched Conservation and Lawsuits

Who's Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue III? by Barnett Newman, 8' x 18'

March 21, 1986

Barnett Newman’s Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue III was slashed open with a boxcutter, by an unbalanced painter who did it in the name of art. Sort of.

Here’s the story.

By purchasing the painting, the Amsterdam Museum of Modern Art (Stedelijk Museum) opened itself up to controversy. To put it bluntly, the public hated it. They felt that this painting, and perhaps Abstract Expressionism in general, wasn’t up to par, and they hated that their tax money had been used to purchase it.

Wound up by this critique, Gerard Jan van Bladeren, a frustrated, unknown Dutch painter, slashed the huge canvas wide open with a Stanley knife. He said later, in court, that attacking it was an “ode to Carel Willink”, the Dutch Magical Realism painter, who presumably was a better painter in his eyes.

Now this is where things get really interesting.

Bizarrely, the museum kept the work on display as-is, with the giant rip in it. The Dutch public actually said that they preferred it that way. Eventually, with the encouragement of Newman’s widow, the museum hired a New York conservator named Daniel Goldreyer and agreed to pay him $800,000 to repair Newman’s painting.

The painting was returned to the museum in 1991 and all hell broke loose. Goldreyer had repaired the gash in the canvas, but botched the paint job. He apparently didn’t observe some of the cardinal rules of conservation, mainly that he didn’t try to replicate the original materials and methods, in order to make the conservation respectful of the original artwork, and perhaps as seamless as possible. For example, where Barnett Newman used a brush to apply the paint, Goldreyer used a roller. Newman painted the painting in oil, while Goldreyer conserved it in acrylic. Critics alleged that due to Goldreyer’s conservation, the painting lost much of the subtle variations in color that are a hallmark of Newman’s work. They said that the painting had been attacked all over again during the conservation process.

Consequently, the museum refused to pay the balance of Goldreyer’s invoice and prepared to file legal action against him. Goldreyer filed first though, a $125 million suit against the City of Amsterdam, the Stedelijk Museum, two art publications and several art critics individually, claiming that his reputation was damaged. The Stedelijk Museum in turn filed a countersuit for $7 million in damages.

Because of differences between the American and Dutch legal systems, the lawsuits were slow to proceed. Finally, in 1997, both suits were settled through the payment of $100,000 by the City of Amsterdam to Goldreyer (and an agreement not to further discuss the conservation or the legal case).

This won’t be the only time we see a vandalized Barnett Newman painting this year. Stay tuned.