Barnett Newman “Cathedra” (1951) / knife
In November 1997, this canvas was damaged while on view at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. Gerard Jan van Bladeren, 41, slashed the work seven times with a small, Stanley-brand knife. Upon completing his act, he made no attempt to flee; when museum guards apprehended him, he simply leaned against a wall and calmly waited for police.
This was not van Bladeren’s first attack on a Newman canvas. In 1986, he had walked into the same museum and repeatedly slashed “Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue III” (1967). At that time, he was convicted and served five months in jail.
After being arrested for his attack on “Cathedra,” van Bladeren was interviewed on Dutch radio, where he described himself as an artist who tears his own paintings for effect and hates abstract art: “I don’t hate all art; I just hate abstract art and realism.” He also said that he felt his slashing 11 years prior had added something to “Red, Yellow and Blue,” and that he was angry that the painting had been restored, thereby undoing his work. In fact, he said he’d returned to the Stedelijk in order to find the painting and strike again - but instead, he found “Cathedra.”
Museum director Rudi Fuchs described the museum’s on-site response: “We immediately closed that section of the gallery and began first aid. We laid the painting on a flat, wooden surface and taped the cuts together, so they can’t crack, curl or rip further. Luckily the attacker used a very sharp knife, and before the museum acquired the painting in 1975, it had been relined, so the cuts are relatively clean.” Though the restoration process was arduous, given the monochromatic surface, the piece was eventually repaired and returned to public view.
The incident raised questions of how museums should present and protect works on display. “It’s a dilemma,” said Carol Mancusi-Ungaro, the chief conservator of the Menil Collection in Houston, who specializes in the restoration of postwar paintings. “These pictures are too big to be successfully seen under Plexiglas, because all you would see is the reflection of the Plexiglas.”