Roving thoughts and provocations

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Taking Down Picasso

Pablo Picasso’s 1919 stage curtain for Le Tricorne, at the Four Seasons Restaurant, New York

Though we are only five weeks into 2014, this is already not a good year for some of New York City’s most beloved artistic grace notes. In early January came the anticipated but nonetheless devastating news that the Museum of Modern Art would indeed raze Tod Williams and Billie Tsien’s adjacent American Folk Art Museum building as part of an expansion scheme by Diller Scofidio + Renfro.

Now, a page-one New York Times article brings us word that the real estate mogul Aby Rosen is planning to remove a historic Picasso stage curtain from the Seagram Building on February 9. The wall-sized, unframed canvas, which Picasso created in 1919 for Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes production of Le Tricorne, has hung in the Park Avenue office tower’s Four Seasons Restaurant since it opened in 1959. Rosen, a conspicuous collector of high-priced contemporary art whose RFR Holding company and other partners bought the renowned Ludwig Mies van der Rohe–Philip Johnson skyscraper for $375 million in 2000, acquired full ownership of the bronze-clad International Style high-rise last year.

According to the president of the New York Landmarks Conservancy, Peg Breen, moving the delicate, unframed, unstretched Picasso painting could be its death sentence. As Breen said, “One of RFR’s movers told us that no matter how cautious they are, the work is so brittle and fragile that it could, as one of them put it, ‘crack like a potato chip.’” On February 6, the Landmarks Conservancy filed a lawsuit in Manhattan Supreme Court seeking a last-minute injunction to halt the removal.

The endangered work depicts a quintessentially Spanish scene of a bullring viewed by spectators—including four mantilla-draped women, a barefoot boy selling oranges, and a rakishly caped ladies’ man—along an arcaded loggia overlooking the corrida. Nineteen feet high and more or less equally wide, this is Picasso’s largest extant painting apart from his thirty-four-foot-by-fifty-four-foot curtain for the Ballets Russes production of La Parade (1917) and his monumental antiwar canvas, Guernica (1937), which measures eleven feet five inches high by twenty-five feet six inches wide.

Apart from its sheer size, the Tricorne curtain imparts a magical feeling to the corridor where it now hangs, visible behind the floor-to-ceiling glass partitions that separate the Four Seasons from the Seagram elevator lobby. It is difficult to walk past this towering mural without feeling a contagious sense of elevated occasion imparted both by the ballet it was made for and its haunting music—some of it derived from folk tunes collected by the composer on his travels around Spain—which remains a worldwide concert hall favorite.

Choreographed by Leonid Massine and set to Manuel de Falla’s enchanting suite El sombrero de tres picos, Le Tricorne (known in English as The Three-Cornered Hat) is a picaresque tale of the attempted seduction of a faithful village wife, rather like a Spanish Così fan tutti.

This was clearly a theme that inspired Picasso, who had married the Ballets Russes dancer Olga Khokhlova a year before the original 1919 production. His mounting is perhaps best evoked by one of the painting assistants who helped on the curtain and who executed much of the scenery:

The austere simplicity of Picasso’s drawing, with its total absence of unnecessary detail, the composition and the unity of the coloring…was astounding. It was just as if one had spent a long time in a hot room and then passed into fresh air.

Ninety-five years later, the curtain’s remarkable qualities have not diminished. With its dusky mauve and ochre tonalities, palpable Iberian duende, and thrilling linkage to one of the greatest of all twentieth-century creative collaborations, this treasure far outstrips any price tag that could be put on it.

In view of its exceptional attributes, its importance in Picasso’s development, and its close association with the Seagram Building almost from the moment of the tower’s completion, it seems astonishing that the painting is unprotected by the landmark status accorded the Four Seasons interior in 1990. Because it is not considered an integral architectural element, however, it cannot be accorded such protection, according to the landmark rules.

The curtain, cut down from its original size sometime before Diaghilev’s death in 1929 and sold to a Swiss collector, had been bought for $50,000 in 1957 by Phyllis Bronfman Lambert, the Canadian whiskey heiress and architect who was responsible for persuading her father, Samuel Bronfman, owner of the Seagram company, to hire Mies. Philip Johnson, who was responsible for the Four Season’s interiors, and Lambert agreed that it would be ideally hung in the restaurant’s tall, narrow entryway. (Lambert gives a first-person account of that commission in her recently published monograph, Building Seagram).

Nor, as some reports have suggested, is Le Tricorne of little art historical value. It is nonsense to argue that Picasso’s classicizing works from 1918 to 1925 (sometimes called his White Period) were a step backward from his preceding innovations, and indeed many of his revolutionary compositional techniques remain intact beneath the surfaces of those deceptively traditional-looking post-World War I works. According to Picasso’s definitive biographer, John Richardson (whose fourth and final volume of Picasso: A Life is now in progress):

For Picasso, Tricorne was a useful vitrine for his emergent stylistic synthesis. By blending cubist and representational elements so subtly and easily, Picasso was able to demonstrate to a wider audience than ever before how alternative modes of notation could harmonize as well as set each other off.

Richardson—who turned ninety on February 6—has described Picasso’s décors for Le Tricorne as the artist’s “supreme theatrical achievement,” high praise for an oeuvre-within-an-oeuvre that includes Parade (1917), set to music by Eric Satie, and Pulcinella (1920), with a score by Igor Stravinsky.

This is not the first time Rosen has run afoul of preservationists. In 2007 he proposed erecting a 355-foot-high glass tower by Norman Foster atop the five-story Carlyle Galleries Building, a 1930s structure across Madison Avenue from the Carlyle Hotel between East 76th and 77th Streets. But that scheme—which exceeded by more than two thirds the maximum 210-foot height allowed in the Madison Avenue Special Preservation District—was vehemently opposed by neighborhood residents and rejected by the New York City Landmark Preservation Commission.

As it turns out, the putative reason for the fragile curtain’s removal—that the wall behind it is in danger of collapsing and needs immediate repair—has been disputed after an independent engineering investigation by the Landmarks Conservancy showed that there was no imminent danger of the wall giving way. There are suspicions that Rosen’s eagerness to remove the Picasso might be rooted in a desire to display trendier art closer to his own taste in that highly visible showplace.

One misapprehension in The New York Times article about the curtain’s imminent removal is the reporter’s assertion that Rosen “is no one’s idea of a philistine,” an odd claim in an article that reports the tycoon’s characterization of Picasso’s magnificent work as a “schmatte,” the Yiddish word for rag. If Rosen proceeds with his plan to take down this essential part of New York’s cultural patrimony, he will be indelibly branded a philistine by any definition of the term.

No matter how many record-price-breaking works by Andy Warhol, Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst, and other big-name artists Rosen amasses, his needless trashing of this cultural touchstone will not be forgotten, nor forgiven. Let us hope he has a last-minute change of heart.

Update: On February 8, after this post was published, a judge issued a temporary injunction barring RFR from moving the painting.

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