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Playing Favorites in “Black and White”: Guggenheim Refuses to Release Conservators’ Findings on Picasso’s “Woman Ironing”

Carmen Giménez, Guggenheim Museum’s curator of 20th-century art, speaking at “Picasso Black and White” press preview
On right: “Woman with Outstretched Arms,” 1961, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

At yesterday morning’s press preview for the Guggenheim Museum’s Picasso: Black and White (to Jan. 23), director Richard Armstrong informed the scribe tribe that one of the Guggenheim’s most prized Picassos—its Blue Period “Woman Ironing,” 1904, from the Thannhauser Collection—was conserved and technically analyzed in anticipation of this show. This work was funded by an Art Conservation Project grant from Bank of America, whose global arts and culture executive, Rena De Sisto, briefly spoke the press preview.

This familiar painting was give pride of place as the first work visitors encounter on the ramp. There when I began my ascent was one of the museum’s conservators, who had worked on the painting. I innocently asked her the obvious question: “What was the nature of the work done on ‘Woman Ironing’?” She mentioned that it had been cleaned and stabilized, and that there had been an investigation regarding another image that was beneath the surface.

That brought to mind the Metropolitan Museum’s 2010 Picasso show under the auspices of Gary Tinterow, then the Met’s curator in charge of 19th-century, modern and contemporary art and now director of the Houston Museum of Fine Arts. As soon as he started his Texas gig last December, Gary asked that the Guggenheim’s show be sent to Houston, where about 80% of the works will travel, Feb. 24-May 27, augmented by works from Texas collections.

Gary Tinterow yesterday at the Guggenheim
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

But the Guggenheim show’s catalogue, unlike that for the Met’s show, said nothing about the conservators’ findings. When I pressed the Guggenheim’s conservator yesterday for more details about this, she first indicated that she might be able to give me some information, depending on when I’d be publishing. When I answered “immediately,” she said she couldn’t say anything now: Someone else had been given an exclusive.

Seeing red instead of black-and-white, I suggested that since we had all been informed that the work had been done, the details of the conservators’ treatments and findings were legitimate areas of inquiry for all in attendance. The conservator (appropriately) sought help at this point from a high-level Guggenheim official, who not only defended the black-and-white blackout, but chewed me out as “aggressive” and “rude” for maintaining that the conservation information should be generally disseminated.

While neither confirming nor denying that an exclusive had been given, the official did tell me that her museum had previously made public some of the details about the conservators’ project—through Carol Vogel of the NY Times. In March, Vogel reported:

For years conservators have known that beneath the surface lies the
ghost of a figure — a three-quarter-length view of a man with a mustache
— which Picasso had painted over….Some say it could be an image of the artist
himself. Others have guessed that it is Benet Soler, a friend and tailor
who supported Picasso and whom Picasso had depicted around that time.
Now a grant…will give the Guggenheim enough money to try to find out.

We can only assume that the Guggenheim is once again following the retrograde “Times first” policy. I have nothing against Vogel’s pushing for an exclusive. That’s part of her job. But a fair-minded museum shouldn’t play that game, especially when other reporters are making legitimate inquiries regarding matters of general interest. I understand why museums do this, but they shouldn’t. My intention here is not to point fingers at individuals or settle personal scores (which is why I’m not naming names), but to urge museums to dump the play-favorites policy.

Another Guggenheim official later told me that the conservation information would be posted on the Guggenheim’s website on Oct. 15. For now, the best I can do for you is to juxtapose the photo of “Woman Ironing” that appears on the Guggenheim’s collection website with the photo we received yesterday in our press kit. Perhaps the difference in tonalities is a result of the recent cleaning, or maybe they’re just be a function of different lighting and equipment used to produce these images:



“Woman Ironing,” 1904, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum
Left: photo from Guggenheim’s collections website
Right: photo distributed at yesterday’s press preview
© 2012 Estate of Pablo Picasso/Artists Rights Society
Photo on right: Kristopher McKay © The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, New York

Now let me put aside my gripes and grapple with the show itself: “Black and White” is something of a misnomer, but “Monochromatic Picasso” wouldn’t have the same ring to it. There are a wide variety of muted hues (as in “Woman Ironing”), not to mention a very generous helping of gray (black and white combined). By the time you get to some of the later work in this largely chronological array, the overall quality of the curators’ selections declines and the monochrome grows somewhat monotonous.

Guggenheim curator Carmen Giménez suggests at the beginning of her brief catalogue essay that “the majority of his black-and-white paintings belong to the Picasso family [big lenders to this show] and the Musée National Picasso, Paris,” because “Picasso had great difficulty parting with works that were very important to him.” An alternative explanation may be that the less notable of the  black-and-white works were less sought-after by collectors.

The show’s conspicuous no-shows include Picasso’s etchings—some of his greatest achievements in black and white. The elephant not in the room, which haunts these proceedings and should have been accorded an illustration in the galleries, is “Guernica”—once a resident alien in New York (at the Museum of Modern Art) but now locked down at the Reina Sofia, Madrid, which never lends it.

The installation does have riveting highlights throughout, including this arresting trio at the beginning, installed in the “High Gallery” alcove, which is just past “Woman Ironing.” The sculpture on the left and the painting behind it resonate engagingly with each other. The bravura multi-faceted head on the right is one of the show’s great standouts:


Left to right: “Bust of a Woman (Marie-Thérèse), Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Herbert Klapper; “Study for a Sculpture of a Head (Marie-Thérèse),” 1932, Fondation Beyeler; “Head of a Woman (Fernande),” 1909, Nasher Sculpture Center
Photos by Lee Rosenbaum

The work that truly stopped me in my tracks and took my breath away was one for which, unfortunately, I don’t have an image. (There were restrictions on photography during the press preview.) It’s the pensive, exquisitely beautiful painting, “Bust of a Woman,” 1922, from the collection of Michael and Judy Steinhardt, New York. Sculpted on canvas with jabs of small brushstrokes (in the manner of some of Picasso’s Cubist compositions), the dramatically cropped image of a woman encircling her head with raised, disproportionately massive arms evoked for me Rembrandt‘s introspective subjects with their deep, impenetrable gazes.

Allotted an alcove of her own, she easily held her own in juxtaposition with the nearest (very well known) painting, which also appeared in the Guggenheim’s outstanding Chaos and Classicism show two years ago, and is more mauve than black-and-white:
“Woman in White,” 1923, Metropolitan Museum of Art
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Near the end of the climb to the top, I was enlivened by a breath of fresh air—two humorous, cleverly crafted heads of Sylvette David, fashioned from bent, painted sheet metal. Here are both sides of one of them, presenting very contrasting aspects of the same 19-year-old woman, who so captured Picasso’s imagination that “within the space of a month, he had completed some 40 drawings, oils and sculptures of her,” according to Giménez’s catalogue essay. (The appearance of scale in the left photo, with tiny people in the distance, is deceiving: The piece is only 26 3/8″ high.):



“Sylvette,” 1954, private collection
Photos by Lee Rosenbaum

The show’s text could have done a more detailed, object-based job of addressing the overriding question posed by Giménez in the catalogue:

Why was this [black-and-white] palette so important to him?

As the curator’s catalogue essay and introductory wall text indicate, there is a multiplicity of answers, depending on the specific object in question—“to highlight formal structure,” to develop “a complex language of pictorial and sculptural signs,” “to underline the bleak mood and tension of [an] endangered time,” “to reaffirm his Spanish roots or to exorcize them.”

Critic David Sylvester, quoted in the catalogue, gave another intriguing answer:

Black-and-white…seems to have been used because managing a complicated composition was enough without having to organize contrasts of color as well.

In the best works in this show, Picasso’s deployment of black and white, however motivated, is in service of his prodigious ability as a draftsman, whether his medium for delineating form is paint, charcoal or even sheet metal or plaster. At their best, his restrained-palette pieces are just as virtuosic and as fully realized as (and sometimes even more ingenious than) anything that he ever created.

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