Painting1 by the American abstract expressionist/minimalist painter Barnett Newman. This work became infamous not so much for its artistic value, but rather due to the aftermath of a vandalistic attack.

The painting itself is a huge (8 x 18 ft.) canvas that consists of a red monochrome field, surrounded by a blue "zip" on one end, and a yellow "zip" on the other end. A typical example of a Minimalistic (some say "simplistic") painting. When it was purchased by the Amsterdam Museum of Modern Art (Stedelijk Museum), it generated a storm of protest. The Dutch generally are a critical bunch, and they felt that this painting did not deserve the praise, the steep purchase price or the valuable wall space in the museum. Much of this attention was based on the fact that the Stedelijk Museum is a government institution, and the purchase was accomplished by tax-payers' money.

Who's afraid... became part of the permanent exhibition of the museum. It is understandable that the display of this work generated some feelings of anger, or at least misunderstanding under visitors. On 21 March 1986, these feelings took control of a mentally deranged man, the (virtually unknown) Dutch painter Gerard Jan van Bladeren2. He walked into the museum with a Stanley knife and completely slashed open the canvas. The perpetrator was arrested. In court, he explained that his act was an "ode to Carel Willink", the Dutch Magic Realistic painter.

While museum directors were deciding what to do with the damaged painting, the work was still on display. Some people jokingly claimed that the painting was actually improved, or that the protruding shards of canvas at least gave some depth to the painting. Nevertheless, the museum decided to hire the New York based restorer Daniel Goldreyer to repair the Newman painting for the hefty sum of $800,000.

As soon as the painting was returned to the museum in 1991, art critics attacked the restoration job. Goldreyer had repaired the slash, but then improperly retouched the paint. He was accused of using a roller rather than a brush (as was originally used by Newman, and that he had used acrylic paints ("house paints") instead of oil based paints. The painting had lost much of its texture and subtle variations in color. According to the art critics, the painting had been killed twice: once during the attack, and again during the restoration.

The judicial crime laboratory indeed confirmed the accusations of the art critics. The museum refused to pay the outstanding part of Goldreyer's salary and prepared legal actions against Goldreyer. Then Goldreyer filed a $125 million suit against the City of Amsterdam and the Stedelijk Museum, claiming that his reputation was damaged. The Stedelijk Museum in turn filed a $7 million damages suit against Goldreyer.

The two law suits were in a deadlock for years, because of differences between the American and Dutch legal system. Then in January 1997, both law suits were settled through the payment of $100,000 by the City of Amsterdam to Goldreyer (and an agreement not to further discuss the restoration or the legal case).

But there's more. G.J. van Bladeren, the deranged vandal who started all this served his 8 month sentence (and 6 month prohibition to visit the museum). On 21 November 1997, he walked into the Stedelijk Museum unnoticed, again armed with a Stanley knife. He proceeded to Cathedra, another painting by Barnett Newman, and slashed it with five large horizontal cuts...


1: Who's Afraid of Red, Yellow, and Blue III, 1966-67, oil on canvas, 96 x 214, Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam

2: The Destruction of Art: Iconoclasm and Vandalism since the French Revolution, Gary Schwartz

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