A few months back I was perusing The New York Times when I was stopped in my tracks by a picture of Barack Obama in his office at the University of Chicago. Being a former Second City citizen, I immediately felt a sense of kinship of place, but I was even more astonished to see hanging in his office the exact same Picasso print—a black and white devil-like image, a poster for 1955 Exposition de Vallauris—that hangs on the wall of my living room. I always look around people’s homes and offices for signs of who they are and what choices they make, but when I saw that Picasso work, I knew that Barack and I clearly had affinities! Not everyone makes the same choices or likes the same things—but we chose the same image to look at day in and day out. What did that say about us?
I had bought that print, probably not a “real” print, when I was seventeen years old. Pablo Picasso was perhaps my first real love. Growing up in Niagara Falls, Canada, where there is a wax museum literally on every corner (no wonder I ended up in this line of work!), I first met Picasso at the public library. The art section of the Dewey Decimal system was like my private zip code. I remember finding book about Picasso and Gertrude Stein and falling into a deep, deep swoon. I imagined myself living the salon life, with every conversation, morsel of food, or flirtation the catalyst for a painting or poem. My paintings, made late in the night, the only time an artist can work (teen or not), were inflected with Picasso’s lines, colors, and passions. Picasso sustained me through my teenage years. However, as I was indoctrinated into the art world of the mid-1970s during art school, I quickly came to realize that not only was my Picasso-influenced work not cool, but that he didn’t wear very well. I secretly pined in front of Guernica for my lost love during the obligatory visit to MoMA with my fellow students and professors.
I didn’t think much about Picasso after that, until of course I started working at MoMA. Years of a steady diet of contemporary art and cutting-edge practices had beaten the romance with Picasso out of me. Then one Tuesday afternoon, when the Museum was closed and the galleries were silent, I rounded the corner and there it was. Framed through the doorway I saw Les Demoiselles d’Avignon in all its fractured, messy, cantankerous glory.
Having truly experienced it in coaster-sized reproductions for most of my life, its presence was powerful. Standing close and looking up, the scale made me imagine this small, intense bulldog of a man at war with this canvas. It’s not a pretty painting. It’s a struggle. It’s a drama. It’s problem-solving. It’s a painting about working through new ideas. The surface is a battleground of forces working against forces: scraping and scrubbing a painting over and over to try to get it to work. The physicality of that struggle is so visceral, yet visible. So often an artist’s process is imperceptible in museums. Tidy rows of objects, pristinely kept.
With the jaded eye of one who has worked in museums all her life, I now am much more discriminating in my tastes. There are works that you see day after day and they become like wallpaper: not very interesting. And there are those few that become more interesting, engaging you time and time again. I often think we come to expect too much of art, and museums play a role in that. We expect everything to be a masterpiece, like an art history book with only key works. What I’ve found equally intriguing is to see works that sometimes don’t make it on the walls, as they rarely fit into the art historical lineage. Or those by the masters that are not so masterful. I recall explaining to a visitor to the vaults of a museum I worked at early in my career, as we examined a puzzling, awkward work by a well-known artist, that this was clearly a work created “after lunch on an off day.”
What we often can’t see in museums is the whole messy process of trial and error, of failed experiment, of working things through. What do the choices—both good and bad—that an artist makes say about the artist, and, similarly, how does the way we engage and see things differently over the course of a lifetime say about us? Not only is this fascinating, but it’s ultimately key to understanding a work of art, and to understanding how people experience art. And that’s what has fostered my re-enchantment with Picasso via the Demoiselles, and I hope fosters your re-enchantment with an old—or even a new—friend in a museum near you.