Monday, February 24, 2014

I'm no great Picasso fan, but I'm glad his threatened curtain at the Seagram Building got a reprieve.

Here [in 21st century New York], art is never spoken of in moral terms, and most aspects of everyday life--food and drink and bathroom fixtures--are mostly spoken of in aesthetic terms.
--Gerald Marzorati, former Editor, The New York Times Magazine

Pablo Picasso never got called an asshole;
Not in New York.

--Jonathan Richman

I have not been a great fan of Picasso. Maybe it's just my contrarian streak reacting to his conventional status as the preeminent painter of the past century. Maybe it's my overexposure to his "Bust of Sylvette", in an enlarged version executed by the Norwegian sculptor Carl Nesjär, that eyed me balefully (see photo above) on my regular Sunday transits of the Silver Towers courtyard going to and from brunch at the Prince Street Bar in SoHo when I was living in Greenwich Village. Mostly, though, it's that I never did get cubism. I can appreciate painters like Mondrian or Pollock (to name two whose styles seem, to me, as different as conceivable), who went the non-representational* whole hog, or like Bonnard who, while taking some liberties with perspective, scale, and other "naturalistic" qualities, produced images that were recognizable as real world objects. Cubism, which purported to portray objects from several perspectives simultaneously, seemed to me an uninformative and unnecessary, even annoying, exercise. I used to feel defensive about this, thinking that my failure to appreciate what Jed Perl, an art critic whose writing I enjoy and whose views I respect, calls an "epochal shattering of Renaissance space"** might be a symptom of some deficiency in my aesthetic sensibilities.

Then I found an ally in my wife, whose art background is considerably more extensive than mine. We were touring the Portland [Maine] Museum of Art and, as I started to move into another gallery, she--not knowing of my opinion--said, "Don't bother; it's all Picasso." Perhaps then my view, though at odds with that prevailing, could be justified on grounds less shaky than de gustibus non est disputandum. 


So, why should I care that the new owner of the Seagram Building wants to remove a nineteen by twenty foot curtain, Le Tricorne (image above), by Picasso, from where it hangs next to a passageway connecting the dining rooms of the Four Seasons restaurant?  For one thing, it isn't cubist. When I first walked past it (I've dined at the Four Seasons a couple of times, on both of which my employer was paying the tab) I thought it might be renaissance art--I wasn't paying much attention. Someone later told me it was a Picasso, which surprised me. Its history, as told by David Segal's New York Times story, is:
“Le Tricorne,” which translates to “the three-cornered hat,” was painted over three weeks in 1919, in a studio in Covent Garden, in London. It was commissioned by Serge Diaghilev, the impresario of the Ballets Russes, a traveling company based in Paris. The Russian scene painter Vladimir Polunin, who helped paint the curtain, wrote that Picasso wore slippers so he could stand on the canvas as he worked. His tools, according to the critic Sacheverell Sitwell, who visited the studio, included a toothbrush.
The Times piece also notes that what hangs at the Four Seasons is not the complete work. When Diaghilev needed to raise money, he had the center section cut out and sold, although the remaining two sections appear to have been joined seamlessly. So, we have a Picasso that was made as a stage prop, in collaboration with another artist, in a style other than the one for which Picasso is best known, and which is incomplete. Terry Teachout, in his Wall Street Journal piece, reports that Aby Rosen, head of  RFR Holding, the company that last year acquired full ownership the Seagram Building, was heard to describe Le Tricorne as a "schmatte" (rag).

RFR says Le Tricorne must be removed because of the condition of the wall on which it hangs, which is leaking steam. The architect Belmont Freeman disputes that assessment, saying there is nothing in the wall that could cause such leakage. Freeman was engaged by the owners of the Four Seasons to supervise its restoration. The restaurant was designed by Philip Johnson, so the Seagram Building as a whole, inside and outside, is a collaboration between two of the greatest architects of the past century. As Paul Goldberger notes in his Vanity Fair article, Johnson left the wall unfinished because "[h]e expected that the Picasso would cover it forever." Goldberger goes on to observe:
If the curtain is removed, it would be an act of destruction to Philip Johnson’s conception of the Four Seasons. “Le Tricorne” is, after all, a de facto part of the architecture, and so it would constitute a major alteration to one of the city’s most admired landmarks. It might also seriously damage the curtain itself, according to conservators hired by the Landmarks Conservancy. Even with the care the conservancy has given to the curtain, it is painted on fabric that is 95 years old, and it is brittle. The conservators say that the best way to protect it is to leave it alone.
Despite being "a de facto part of the architecture," Le Tricorne could not be included in the Seagram Building's landmark designation because, for purposes of such designation, it isn't considered part of the architecture. Nevertheless, its removal, and possible replacement with something else, would change the landmarked building in a recognizable way. The Picasso can be seen from outside the restaurant; in Goldberger's words, "it is part of the experience of anyone entering the building."

Is there something wrong with changing that experience? According to Goldberger, Rosen "reportedly will replace [Le Tricorne] with works he owns, perhaps rotating them as he has done successfully on the ground floor of Lever House across the street, which RFR also owns." I don't doubt there are some people, perhaps a significant number, who would prefer to see works by Damien Hirst or Jeff Koons--two artists that both Goldberger and Teachout mention as favorites of Rosen's--to La Tricorne. I'm not one of them, but that's just me.***

Nevertheless, I think there are valid arguments, other than my preference, for keeping Le Tricorne in place. One compelling reason is the possibility of irreparable damage to the curtain if it is removed. In Daniel Slotnick's Times story about the court order not to remove the Picasso pending further proceedings on March 11, a lawyer for RFR is quoted as making the incredibly crass statement, "If we break it, we buy it."

Moreover, I agree with Goldberger's argument that, despite the technicalities of the landmarks law, the curtain really is part of the architecture that should be protected. I'm not one of those who reflexively opposes change, and I believe there have been instances in which landmarks requirements have been applied in ways that are unnecessarily oppressive to property owners; usually, I think, because of the fear--which I consider in most instances to be excessive--of setting a bad precedent. Nevertheless, I'm troubled by what I see as a lionization of change for change's sake, and of "change agents," in contemporary culture. Yes, sometimes change is necessary. Organizations become sclerotic and need to be shaken up. Providing affordable housing without generating sprawl may necessitate construction of more high rise buildings. But unless occasioned by emergency, including by a manifest injustice, change should be considered carefully before it is implemented. It almost always has downsides as well as upsides, and it may have unintended consequences. In this respect, I suppose, I'm something of a Burkean.

If Le Tricorne goes, it will be the second loss by New York City of something by a major figure in twentieth century art within a year's time. I hope it doesn't happen.
__________

*I prefer "non-representational" to the more frequently used "abstract." All visual art, including photography, "photo-realist" painting, and sculpture is, of necessity, abstract.

**Perl, Jed, "The Abstract Imperfect", The New Republic. November 3, 2011 ( a review of De Kooning: a Retrospectve at the Museum of Modern Art).

***For an account of my naive groping toward a standard of aesthetic judgment, see this post.