The video begins with an establishing shot of a famous painting, hanging alone on a wall of white. The camera is clearly handheld, a feature divulged by its framing’s subtle waver, rather informal given the context of the forthcoming recorded act. And though the footage bears no titles, no credits, many will immediately recognize its featured image as Woman III, a work of oil on canvas composed by Willem de Kooning, according to records, in 1953.
In the painting, a sprawl of subdued color—gray, gold, blue—forms an abstract female figure shown head-on: breasts like blunted pyramids, braced beneath shoulders so broad no ambulant human could hold them upright. Mangled, muddy hips bracket the focus of her crudely rendered crotch, outsized in turn by massive, jagged hands slung to her knees. Atop it all, the woman’s diminutive face, a landscape of moon dirt, leers slyly toward the viewer, as if aware of something inevitable none among us might wish to know.
The original version of the video, unlike the truncated one eventually most widely shared by news media, allows one full minute elapsed in silence, a last glimpse of the object without suggestion of its fate. In later edits, this buildup will be cut, plunging the viewer headlong into action without preamble, for there is little time to waste.
Likewise, not until after the video has been shared online more than seven million times—a reach accrued in less than three nights following its debut—will any major news source link the painting’s fate to a related story several weeks prior, wherein said work had been reported stolen from the primary residence of its last known owner, an aging heiress by the name of Alice Knott.
Regardless of preamble, in any version of the video, a pair of masked figures eventually appears, coming in on each side of the painting from offscreen. They are dressed identically, in stark white hooded work suits that obscure their hands and faces. Together they lift the painting of the wall, turn it over flat, and hold it still, yielding no sound but the low, ambient buzz of a hot mic recording nothing.
The camera tracks the figures as they carry the painting across the room, revealing the edges of a much wider empty space, buttressed on its far end by a small formal audience seated together on silver bleachers: six men and six women, each dressed in stately fashion; the men in tuxedos, the women in gowns, the cloth of their garments as stark white as the walls are in surrounding, as if they’ve meant to blend into the space. These spectators’ faces have each been digitally obscured, leaving only a warble of busy pixels where their features might have named them. Together they look on, calm as lambs, as the painting is placed faceup before them upon a small raised platform, like a patient, of no nature to do anything but wait—a condition matching ours, the viewers’, as what we are seeing is in the past, already happened, including all as yet to come.
The camera pans then to assume the perspective of the attendees, divorcing their physical image altogether out of the shot, taking again as its primary focus the fate of the painting. There is a lingering beat, poised upon the object, in which it seems this point of pause could last forever, fill the duration of our lives with its soft looming, though, then, why exactly are we here? What are we meant to be receiving? The drift between each question and its answer spans the absence until, startlingly, against the silence, the soundtrack lurches to life: a high-treble, jarring pink noise, like a blister splitting over and over, emitting a monotone barrage of high-end squall that overrides all other possible audio in full, so much like the wide white walls that fill the space, as if to press the monotonicity of surfaces surrounding the painting through the speakers of the spectators at home.
And then, again, this time from behind and to the left of the camera, a human figure appears onscreen. This one, though, unlike the others, is wearing a chrome-lined pack strapped to its back, from which a long slim chrome nozzle extends to be wielded by the wearer, and then, from that, the bright eye of a blue node of focused fame.
The figure moves to stand over the painting at its head. They adjust a setting on the device, causing the bud of light to grow almost a foot long, the corresponding aural furor likewise intensifying, as if to permeate the viewers’ concentration.
The figure proceeds to apply then the ember of the burning to the work.
The incineration begins along the canvas’s upper left- hand edge, instantaneously eating into and through the paint wherever it is made to touch; such that during the interface the image becomes obliterated—each mark undone from its original instatement at the hand of the artist, himself expired and cremated; each inch of the creation that had survived him rendered unto ashes as the steadfast neon eye continues across its face without relent, quadrant by quadrant, stroke by stroke.
The rest is simple math, an eventuality rather than a wonder. The bright and rising buds of fire suggest some wilder version of the painting, unlock from within it some charisma of a kind that could once have been borne from a culture’s total fear of its creator. The fame is thin and wide and asks no questions. The total annihilation requires little time—the image turned to absence without so much as a whimper, any word, nothing to restrict its path to full annulment, leaving behind only loose cinder and a disseminating smoke that curls and rises from the focal point of its destruction, into thin air, as we all breathe.
At no point is any distinctive feature of the obliterator made apparent seen onscreen; only the assured, surgical attention of a person performing an assigned chore, with the same poise as one might have washing a window, digging a hole.
The destruction is beautiful itself, too, some viewers will argue, in its own way; how the flat, detached tone of the recording stands so firmly apart from its reality’s steep expense—that is, not only the $137.5 million Woman III had once commanded at auction, setting a record for the contemporary era, then breaking its own mark again a decade later in private sale to the estate of someone by the name of Alice Knott for an even more ungodly sum; but also, obviously, the permanent elimination of the existence of the work. We can already hardly remember what the painting resembled beyond fragments, many will soon find, even amid the countless replications of its likeness in archive left behind; no single feature strong enough to override our fresh perception of the char that’s been impressed upon our senses as the recording ends and we remain outside it, and there is only then the screen, at once and suddenly blank.
What did we just witness? Why had it happened? Who would have sponsored such a thing? There are, of course, no direct answers, at least none made public, and the absence results in a sprawl of theory and debate, sprung from fact into philosophy, unto exhaustion on all sides. Perhaps the video is no more than some strange hoax, some posit, a camera trick designed to stir reaction, mass attention—if so, in fact, a job well done. But to what end, and for whom? What even can be said to have been forfeited, others will ask, beyond dollars and cents; how much different, without one such image among innumerable others, could our world yet really be?
What’s not debated is how within two weeks of its original appearance online—uploaded by an anonymous user under the handle 0edipa0apide0, thereafter shared and copied countless times—the video of the obliteration of Woman III amasses more than thirty-seven million views. Attempts to ban the video from being hosted at various sites by the request of certain legal and preservation-focused entities, citing terms-of-service violation on the eventually discounted grounds of copyright infringement and even explicit content, do little more than incite further growth, as its replicating presence looms and winds, spurred forward by countless outlets responding in tones ranging from curiosity to horror, from deep regret to uncanny joy—a discursive heat within which there very quickly seems no center, like a snuff film, an act carried out against the state of human aspiration in and of itself; as what had we lived for, some conversation’s final word might yet project, if not for evidence of something sacred allowed among us, let alone within us, in pursuit of which we so often go nowhere but in circles.
Alice Knott, unlike so much else, is not at all difficult to find. She hasn’t left her house in years, a fact she offers freely, loudly, to the cameras gathered at her door, seeking comment from the destroyed painting’s final owner. She had even been home during the night of the theft, or so she claims. The spoils of that night, according to the official police report, included not only the now apparently vanquished de Kooning but several other works possessed by her estate. She’s lucky just to be alive, she might imagine; had they killed her during the job, she wouldn’t be standing here, sweating in humid daylight, left anticipating some other future way to die.
Alice knows, of course, that cameras are rolling, hence the morbid fragrance. It was she who had called the cops and the reporters in herself, amid the escalating rhythm of would-be scandal; she alone who stood out on the front step of her house to meet and greet them in waning daylight on a Tuesday, waving around a tumbler most would assume is filled with booze, given her demeanor, though Alice hasn’t had a drink in years—not that she doesn’t still feel drunk most days, half asleep and half dissolved. She can feel the onlookers’ probing eyes assessing hers, so self-aware she can’t quit blinking and licking her lips as she forces an answer to every question that must be asked, for the record, the fast, involuntary tics that have persisted all her life, though only in front of strangers.
She is aware, too, that she’s a suspect—perhaps the only suspect, as it stands—in a case without clear legal repercussion as much as moral, as far as she can tell; the copyright to the pilfered work remains hers, after all, or so the law states, and therefore the right to destroy or display it as she sees fit, all subsequent judgment history notwithstanding. It is her choice to change her world, she believes, no matter who or what else it might affect; each and every act, no matter how small or opened up, must suffice unto and within itself alone, now and forever.
Not that she’d done it, the destruction, or had anything to do with it: Alice hadn’t done a thing. The true invaders of her home, whoever they were, had taken eight works, a fact she’d discovered under the same shade of disbelief as anybody else. She’d entered down into the vault beneath her house that morning on a whim, having for the most part come to treat the secured space as if it didn’t exist, despite—or perhaps in light of—how for years now she’d housed there the bulk of what had once been her family’s substantial financial worth, the product of a period of her life in which she’d begun converting all liquid assets into aesthetic objects, things no one on Earth but her alone could own. Whatever logic had inspired such a pastime no longer survived in Alice as it stood—some kind of semi-self-destructive process, she imagined, somewhere amid the wake of ongoing mourning and her innate abhorrence of the unasked responsibility of wealth. Simply nothing else but spending all the money had made sense to her at that time, as far as she could remember from the distance of what seemed by now another life, an urge she often wished she’d spent on traveling the world, giving cash away to those who could use it better; instead, though, she’d filled a basement with glorified antiques, each now a reminder of all she could have been or done and yet had not. Even the vault itself, as she saw it now, had been installed as a private practice site for the ongoing conceptual emotional torture only she could comprehend; no sooner had the installation been completed than she recognized it as another ill-starred misstep in the fulfillment of her stint, another reason to never quite forgive herself for being who she’d become, not really.
Which was fine, as Alice saw it, not so much different years later than a day. It seemed impossible, no matter how confident one’s aim, to hit the mark of even our most immediate intentions, to know exactly what and where the target is and how it might echo upon impact, much less to carry that faith forward in daily confidence, unto death. It was so difficult even to remember what one was doing as you were still doing it, was it not? For instance: Who were all these people on her lawn? Where had they come from, and to whom might they return? But yes, despite the continuous exception of all that, Alice concedes, she is the violated, not the violator, despite what other forms of abstract possibility her imagination might perform, what willingness she’s felt throughout her life to let the others have their ways.
In fact, the sharpest sense so far of her experience in the present situation was not of fear or guilt, not even loss exactly, but of something more like the absence of the loss she should have felt—like not actually feeling wronged within the fact of being robbed—like feeling nothing, neither from the loss of property, nor from even the basic texture of what her home’s spatial violation should have caused; and there within that, how acknowledging the inevitability of one’s own death by now bore little dread, and on the worse days, loomed as relief; nor even, then, her recognition of the apparent gap between her own perception of self, how she carried forward, versus the expectation of any other, their unspoken demands, especially amid such spectacle as all this, the silent cameras and the nameless faces, the utility of public consternation and reframing. She is who and how she is, you shit; no more, no less. And there the world was, ever awaiting, in all directions, at all sides.
What had struck Alice more than anything about the crime was how all non-artistic objects in her archive had been ignored: drawers of high-dollar assets like necklaces and watches and rare coins and stamps and bonds and even deeds to land Alice had never herself stood on, stuff she’d stuffed her family’s funds in before transitioning to art—everything besides the singular works of human imagination allowed to go on rotting in their cases, far from light. Whoever had broken in had done so in pursuit not of simple monetary value, but of the irreplaceable. And so it seemed they’d known exactly why they’d come; known what she had and where she had it, as well as exactly how to get in and out unseen, without a hitch—at least according to her private security provider. Not a single trigger, by their records, had alerted the system of an intrusion while she was being ransacked, nor did their surveillance mechanisms capture any fragment of a clue. The footage had simply blanked out during the incident, is how the reps had put it; that is, they hadn’t stopped recording, but instead all present visibility had gone black, as if a lens cap had slid over every camera at the same time, though no other signals of interference or manipulation had been detected, suggesting that the perpetrators’ technology had been beyond expected capability, and so beyond detection, as yet it stood.
Even more inexplicable than what they had or hadn’t taken, at least to Alice, was what they’d left behind. A single mirror, forty-eight inches square, freshly hung in the display vault in the very position previously occupied by Robert Rauschenberg’s White Painting (one panel) (1951), the first of all the artworks Alice had acquired: a square canvas covered in white house paint, a work the artist had referred to in interview as a clock, and within that a thing that “if one were sensitive enough that you could read it,” so he had stated, “you would know how many people were in the room, what time it was, and what the weather was like outside.” More so than all the other paintings she’d purchased through the years, Alice found, it was this infernal square that some nights she couldn’t get out of her mind: how it seemed to be not only aware as she observed it, but capable of absorbing some of herself into itself. Some nights she felt as if she could feel it even through the walls, as if it were assuming other arcane forms while out of sight, melding back into white when she returned.
As such, it had been difficult at first to tell if the painting was really even missing, given how precisely the monotone shade of the piece matched the walls, embodying the same absence of all color, the studied silence. It was just a blank white canvas, after all, a work of concept over form, not remarkable unless the thought of nothing was, or perhaps the continuous non-presence of the possibility of nothing; how the blank was never really blank.
But as she’d come to stand before the object that long morning, Alice noticed how now the surface of the image continued to coincide with her perspective as she moved: its empty texture shifting against the incandescent light between them, its coordinates intermingling before her eyes. The object appeared to recalculate and correct itself continuously in relation to where she was, or how she saw it, altering the intention of its refraction as she continued in approach, as if its surface were still wet from being painted; or as if it were not flat at all, but somehow open.
And then, there in the image, Alice was: her present living body, as she’d seen it, contained within the shining glare as it amassed. She could resolve herself there in its grain, seeing herself rendered standing in the white field as a reflection, of living flesh. The thieves had taken White Painting after all, she knew then, leaving in its place an unlike replication, one for one. The effect, to Alice, in the otherwise bare room, felt demonic; an object made even more aware in its replacement, given new purpose; dare she say it even felt somehow alive? If nothing else, that much more near to what it really wished to be, if not as well what it always was?
For some reason, one she could not decrypt to herself even now, she had not mentioned the mirror or the missing Rauschenberg to the authorities, who themselves had no record of what might be lost or gained beyond her word, the receipts she could submit to prove what she was worth. Instead she’d kept the detail private, a secret left to linger between her and the culprit, whoever it was, and how, and why; and anyway no one had asked. The police performed their responsibilities according to their contracted obligations alone, deferential only to what could be said for certain, in the present just the facts. They seemed somehow not even to have been able to see the unfamiliar mirror hanging there amid the scene as they’d performed their investigation of what was lost, to the point that Alice had begun to wonder what else might be missing that she could not remember.
Alice Knott © 2020 by Blake Butler. First published by Riverhead Books.