Barnett Newman is not the most famous American Abstract Expressionist, but his work was targeted in one of the most notorious cases of art vandalism. Essentially, his large color field painting Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow, and Blue III was twice a victim, once when it was slashed while on display in the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam and again when it was irrevocably butchered (or so experts say, on-camera) by the very man hired to restore it. The case of the much-abused canvas gets an ironic docu-essay treatment in Barbara Visser’s The End of Fear (trailer here), the opening night film of this year’s Panorama Europe at MoMI.
Newman’s work is a lot like Ellsworth Kelly, but there were many different subtle shades of red in the painting in question. Maybe that was rewarding to contemplate, or maybe it was just pretentious hype, but we will never know, because Daniel Goldreyer’s restoration completely ruined the effect. According to the film, he already had a somewhat questionable reputation for a similarly controversial Mondrian restoration, but the film declines to mention his mysterious involvement with a Roy Lichtenstein painting that went missing after the owner sent it to Goldreyer for a cleaning in 1970 and then suspiciously turned up at a Colombian gallery on consignment for his widow, several years after his death.
Unfortunately for the Stedelijk, Goldreyer bullied and fast-talked museum director Wim Beeren into approving his restoration, as we can hear from surviving phone messages. Alas, that left the Museum in a decidedly disadvantageous legal position.
There will be further ironies compounding in this bizarre tale, so it easily could have sustained a more conventional documentary. However, Visser adds various meta elements, including a contemporary painter recreating Who’s Afraid III from scratch, but nobody seems to understand the point to all that once its finished. Her talking head segments are also unusually thoughtful and reflective, which certainly not a bad thing.
Frankly, this is a terribly sad incident that impoverished human culture through the loss of the Newman painting and the city of Amsterdam, to the tune of several hundred thousand dollars misspent on a faulty restoration. As a work of cinema, it would have much more effective if it had just been a little more grounded, but it still shines a light on a fascinating historical episode. Recommended overall, The End of Fear screens Friday night (5/4) at MoMI, kicking off this year’s Panorama Europe.