Cries of alarm, protest and horror rattled New York elites recently when Aby Rosen, the man who owns the Seagram’s building, wanted to remove a wall hanging, originally a ballet theater backdrop, purportedly painted by Pablo Picasso. The performance ended, the hanging landed as a decoration near the entrance to the 4 Seasons restaurant in the Seagram’s building and there it has hung for decades. The new owner, however, wished to redecorate and as he neither owned the painting – it belongs to an art council called the Conservancy – nor liked for it, he wanted it removed. (“Showdown At The Four Seasons” by Suzanna Andrews, Vanity Fair, 10/2013 pgs. 248-253, 287-290) Unfortunately, the Conservancy feared doing so would damage the painting and so objections reverberated throughout the art community, including Thomas Wolfe’s assessment that the new owner was a “smug vulgarian” (Ibid pg. 252)
To the dismay of the aesthetes, the smug vulgarian held his ground. “It’s my property and I can do what I want to,” was his sentiment, and so the Conservancy scrambled to find a new home for the canvass which Christie’s auction house had appraised at 1.6 million dollars. Despite the canvas’ presumed value, no buyers came forward and no museum would agree to display it. Faced with a lack of alternatives, the Conservancy took Rosen to court. They argued the backdrop was a valuable piece of New York history as well as an important art work that would be destroyed if Seagram’s new owner were allowed to carry out his plans. Rosen replied that the work had already been defaced when it was cut to size to be installed at Seagram’s and besides, he was certain Picasso hadn’t executed the painting but merely supervised its completion.
After much wrangling and hurt feelings, the two parties reached a settlement. Rosen would pay for the Picasso to be removed and safely delivered to the New York Historical Society. There, it would be permanently displayed and Rose could get on with his renovations. (Ibid pg.290.) Much Ado about Nothing.
Let’s be honest, the world is awash in Picasso’s. You will find him on pajamas and coffee mugs and planters, for example. Why make a religion of him and cast non-believers as infidels? At no time during all this sound and fury did anyone claim this particular backdrop was a great work of art. Certainly, when tested in the market, the market fell silent. Now the backdrop survives, not as a fine example of Picasso’s work, but as a piece of New York history. Something of a come down, I suspect.