Excerpts from a curator's quest: building the Museum of Modern Art's painting and sculpture collection, 1967-1988.
Although a great and groundbreaking sculptor in vanguard modes, Picasso made only some thirty Cubist constructions--most of them very small--between 1912 and 1921, during which years he produced many hundreds of paintings. He never sold any of these constructions, despite efforts to purchase them by the Museum of Modern Art and presumably by dealers, collectors, and other museums. In Alfred's later years, Rene d'Harnoncourt petitioned Picasso through his dealer, Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, and even through Andre Malraux, then France's minister of culture. Price would be no issue. But the answer was always no.
Although Picasso never sold these constructions, a modest one had left his studio as a gift to his close friend, the poet Paul Eluard. It was later purchased from him by Roland Penrose, the English Surrealist painter and pioneer biographer of Picasso. The work in question was an approximately 10 x 18" painted wood construction of spring 1914 known as Still Life with Upholstery Fringe, which represented a segment of a tabletop supporting a knife and some sausage; the table's edge was ornamented with an actual upholstery fringe. I had asked Roland early on if he would give MOMA first refusal on this piece, should he ever sell it. He replied in the affirmative, but added he could never imagine parting with it. A few years later, nevertheless, I received a call from London; it was Roland. Thieves had stolen a number of works from his collection that were in his country house, but were willing to sell them back to him for a sum that left him in need of the equivalent of one hundred and fourteen thousand US dollars. Roland would sell us the 1914 construction for that amount if we could pay within three days--apparently the deadline laid down by the thieves. This call took place on a weekend.
I'm not sure which of the trustees I called at this point. I think it was David Rockefeller, though it might have been Bill Paley. I explained the situation and the uniqueness of the opportunity it represented for the museum. On Monday morning, a wire transfer of the requested amount was sent to Roland. I waited ten days or so without receiving the object or hearing from Roland. When I got him on the phone he was extremely embarrassed and apologetic. Evidently some trustees and staff of the Tate Gallery, hearing that this object was about to leave England, pressed him very hard, presumably offering to resolve the situation so as to keep the construction in England; Roland would subsequently deed it to the Tate. "After all," as he said on the phone, "I am an Englishman." I told him not to be concerned, that I understood, and I went about informing the few trustees who knew about these things.
Just days later, I was sitting in my office with Ernst Beyeler, recounting my sad story, when he came up with an interesting idea. Since Malraux and all our other "connections" had failed to produce, and since no offer of money would suffice, why not, Beyeler said, propose an exchange to Picasso of one of the museum's paintings--say a van Gogh or Cezanne--for one or two of the artist's important construction sculptures. At the very least, he added, Picasso would appreciate the gesture. I nearly fainted when he said van Gogh or Cezanne. We had at that time only one van Gogh painting, and that was The Starry Night . But then I had a sudden thought. There was in the reserves a decent but undistinguished Cezanne L'Estaque of the early 1880s that Alfred never hung in the galleries, as it was visibly inferior to our other Cezannes. When he and I went through the reserves together, Alfred--aware that Bill Paley's larger and more beautiful L'Estaque, a life-interest gift, was slated to join the collection--had said to me, "Sell this Cezanne when you want something very important." Sell or exchange, that picture's moment had come. I was very aware, in deciding to use a Cezanne, of Picasso's almost worshipful attitude toward the painter, whom he had characterized as "le pere de nous tous" [the father of us all].
Beyeler was scheduled to see Picasso the following week, and he volunteered to retail our proposition to him. He went armed with an Ektachrome transparency of the 23 7/8 x 27 3/4" Cezanne and a personal letter, in which I stressed to Picasso the importance of a construction sculpture for our collection, given our richness in other aspects of his work. I also observed that his Cubist constructions had had a seminal influence on the best American sculptors (particularly on David Smith, who had a reproduction of one of them tacked to his studio door). I added that none of these artists had ever actually seen one of these objects prior to 1967, when Roland Penrose organized at MOMA his exhibition of the artist's sculpture. Before that, they knew the works only from reproductions in Cahiers d'Art, [Christian] Zervos's catalogue [raisonne], and other such sources.
Beyeler phoned me after his visit to Picasso, passing on the artist's suggestion that we both come on Saturday, February 13, 1971, bringing the Cezanne. I also brought along the distinguished collector Walter Bareiss, then trustee chairman of the museum's committee on painting and sculpture. If I were going to make an agreement with Picasso on a trade, I had to have instant trustee approval. The three of us--along with Beyeler's and Bareiss's wives--arrived at Picasso's villa in late afternoon. After the formalities, we opened the box containing the Cezanne, and Picasso leaned the painting against a wall, saying he would study it as we chatted. (One of the things he asked about during our extended discussion that stands out in my mind was the changing status of blacks in America.) Jacqueline was a gracious hostess and, after a few hours of conversation, we shared a simple dinner. Happily, Picasso and I hit it off instantly, and after dinner he took me downstairs to the sculpture studio to find out precisely what object the museum wanted in exchange for its Cezanne. I told him that the Guitar was our first choice. But I also proposed a few alternatives. Picasso took all this in, and we went back upstairs to look at some pictures from his "collection" of other artists' works.
To my embarrassment there was, among the three Cezannes Picasso showed us, a wide and quite glorious L'Estaque. This was Picasso's way of pulling our leg. Like many other L'Estaques, his picture showed a rocky but inhabited landscape below an area of sea that crossed the center of the picture below a band of sky. I shall never forget Picasso rapping his knuckles on the center of the canvas. The dust flew and Picasso said in his heavily accented French something I probably remember because it rhymed: "Regardez la mer, c'est solide comme la pierre" [Look at the sea, it's solid like the stone], a reference to the continuous character of Cezanne's pictorial fabric, which was "solid" independently of the object portrayed.
We parted toward midnight, Picasso going to one of his studios to paint. He said he needed a day to consider our proposition, and asked if we could come back Monday afternoon for his answer. I returned a little in advance on Monday and was met at the door by Picasso, only to be told upon entering, "Mon pauvre Rubin, I cannot take your Cezanne." Instantly, my spirits drooped. When I was sufficiently deflated, Picasso added, "However, I shall give you the Guitar." O frabjous day! Jacqueline joined us for a drink (of juice). Later I learned that, as I had suspected, Picasso had a rather low opinion of our Cezanne. But he was too polite to say so. "I would feel like a collector (collectionneur, with a deprecating rolling of the r) if I accepted it," was his explanation for rejecting it. Before I left, Jacqueline took a photo of me with Picasso holding the Guitar and another of Beyeler and Bareiss standing with Picasso and me.
I returned to New York with the Cezanne, and the Guitar followed by air freight a day later. It was taken as big news, probably because it had been decades since Picasso had given anything to a museum, and because the work was such a pioneering one. In any event, a photograph of the Guitar was on the front page of the New York Times. The morning I first went to my office (the Guitar now being there), it was crowded with press. During the interview, a reporter for Time asked what all the fuss was about, given that the object was "unprepossessing" and "simple." I agreed with him on the first count, showing him a color reproduction of a decoratively painted metal construction representing a Violin, of two years later, to show that Picasso could be seductive when he wanted to be. It was in reply to his remark about simplicity that Einstein's "E = [mc.sup.2]" popped into my mind. I pointed out that Einstein's formula had been pretty simple too, and that was the beauty of it. I might have scandalized the reporter (but didn't) by adding that Picasso had once suggested that he might reduce the Guitar's cardboard maquette to a flat plan, which could be sold cheaply, so that everyone could cut it out and make his own Picasso Guitar. The next issue of Time showed a reproduction of the Guitar under which was printed "E = [mc.sup.2]."
FOUR MONTHS after my first visit to Picasso's villa, Notre Dame de Vie, situated on top of a hill not far from the center of Mougins, I moved into L'Oubradou, the home I had built near Plan de la Tour, about a one-hour drive from Picasso, where my brother Lawrence already owned a house. The artist was pleased to have me over a number of times that summer and the succeeding one, and also during my winter visits--indeed, right up almost to his death, in the spring of 1973. At the time, very few of Picasso's longtime friends were still alive, especially those who could speak intelligently about painting, which Picasso liked to do. Three or four times over the summer, his secretary, Miguel [Montares], phoned to ask if I was in the mood to chat, to "parler peinture." I would jump in my car and head for Picasso's villa. I knew instinctively that the model for my relationship with Picasso should not be that of the inquiring art historian. It would not have lasted long. I had just to be a relaxed friend, playing Ping-Pong with his thinking and gleaning whatever I could art-historically when the mood pleased him. The artist had treated me with something close to affection during my first visit, and I built on that.
Picasso told me that when he wasn't working he liked to "vegetate" and chat with friends. I felt very lucky to enter that category. Interviewers, professors, press, and the like were regularly turned away by Picasso's last secretary, Miguel (a former officer in the Spanish Republican Army). So we chatted about one thing and another. I remember Picasso kidding me by asking, "If you could walk out of this house with anything you wanted [for the museum], what would you take?" I took up his challenge, asked for a piece of paper and a pen, and listed a half-dozen items: The 1912 Still Life with Chair Caning, Picasso's first collage; a 1928 "drawing in air" sculpture; the 1930 Crucifixion; The Kitchen of 1948; Chair, 1961, one of the large, late, cutout metal sculptures; and finally a beautiful portrait of Jacqueline (Zervos 1964, vol. 24, cat no. 101) that hung in the living room. Picasso looked at the list and saw that it was serious and modest--at least to the extent that I had omitted such obvious large masterpieces as The Pipes of Pan of 1923, and the famed anthropomorphic Still Life on a Pedestal Table of 1931. He commented generously that he understood my choices in relation to the museum collection.
Then, suddenly in his "gotcha" mood, he said, "I see you have The Kitchen on your list." Assuming that I didn't know there were two versions of that picture, he said, "But which Kitchen?" I one-upped him by saying, "I'll be delighted to show you." Immediately, Jacqueline, Picasso, and I went up to a large second-floor studio, and Picasso pulled out of the racks the two versions of The Kitchen. The one he set up on the left contained some details absent from the other (hanging plates were reworked and ornamented, a fly introduced between them, leaves were added to the arrow on the lower right, identifying it as a plant stem), dark gray patterns were introduced in the center of the composition, and light yellow had been added to some of the forms toward the bottom, spoiling for me the unity of the grisaille palette. Without hesitation, I picked the one on the right, the one missing the little details. "That's good," said Picasso, "because the other one is not by me." I felt I had passed another one of his little tests. Picasso had exaggerated, of course. The one on the left was partly (some of the worst parts) painted by him. The one I liked was the economical first version. Picasso had felt that he might like to add a few details to that, but with an artist's instinct for not spoiling by overpainting a work, he decided not to further touch the first version (on the right). Rather, he asked his assistant and his then-mate, Francoise Gilot, herself a painter, to stretch up a second canvas of the same dimensions and to copy the first version. After that, Picasso took it over, adding the details and changes of which I spoke as well as the small yellow smear.
ON ONE OF MY FIRST visits with Picasso, I had come armed with an early maquette of the catalogue for my upcoming show, "Picasso in the Collection of the Museum of Modern Art, including remainder-interest and promised gifts" . I was hoping to get some clarifications that would be valuable for my text. The maquette showed only the illustrations, and those only in black-and-white; my texts were to be interpolated later that summer. Picasso loved to look at catalogues, and he started through it with me. He was very pleased that it began with a comparison of his face today (excerpted from Jacqueline's photo of the two of us) compared with his frontal 1901 portrait, a promised gift of [John Hay] Jock Whitney. No doubt, he loved the fact that although these images were separated by seventy years, his black eyes seem more burningly focused, more laserlike, in the later image.
As we turned the pages, Picasso grunting with satisfaction from time to time, we arrived at the illustration of the Vase of Flowers, 1908. I had been confused about the reading of that image. On what appeared to be a blue and yellow drapery on the right, there was a series of long forms, perhaps hooks for holding in place the drapery. I was dissatisfied with that thesis and asked my friends Leo Steinberg and Bob Rosenblum for their opinions. Neither could come up with a satisfactory explanation. I queried Picasso, who remembered immediately that what resembled long check marks were his long-stemmed Javanese pipes. (This reminds us that no matter how nonfigurative a Picasso might appear, it is always rooted in the real world. A classic Mondrian is as alien to him as is a Pollock.)
The next picture we stopped over was the Reservoir at Horta, of the summer of 1909--as I have noted, a promised gift by David Rockefeller from the Gertrude Stein collection group. Picasso was delighted to tell me that there was no reservoir. The greenish area in the foreground was rather a masonry abreuvoir, or giant manger, for animals to drink from. I was not particularly surprised that Picasso would say nothing about the picture's complex early Cubist structure. But in reply to my questions he brought out a whole series of small drawings of the motif. When I pressed him, he said something he would, in effect, repeat to me more than once: "Look, it's for me to make the pictures and for you fellows to figure them out." (This hesitation as regards talking about formal matters applied interestingly much more to his own work than to that by other artists.)
Another picture we stopped over was a Horta still life from later that summer, which had led, before my days at MOMA, to some difficulty in its reading, and thus its titling. For some years, it was known erroneously as Still Life with Siphon, and was subsequently mislabeled Still Life with Tube of Paint. Others, confusing a botijo with a real fowl, apparently wanted to call it Still Life with Rooster. It was finally correctly titled Still Life with Liqueur Bottle, after the bottle of Anis del Mono in the foreground. Picasso had clarified it for me--all the time drawing details on a sheet of paper. The "rooster" was a ceramic drinking vessel known as a botijo; the drawing showed how the holder on this botijo--a diagonal form in the painting to conform with the picture's angular Cubist dicing--was actually doughnut-shaped. He identified the form on the extreme right as the daily paper with the address cover. Having drawn these and other motifs on the paper, he sat back, looked at me and said, "Do you want this drawing?" I said I would be glad to accept it as a gift to the museum. "Well," he said, "we'll have to give it a title." The Horta still life itself had been painted d'apres nature, after nature. This drawing was made after art, so he jokingly titled it Document contre nature and signed it.
The drawing was very inelegant and a bit awkward in style. What is particularly interesting in it is what it tells us about Picasso's need to "set his hand," to warm up. Indeed, many of his drawings were repeated ten times or more--they were carefully numbered--at a single sitting. Inevitably they show that his hand was more fluid in the later than in the earlier drawings.
There are two other things I should mention from this colloquy about the catalogue maquette. First, I have to note that Picasso's extraordinary memory clearly played a trick on him when he confirmed to me what he had said that spring, namely that the Guitar preceded his first collage, Still Life with Chair Caning. This pushed the date of the Guitar back to early 1912, the date I gave it in "Picasso in the Collection of the Museum of Modern Art." Over the following years, that date appeared to me, as it did to others, increasingly problematic. The late Edward Fry was the first to unravel this matter. On one of my visits, Picasso had given me a box containing the cardboard maquette for the Guitar. As Fry observed, that maquette had been the centerpiece of at least two groups of autumn 1912 papier colles, which the artist had pinned to the studio wall and photographed. The latter pretty much fixed the date of the cardboard maquette as autumn 1912. Picasso could, of course, have fashioned the sheet-metal-and-wire Guitar from the maquette during the course of 1913. Accepting Fry's argument, I used this dating in "Picasso and Braque: Pioneering Cubism" (1980). But in A Life of Picasso (1996, 2:256), John Richardson cited a letter from Vanessa Bell to Duncan Grant in which she describes all the constructions she saw at Picasso's studio in early March 1914 as made of ephemeral materials and noted further that Picasso wanted to construct some of them in metal. This would seem to lead us to spring 1914 as the correct date for the metal version of Guitar.
If Picasso unintentionally misled me on the date of the Guitar, he offered me a magnificent observation about the objects and the intangible luminous space of the last work we looked at together in the maquette. Speaking of the transformations of motifs in the The Architect's Table, 1912, a high Analytic Cubist picture, Picasso admitted that he could not have identified with certainty the point of departure for all its shapes, even at the time it was painted. "All its forms can't be rationalized," he said. "At the time, everybody was talking about how much reality there was in Cubism. But they didn't really understand. It's not a reality you can take in your hand. It's more like a perfume--in front of you, behind you, to the sides. The scent is everywhere, but you don't quite know where it comes from." There was no such thing as taking notes in front of Picasso. I found these last sentences so beautiful and revealing that I instantly excused myself and hurried to the toilet, where I wrote them down.
JACQUELINE TOLD ME that Picasso had been very pleased that the MOMA Cezanne he had rejected had been used to acquire one of his important paintings, and that he had not forgotten my list. The following spring, I was preparing to go to France where, after some museum business in Paris, I would go south to my home at Plan de la Tour, from where I could visit Picasso and Jacqueline. It was a habit of Picasso's friends to bring little gifts, nothing of value, just something that might amuse the artist. I remembered Picasso's glee late one morning in February when he saw, on the front page of the Nice-Matin, a photograph of the American astronauts playing "lunar golf." The black-and-white photo was so fuzzy and unclear one could hardly tell what was going on. I decided that my gift on this trip would be a large, framed, and, above all, very clear color photograph of the lunar golf game, which I was able to obtain through Bill Paley. Bill's number-one newscaster at the time was Walter Cronkite, who had reported regularly on the astronauts and who took the photograph to lunar golfer Alan Shepard. Shepard inscribed it, "To Pablo Picasso, the greatest explorer in another realm," and signed it. Picasso got such a kick out of this photo that, from what his friend the Spanish publisher Gustavo Gili told me, he was showing it to visitors for weeks afterward.
In the spring of 1972, Picasso had already said he would be delighted that the museum realize the monumental sculpture he had earlier intended in honor of Guillaume Apollinaire. This was to be based on the best of the 1928 metal-rod "drawing in air" maquettes, and was to be executed using the six-and-a-half-foot-high 1962 red intermediate enlargement of that maquette as its model. The red enlargement had been realized some years earlier by a skilled metalworker, under Picasso's direction. Soon afterwards, he seemingly cooled to the idea, saying several times, "Sure we'll do it," but never really doing anything. On a visit to the artist in late October of 1972, I found him in a particularly good mood. When I arrived, he led me almost immediately to the sculpture studio downstairs, where the scene was dominated by the big red enlargement of the 1928 maquette. "How do you think this would look in your museum?" I recall him asking. "You can use it along with the drawings to fabricate the Apollinaire piece." He went on to say that he wanted to keep the small 1928 maquettes together as a group. The large red version, which we could keep, was closer, Picasso said, to what he had in mind when he originally proposed the piece to the committee deciding on a monument to honor Apollinaire. Naturally, he added, it was refused. I told Picasso that the enlarged red version would work wonderfully in our collection galleries (I was thinking especially of the work's affinity to The Studio, made in the same year; indeed, I would pair those works at right angles in the galleries). Clearly, Picasso had not forgotten my list.
As we went up to the living room, Picasso began a little leg-pulling. "What's this?" he asked. "It's my birthday, and I'm giving you a gift." It wasn't his birthday, of course, though that was only a few days off. Later, Jacqueline told me that Picasso had decided to give me--that is, MOMA--a gift every year on his birthday. As Picasso clearly expected to live beyond the age of one hundred, he did not feel pressed. On another occasion, when we talked about the late work of Titian, I mentioned the latter's supposed ninety-plus years. Picasso brushed that aside with an indication that he expected to go well beyond.
Meanwhile, in the living room, Picasso got a long stick and made a mark high up on the wall. Jacqueline called one of the guardians to bring a ladder and, with Miguel's help, the proposed height of the Monument  was measured. It was a hair below four meters. Picasso agreed that the work should be in Cor-Ten steel, although he wanted to approve personally the thickness of the steel rods that would be used as the "lines" of the piece. Not long after, I returned from New York with samples of the Cor-Ten rods we proposed to use, and they got Picasso's approval.
On one of my last visits to the artist, early in 1973, Picasso, Jacqueline, and I were looking through some early paintings that were in the racks of the smaller upstairs studio. When we came upon the historically celebrated 1912 Still Life with Chair Caning, which had been on my list, Jacqueline whispered in my ear, "You'll get that on his next birthday." Little could she or I imagine that this physically strong and active man would not live to see that day. The picture is now in the wonderful Musee Picasso, which may, indeed, be its proper place. As for Picasso's physical strength, I recall him pulling out for me, in the upstairs studio where he did his painting, a large (approximately 8 x 12') canvas, holding it by the two inner braces of the stretcher, and carrying it across the room. I went to help him, but he absolutely refused my assistance. Of course, I then remembered the rule that nobody in the household but Picasso could lay a finger on any of his works, whatever medium and however small, and that included Jacqueline and Miguel.
THE CLOSENESS AND WARMTH of my rapport with Picasso during the three-plus years that I knew him came as a great surprise to me, and I always attributed it to the fact that his friends, among painters, poets, and even dealers (such as Kahnweiler) were already deceased. (The one dealer he seemed to enjoy and whom I considered to have the best eye among them was Ernst Beyeler, who, as we have seen, handled my entry into Picasso's world.) Picasso's warmth was extraordinary. When we walked down the stairs together, he with his eighty-nine or ninety years and me with a cane from a series of back operations, he would throw his arm around me, holding the banister, and I felt like I was his grandson. I realized this feeling while talking with him on visits that ranged from four to sometimes eight or nine hours on eighteen or so occasions before he died from what began as a common cold. He would probably have lived longer had he not been left to lie in bed on his back for three days, which apparently turned the cold into pneumonia. He was in superior physical health. His only noticeable defect was being hard of hearing in one ear, a "loss" found in many people much younger than he.
I MENTIONED ABOVE that my dialogue with Picasso taught me many things about the nature of his work. Two of the most revealing moments with him had nothing directly to do with my hunt for acquisitions. During one visit with Picasso, I had with me my meerschaum pipe. Instead of the usual "pipe nail" used for cleaning wooden pipe-bowls, I carried a modernistic, Italian-designed aluminum device, a few inches in length. This had a tamper with beveled edges on one end, and a beautifully designed scooper on the other. Picasso had been all his life an amateur of pipes and pipe lore. Indeed, he had fashioned a few pipes with two bowls and a single stem so he could separate the English and French tobaccos he liked and smoke them simultaneously. But he had never seen anything like this "vanguard" pipe nail, and he was fascinated. He took the object in his hand and, while our talk continued, he stared intensely at it. He would change its angles from time to time, as if to draw it. Then he would hold it at another angle for a long time. It was as if he were drawing it in his mind. Drawing was his way of possessing things, of making them his own. Picasso once observed to me, "Je regarde un motif jusqu'a je le possede" [I look at a motif until I possess it]. I repeated the gist of this at the time to my friend Leo Steinberg, who went on to entitle a touching article about Picasso, "Drawing as if to Possess."
Another insight came about purely by accident while Picasso and I were talking about Degas. He seemed very surprised and excited that I should be interested in Degas. In an instant, he disappeared into one of the rooms near the back terrace and returned with a number of the original monotypes that Degas had made to illustrate Guy de Maupassant's tale "La Maison Tellier," which was about life in a bordello. I knew most of these monotypes well through a facsimile edition in the Columbia University fine arts library, but I had never seen the originals, nor had I any idea Picasso owned any of them. I had, in fact, written a graduate paper for Meyer Schapiro on the most elaborately developed of these monotypes, La Fete de la Patronne (The Madam's Birthday Party) [1876-77].
And there it was. Picasso was showing me the original. We had a long talk about Degas and went on to other things. I learned shortly after our conversation that Picasso had introduced the subject of Degas into his etchings the very night of our discussion. Back in New York, I wondered just how? Would they be versions of the monotypes on the order of his prints after Cranach? On my trip that following spring Picasso showed me the etchings. Contrary to what I had expected, they turned out to be bordello etchings very much like those of the 347 Suite , nude girls displaying themselves, often with a madam seated somewhere in the room. But there, on a visit to the bordello, in the center or to the side, stood a bearded figure immediately recognizable as Degas. He was shown furtively peeking at--or staring at--the nude and seminude girls, sometimes with "lines of sight" etched from his eyes to the crotches of the prostitutes. When I saw that these were not paraphrases of Degas' work but images of Degas himself in a bordello, I was reminded of something Picasso had said when he first showed me the "Maison Tellier" series. Picasso had poked me in the ribs with his elbow and said slyly, "Hey! What do you think he was doing in such a place?" It was well known, of course, that Degas had no known sexual relations with women; he was repressed--a sort of neuter. When I thought again of Picasso's question, it became clear that his Degas etchings were a way of answering his own question: Degas was a voyeur, and that's "what he was doing in such a place." In effect, Picasso's hand had answered his question.
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|Date:||May 1, 2006|
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