HOUSTON — Within minutes of a vandal spray painting a Pablo Picasso painting, Houston museum officials had rushed the valuable artwork into their onsite conservation lab as if it was an injured patient in need of emergency surgery.
“I think that’s a dramatic analogy, but I think that’s apt,” said Vance Muse, a spokesman for the Menil Collection, which owns the more than 80-year-old painting.
The fast action increased the odds of saving the painting, Muse said. The museum’s chief conservator has been working on it tirelessly since it was damaged June 13, and the restoration is going very well, he added.
The act of vandalism was caught in a 24-second video posted on YouTube. It shows a man dressed in black holding a stencil up to the work of art and then spray-painting the stencil before ripping it away and walking off. An image of a bullfighter, a bull and the word “conquista,” which is Spanish for conquest, is left behind.
Once the man walks away, the person taking the video walks up to the painting, recording the damage. This, plus the fact that the witness happened to film the vandal at the moment he damaged the painting, has some speculating whether the two were working together.
“People have wondered if this YouTube (video) was shot by a bystander who just happened to be there at that moment or if it’s more akin to perpetrators, plural,” Muse said. “I just don’t know. But I hope we find out.”
Houston police spokeswoman Jodi Silva said investigators are reviewing both surveillance video from the museum and the video posted on YouTube. When asked if police think the vandal and witness were working together, she said, “We’re taking all the information and we’re looking at all aspects of the incident.”
She would not say whether police have spoken to the witness who shot the video.
Muse, who spoke to The Associated Press by telephone from Berlin, said he didn’t have specific details about the restoration process because he was out of the country. However, he believed it was going well.
“Most of the damage, virtually all has been taken care of,” he said. “But you have to wait and see.”
He also didn’t know when the painting, “Woman in a Red Armchair,” would return to display.
“Even if the treatment is completed, it would need rest for quite a while,” he said. “We would not want to bring it out of the conservation lab prematurely.”
The museum’s chief conservator Brad Epley wasn’t available for questions Tuesday because he was working on the painting.
The key thing in restoration probably would be identifying what chemicals are in the spray paint to determine which solvent would be best to remove it, said Jennifer Logan, a chemistry professor who has taught courses on art conservation at Washington & Jefferson College in Washington, Pa.
Logan theorized a range of solvents were probably tested to determine which one was strong enough to remove the spray paint without also dissolving the work’s original paint.
“It was most likely a tedious process,” she said. “If they have the motivation and the skill and ability to carefully remove the spray paint, that’s not surprising to me (that most of the damage has been fixed). I’ve read about much more drastic restoration cases. In the art world, this doesn’t seem as bad.”
This is not the first time one of Picasso’s works has been vandalized. In 1999, an escaped mental patient in Amsterdam cut a hole in the middle of his “Woman Nude Before Garden,” a 1956 painting.
Other works of art have also been the target of vandals. Rembrandt’s “Night Watch” masterpiece has been slashed twice and sprayed once with sulfuric acid. The “Mona Lisa” has been attacked several times, including with acid, a rock and even a teacup.
The Menil, which opened in 1987 and is free to the public, will review its security measures, which include surveillance cameras and two dozen guards, Muse said. But he didn’t anticipate major changes, such as placing paintings behind protective glass or keeping visitors farther from the works of art.
“I think a museum-goer always appreciates it when a work of art seems more accessible than that. You don’t have all those layers,” he said. “And I think the Menil loves the fact the art there is very accessible. It’s almost like entering someone’s wonderful house.”