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Whodunit? The tarantula, in the roof

1580866

“Spring,” 1948, oil on canvas by Georgia O’Keeffe. Gift of the Barnett Foundation. (Courtesy of Georgia O’Keeffe Museum)

Blame it on a tarantula.

The water damage in Georgia O’Keeffe’s oil painting “Spring” (1948) was likely caused by a tarantula tunneling through the mud roof of the artist’s Abiquiú adobe home as the spider foraged for food.

On Thursday, the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum announced it had won a $75,000 grant from Bank of America to repair the pivotal multimillion-dollar painting.

The massive work combines such O’Keeffe trademarks as the Pedernal, a large vertebra, an antler and desert primroses. It measures 7 feet by 4 feet, the largest canvas the artist had painted up to that point.

“Since this is such a pivotal work, we have to wonder if there isn’t some symbolism in here,” said Dale Kronkright, the museum’s conservation head since its 1997 opening. “For her, it’s a spring, and it’s a rebirth.”

O’Keeffe had recently returned from New York, where she had spent three years settling the estate of her late husband, the impresario/photographer Alfred Stieglitz, who died in 1946. “Spring” emerged from that transitional period. The artist was working at Ghost Ranch while her Abiquiú home was being finished.

O’Keeffe was famously precise and fastidious in both her work and life, so it is somewhat ironic that a rooftop water leak damaged her artwork.

Georgia O’Keeffe Museum conservation head Dale Kronkright. (Courtesy of Georgia O’Keeffe Museum)

“I believe that the water damage occurred while it was in her possession,” Kronkright said. “New Mexico tarantulas dig tunnels to trap insects. Frequently on mud roofs, the tunnels become tunnels for water. We don’t know, but we suspect that is part of the story.”

The conservation work will address the resulting cracks, flaking paint and darkening surface stains.

Sometime during the 1950s, O’Keeffe asked her personal conservator to use a mixture of beeswax, micro crystalline wax and resins on the back of the canvas to correct the damage.

But 10 years ago, old cracks started opening, Kronkright said.

First, the painting will undergo at least three months of testing, measuring and chemical analysis. Kronkright will use a technique called laser vibrometry to measure how the canvas responds to the stress of paint loads and tension.

“We may find out that both the new and old canvasses are sagging,” he said.

Kronkright and at least four assistants don’t expect to start the restoration process until June.

“There is no other painting conservation treatment that is more complex,” he said. “Where paint is missing, we fill those cracks and tears with filler. We only apply (it) to those tears.”

The process will not touch O’Keeffe’s original brushstrokes.

Kronkright recently returned from a Yale University conservation conference.

“When you’re a conservator, the learning never stops,” he said, adding that he performs restoration work on about 10 O’Keeffe paintings annually.

Before coming to the O’Keeffe Museum, Kronkright worked as senior conservator for the state of New Mexico, where he restored everything from works by famous santeros to the state’s historic painters.

“It’s like (being) a heart surgeon,” he said. “You cannot be afraid of doing heart surgery or you never get it done.”

Today, O’Keeffe’s Abiquiú home wears a waterproof membrane.

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