“I start with a blank and there’s nothing more horrifying than a blank canvas” — artist Lee Krasner.
New York City, December 1990: thieves stole four paintings in a span of five days. Nearly thirty years later, one of the recovered paintings made history at a Sotheby’s auction. This is the story of those thefts—and one artist’s revival.
ISABELLA DELEO: At first, I don’t really know what I’m looking at. I see a swirl of black and brown brushstrokes on a giant canvas.
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ISABELLA DELEO: But I keep looking, and see that the strokes form a bunch of circles. Circles of all different sizes, all across the canvas, overwhelming each other. And the more I look at the circles, the more they remind me of human faces. Subdued, almost hidden in a crowd.
ISABELLA DELEO: The Sotheby’s catalogue describes the epic painting: signed and dated 1960, oil on canvas.
MARIAM KHAN: Further down on the catalogue, there’s a quote from the painting’s namesake.
MARIAM KHAN: A line from a Ralph Waldo Emerson essay.
MARIAM KHAN: “The eye is the first circle; the horizon which it forms is the second; and throughout nature this primary figure is repeated without end.”
ISABELLA DELEO: “The Eye is the First Circle” is a painting from Lee Krasner.
LEE KRASNER: I start with a blank and there’s nothing more horrifying than a blank canvas.
LEE KRASNER: ‘Cause I don’t have the thought or an idea or I’m going to do this or I’m going to do that. And finally something stimulates you to move.
It may be an obsession with a color… I will start and make some brushstrokes across the entire canvas and then pretty soon some image will suggest itself to me.
ISABELLA DELEO: Last May, the painting was sold at Sotheby’s auction for 11.6 million dollars. The sale made Krasner one of the few women in the art world to command an eight-digit figure at auction.
Music out: Noe Noe
ISABELLA DELEO: The painting holds all kinds of secrets.
ISABELLA DELEO: In December 1990, “The Eye is the First Circle” was stolen as a part of a series of art thefts across New York. To this day, no one has ever been charged in the thefts.
ISABELLA DELEO: Authorities don’t even know if they were connected.
ISABELLA DELEO: It’s a bizarre story—almost too strange to believe. The thief, or thieves—no one knows who or how many were involved—stole four paintings in five days.
ISABELLA DELEO: All totaled, they were worth 8.3 million dollars.
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MARIAM KHAN: My name is Mariam Khan.
ISABELLA DELEO: And I’m Isabella DeLeo.
MARIAM KHAN: This is Shoe Leather, an investigative podcast that digs up stories from New York City’s past—to find out how yesterday’s news affects us today. This is Season one, New York in the ‘90s.
MARIAM KHAN: A Renaissance of Mysterious Circumstances
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MARIAM KHAN: The first theft happened on December 17, 1990, a Monday.
Music in: Throughput
MARIAM KHAN: The thief entered the Peder Bonnier Gallery in Chelsea. But the burglar didn’t have eyes for anything being exhibited that day on West 23rd Street.
MARIAM KHAN: The painting they wanted, an untitled Willem de Kooning work, wasn’t actually hanging in the gallery. It was in Peter Bonnier’s office. And that’s where it was lifted.
MARIAM KHAN: Two days later, two more paintings were stolen.
MARIAM KHAN: Sometime between 11 in the morning and 6 that evening, the thief—or thieves—stole a painting by David Salle called “Sales Girls.”
MARIAM KHAN: Then, someone cut “The Eye is the First Circle” out with its frame, all 18 feet of it, and took that too.
MARIAM KHAN: Both paintings were owned by the Robert Miller Gallery. But they weren’t at the gallery either, they were in a seventh floor loft, in a completely different building.
MARIAM KHAN: Hanging in the gallery director’s home, which doubled as a gallery showroom.
MARIAM KHAN: The door was found open and there were no signs of a forced entry.
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ISABELLA DELEO: Two days later on December 21st, a driver was transporting “L’Apprenti” by Chaim Soutine’s to a gallery. But en route, the driver stopped the van to drop off something at another gallery one mile away.
ISABELLA DELEO: While the driver was inside, someone swooped in and stole both car and painting.
ISABELLA DELEO: 1990 was a big year for art theft.
TV REPORTER 1: The gates at the Isabella Gardner Museum will stay locked while authorities search for clues in the daring weekend heist. Officials say…
ISABELLA DELEO: In March of 1990, thieves posed as police officers responding to a disturbance call at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston.
TV REPORTER 1: The museum’s elaborate surveillance system made no difference.
TV REPORTER 2: Museum officials today said it was the largest art heist in history.
ISABELLA DELEO: Thieves stole 13 works of art in a case that remains unsolved, including a Rembrandt self-portrait, a Manet painting, and five Degas drawings. It was the single largest private property theft in history. Today, empty frames hang where the stolen artworks once were, symbolically waiting for the works to be returned.
MARIAM KHAN: That heist made the New York art thefts even more intriguing. When we first came across the story of the stolen Krasner painting, we were attracted by both the thrill of investigating a possible heist, and what the story could reveal about women in the art world: Why is Krasner one of the few women to sell a painting for so much at auction?
MARIAM KHAN: As we looked into the tale, we saw that a global retrospective of her work had just wrapped up. Was there sudden interest in Lee Krasner’s work, driven by the Sotheby’s sale? Did it have something to do with the thefts? Or was there a different factor that we were completely missing?
BARBARALEE DIAMONSTEIN A very warm welcome to you. Why don’t we begin at the very beginning?
LEE KRASNER: Not at the very beginning.
BARBARALEE DIAMONSTEIN The beginning of your art life?
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ISABELLA DELEO: The artist once known as Mrs. Pollock.
ISABELLA DELEO: Lee Krasner was born on October 27th, 1908, in Brooklyn to a family of Russian-Jewish immigrants. She graduated from the Cooper Union School of Art, and then again from the National Academy of Design in 1932.
ISABELLA DELEO: After graduating, she created murals for the Works Progress Administration.
MARIAM KHAN: In 1937, she began studying under German artist Hans Hofmann, where her work became increasingly influenced by Cubism and she developed a name for herself in the New York art world.
ISABELLA DELEO: I’m looking at a black and white picture of her from that period. She’s sitting on a white bench that looks like it’s made of doilies, the kind you might see at a fancy garden club. There’s a cigarette in hand. Her lips are curled somewhere between a sneer and smirk.
ISABELLA DELEO: Lee Krasner married Jackson Pollock, one of art history’s most famous figures, in 1945.
ISABELLA DELEO: You’ve probably seen images of him in his studios, holding a bucket of paint in one hand and a brush in the other, drizzling paint onto a colorful, chaotic canvas.
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ISABELLA DELEO: But their marriage was as turbulent as his paintings, their life together muddled by Pollock’s infidelities and excessive drinking. For much of Krasner’s career, she was seen as Mrs. Pollock.
LEE KRASNER: The transition I went through from The Academy to Cubism, I once more had to go through from Cubism to Pollock.
BARBARALEE DIAMONSTEIN: You refer to some of these transitions in your life as swings of the pendulum.
LEE KRASNER: Why not? [Crowd laughs]
MARIAM KHAN: I watched the interview six times to try and learn more about Krasner, but it seemed Diamondsteen, the interviewer, only wanted to know about Pollock.
BARBARALEE DIAMONDSTEIN: And what did you learn from Pollock’s work?
LEE KRASNER: I don’t know. I liked what he was doing and those would have been some of his early shows, I had enormous admiration. But I was pretty preoccupied with those solid gray masses in my studio.
ISABELLA DELEO: In pictures, that’s how she’s often portrayed: In her studio, surrounded by her larger-than-life canvases.
ISABELLA DELEO: Krasner didn’t ascend to Pollock’s level of success—at least, not during her lifetime. They both worked in abstract expressionism, an art style that emerged after the second World War.
PETER BONNER: You know, the scale of what Krasner did, when I look at her late works they’re huge and, and they make the viewer feel sort of like you’re inside the work.
MARIAM KHAN: We spoke with Peter Bonner, a New York-based contemporary painter and admirer of Krasner.
PETER BONNER: And there’s something wonderful about that, something very primitive about the way the surfaces feel and you know that makes you feel like a, feel very human.
MARIAM KHAN: Bonner says Krasner was often seen as someone under the shadow of her husband Pollock.
PETER BONNER: I think she’s sort of being looked at at the moment in a much different light, like I don’t think she should be seen under the shadow of Pollock cause I think she was doing something very different. And I think she was doing something in a way much more interesting.
ISABELLA DELEO: Artists like Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko, plus Krasner and Pollock, painted in a way that looked spontaneous: with thick brush strokes that appeared to be just splattered into existence. Krasner’s paintings were sometimes regarded by art critics as “too womanly.”
GAIL LEVIN: I was first interested in speaking with Lee Krasner when I was looking into a topic for my doctoral dissertation.
ISABELLA DELEO: Gail Levin is an art historian and Krasner biographer.
GAIL LEVIN: Pollock was dead. So I wrote to Lee Krasner and asked her for an interview. She agreed to meet me at the Marlborough Gallery.
GAIL LEVIN: She spent a lot of energy promoting her husband’s work both during his lifetime and after his death, and to be quite blunt about it, if you had to make a living from art, it’s easier to market a male a man’s art than a woman’s art.
ISABELLA DELEO: Why is that?
GAIL LEVIN: Because the art world was very biased. And it’s still not a level playing field.
ISABELLA DELEO: Krasner and Pollock’s life together was portrayed in the movie, “Pollock,” released 20 years ago.
ISABELLA: Marcia Gay Harden plays Krasner and Ed Harris is cast as Pollock.
MARCIA GAY HARDEN AS LEE KRASNER: That’s the one I’m putting in the Graham Show.
ED HARRIS AS JACKSON POLLOCK: That’s a damn good picture. That works. You’re a damn good woman painter.
ISABELLA DELEO: The film talks about how their marriage was troubled to say the least.
MARCIA GAY HARDEN AS LEE KRASNER: If you don’t stop seeing her I’m going to leave you.
ED HARRIS AS JACKSON POLLOCK: I love her.
MARCIA GAY HARDEN AS LEE KRASNER: You don’t.
MARCIA GAY HARDEN AS LEE KRASNER: I am not going to give you a divorce.
MARIAM KHAN: And she never did. Pollock died in a car crash in 1956. There were two other passengers in the car—Edith Metzger, a friend, and Ruth Kligman, Pollock’s mistress. Kligman survived, but both Metzger and Pollock were killed. He had been driving drunk.
MARIAM KHAN: Four years after Pollock died, Lee Krasner painted, “The Eye is the First Circle.”
MARIAM KHAN: Krasner died nearly 30 years later, in 1984. She was 75. She’s buried next to Pollock in Green River Cemetery in East Hampton, New York.
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ISABELLA DELEO: Let’s start there. What do you see with “The Eye Is The First Circle”?
MICHAEL LEJA: Yeah, well, It’s a painting where there’s a strong influence from, from Krasner’s husband’s Jackson Pollock.
MICHAEL LEJA: Very evident, I would say, when they first got together, she was kind of one of the most inventive and leading figures in the New York abstract painters circle.
ISABELLA DELEO: That’s Michael Leja, a professor of art history at the University of Pennsylvania.
MICHAEL LEJA: And Hans Hoffman, one of her teachers thought that you know, she was one of his best pupils. But she kind of sacrificed her career to Pollock’s. After they got together. She, you know, let him be the leader in the relationship in terms of promoting their art.
ISABELLA DELEO: Their art.
MICHAEL LEJA: And after he died, she was kind of having to reconstruct her direction I think. And and you can see that she’s working through a lot of Pollock’s visual language, his ideas, in that that picture.
MARIAM KHAN: A quote from Krasner’s obituary in the New York Times reads, “For many years after Pollock’s death in 1956, Miss Krasner lived in his shadow. Her work is less brash and explosive than his, and she continued to be identified with his paintings, of which she was a committed guardian.”
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Sound of doorbell.
EMPLOYEE AT CHEIM & REID GALLERY: Cheim & Read please hold for the buzzer.
Sound of buzzer.
ISABELLA DELEO: John Cheim was the gallery director at the time of the thefts. He still lives in the loft where “The Eye is the First Circle” and “Sales Girls” were stolen from.
ISABELLA DELEO: …and we’re doing a story on Lee Krasner. So we’re hoping to see if maybe we could talk to um, John Cheim.
STEPHEN TRUAX: Cheim
ISABELLA DELEO: Oh, Cheim.
STEPHEN TRUAX: We’re not interested in talking about that story. It’s been covered pretty extensively.
ISABELLA DELEO: That’s Stephen Truax, the Director of the Cheim & Read gallery.
MARIAM KHAN: Okay. Do you know anyone who you think might be interested in talking about this?
STEPHEN TRUAX: No, we don’t want to talk about it at all.
MARIAM KHAN: No, no, no, as in, do you know of anyone else?
STEPHEN TRUAX: Right, so we wouldn’t refer you
MARIAM KHAN: Ah, I see.
STEPHEN TRUAX: To someone else who would want to talk about it either because we don’t want to talk about it. I think John at this stage is a little bit, like, you know, over it. [Laughs].
MARIAM KHAN: We thought it was curious that Truax would tell us the story was covered extensively. When we first came across the thefts, we actually didn’t see much reporting on it at all.
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MARIAM KHAN: In January 1991, Charles V. Bagli of The Observer wrote about the then-ongoing investigation, and the International Foundation for Art Research did a report around that time.
MARIAM KHAN: More recently, a writer named Nate Freeman published a piece in the online publication Artsy about the story back in August 2019. But aside from those reports, we didn’t see much about the story online.
ISABELLA DELEO: In the 2019 Artsy article, writer Nate Freeman did get a hold of Cheim, but he didn’t have much to say. Freeman writes, “Reached via email while vacationing in Italy, Cheim declined to speak at length about the ordeal, saying, ‘I know little more about it than it being an unpleasant experience from 30 years ago.’”
ISABELLA DELEO: We were kind of shocked by our dismissal at the gallery, but really, it was just more encouragement to keep reporting.
Music out: Bauxite
MARIAM KHAN: We went to the New York Public Library’s microfiche to read Charles V. Bagli’s article in the New York Observer, titled “‘Tis the Season for N.Y. Art Thieves: Paintings Worth Millions Are Stolen.”
Music in: Lemon Melon
MARIAM KHAN: His article began with an intriguing line: “While shoppers may have done more looking than buying during the holiday season, the city’s art thieves got in some last-minute Christmas shopping of their own.”
ISABELLA DELEO: After describing the timeline of the thefts, Bagli wrote, “Few people knew about the delivery of the painting, leading an insurance investigator to suspect someone was hired specifically to steal the Soutine.”
ISABELLA DELEO: Reading that was exciting, Bagli was suggesting that whoever took the painting from the van must have had insider knowledge about the driver’s location that day. But what about the other paintings?
MARIAM KHAN: The painting was called “The Eye Is The First Circle.”
JOSEPH P. KEENAN: Eye… First Circle.
MARIAM KHAN: And then there was another painting called “Sales Girls.”
JOSEPH P. KEENAN: “Sales Girls”?
MARIAM KHAN: That’s Joseph P. Keenan, the detective who investigated the string of art thefts. He’s retired now and we had to jog his memory.
JOSEPH P. KEENAN: Okay. I don’t remember these two I’ll be honest with you off the top of my head at all. What was the date of this?
MARIAM KHAN: The date of this was December 19, I believe, 1990.
JOSEPH P. KEENAN: Okay, that’s still. Okay. Well, this is really, I don’t remember this either.
MARIAM KHAN: The longer we spoke, the more Keenan remembered.
JOSEPH P. KEENAN: I’m getting a little flashback right now. I don’t know if it’s anything, but there was also, I believe, on that particular day or that week. A truck driver.
MARIAM KHAN: Yes, yes.
JOSEPH P. KEENAN: On one of my cases.
MARIAM KHAN: Detective Keenan is talking about the theft of “L’Apprenti,” where someone stole the parked van with the painting inside.
JOSEPH P. KEENAN: Oh my gosh. [Laughs] Maybe I’m getting a little light over here. Okay. Yeah, I thought we would try to find out.
JOSEPH P. KEENAN: We went looking for him but we couldn’t find him.
MARIAM KHAN: Mhm, yes.
JOSEPH P. KEENAN: If we’re talking about the same case, but I do remember there was a lot of questions as to that individually. I think it was a truck driver. He picked up paintings and got rid of them.
MARIAM KHAN: It almost makes sense that he doesn’t remember the Krasner case—Keenan investigated hundreds of art thefts in his career. He told me about one that was unrelated, in which an employee stole more than a dozen paintings.
JOSEPH P. KEENAN: I do remember that I did make an arrest on that particular case. And it was an employee that worked in the building. But when it went to the DA’s office in New York in Manhattan, they couldn’t get it out of the grand jury for some reason. The people in the art world you see has a lot of connections and everything and politics, and we thought we had a dead good case here. And for some reason, the grand jury never indicted the guy who was a former employee in the company.
Music in: Throughput
MARIAM KHAN: Detective Keenan did eventually recover two of the stolen paintings, “Sales Girls” and “The Eye is the First Circle.”
ISABELLA DELEO: He got an anonymous tip. He found both wrapped in packing paper in the lobby of the Radio City apartment building on West 49th Street.
ISABELLA DELEO: The van that was transporting the “L’Apprenti” was also found in Harlem a few days later on December 26th, but the painting wasn’t there.
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Music in: Waltz and Fury
ISABELLA DELEO: After the Krasner was found, it was returned to the Robert Miller Gallery. It stayed in the hands of Robert Miller’s widow, Sarah Wittenborn Miller, until she consigned it to Sotheby’s, where the painting was sold for the monumental 11.6 million dollars.
ISABELLA DELEO: If the paintings are recovered, art thefts can, in a strange way, actually be beneficial for artworks. They can bring public awareness to a painting, or actually, drum up intrigue.
ISABELLA DELEO: Just this past year, there was a retrospective of Krasner’s work. The Barbican Art Gallery in London curated “Lee Krasner: In Living Colour.” It travelled to museums like the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain.
Music out: Waltz and Fury
ISABELLA DELEO: This year there’s a retrospective on Krasner’s work. Why do you think there’s that interest in her work now?
MICHAEL LEJA: Well, I think you know, there’s interest in a lot of people who are, who have been marginalized by the canon and the sexism of the canon.
ISABELLA DELEO: That’s Michael Leja, the art historian from the University of Pennsylvania.
MICHAEL LEJA: There’s been a lot of writing, taking her work more seriously and thinking more creatively about what’s original in it. And what’s interesting in it, so this year, I don’t know why this year. It’s I think it’s actually it feels like a revival at this point of interest in Krasner. It’s been going on for so long.
ISABELLA DELEO: Would that contribute, you think, to the market value of that painting?
MICHAEL LEJA: Well, anything that sells for 11 million dollars is already it’s made a splash. And that sale in itself will make it stand out. If I remember correctly, it was sold to some prominent collectors who only the Glenstone Museum, right? Is that?
ISABELLA DELEO: Mhm.
MICHAEL LEJA: Yeah, so it’s going to become a canonical work. So that too will contribute to its value in the sense that it’ll be seen by a lot of people. It will probably be reproduced in a lot of scholarly writing, and all of that contributes to increasing monetary value.
Music – Low Light Switch
ISABELLA DELEO: What was it about the painting that made it command so much at auction? And why does it still linger?
ISABELLA DELEO: Now, back to Peter Bonner.
PETER BONNER: I mean, certainly her reputation has been building, building, building over a long period of time, reached a zenith in the ‘80’s when she was alive in the early ‘80’s. And so having a work stolen, and I know it got returned, but that just adds to the mystique of her work and it’s sort of a good thing for her [Laughs] reputation. Now you’re sort of in the company of Rembrandt and Van Gogh and other artists.
PBS NEWSHOUR’S JUDY WOODRUFF: Police in the Netherlands are searching for a Vincent Van Gogh painting. Investigators say thieves stole the artwork from the Singer Laren Museum east of Amsterdam early today after smashing a glass door…
MARIAM KHAN: Even during coronavirus, thieves are still on the prowl. In March, Van Gogh was in the news again. Opportunistic thieves broke into the Singer Laren museum in The Netherlands to steal Van Gogh’s 1884 painting, “The Parsonage Garden at Nuenen in Spring.”
MARIAM KHAN: The work, in its forlorn tones of dark green and gray, portrays a man walking alone in a garden, his face turning to look at the viewer.
ISABELLA DELEO: I think back to that Emerson quote. “The eye is the first circle; the horizon which it forms is the second; and throughout nature this primary figure is repeated without end.”
Music out: Low Light Switch
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MARIAM: Shoe Leather is a production of the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. This episode was reported, written and produced by me, Mariam Khan, and me, Isabella DeLeo. Joanne Faryon is our executive producer and professor. Dale Maharidge is our co-professor. Keshav Pandya is our technical advisor.
Special thanks to Columbia Journalism Librarian Kristina Williams, Columbia Digital Librarian Michelle Wilson, Peter Leonard from Gimlet Media, Rachel Quester from The Daily, Emily Martinez and David Blum from Audible, Susan White from Garage Media, Nate Di Meo from The Memory Palace, Jonathan Hirsch from Neon Hum Media, Clint Schaff from the LA Times Studios, Madeleine Baran and Samara Freemark from American Public Media, In the Dark and to Stuart Karle for his legal advice.
Shoe Leather’s theme music – ‘Squeegees’ – is by Ben Lewis, Doron Zounes and Camille Miller. Other Music by Blue dot sessions. For more about this episode and Shoe Leather, go to our website shoeleather.org to stay up to date on the latest Shoe Leather happenings, follow us on social media. We’re on Facebook at facebook.com/ShoeLeatherCast and on instagram and twitter @ShoeLeatherCast.
© Isabella DeLeo & Mariam Khan