Friday, December 15, 2017
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Vandalism of Picasso painting in Houston is shocking, insulting

A man spray-paints a Picasso at a Houston art museum. Another visitor (instead of trying to stop him) captures the act on his iPhone and posts it on YouTube.

The incident has become an Internet sensation.

The painting was rushed to the museum's on-site conservation lab, the spray paint still drying, where "all the spray paint has been removed." Its prognosis is "excellent," according to a museum spokesman.

This latest is one of many destructive gestures leveled at art for several centuries and it, like all of them, shocks us in their disregard and disrespect both for our collective cultural heritage and the individual creative impulse.

Here are the details:

A young man entered a gallery of the renowned Menil Collection in Houston on June 13 and spray-painted the image of a bullfighter and bull onto Woman in a Red Armchair, an important 1929 painting by Pablo Picasso. It took only a few seconds. He added the word "Conquista," which, translated from Picasso's Catalonian Spanish, can mean "conquest, seizure, capture." Then he left.

The act was caught by the other visitor, unconnected to the vandal, on his iPhone. His video is being used by police, along with surveillance video from the museum, in the investigation. The witness reportedly followed the man as he left the museum and asked why he had vandalized the painting. The vandal told him he is a Mexican-American artist and wanted to "honor" Picasso.

Conservator Rustin Levenson, who is in St. Petersburg cleaning and conserving four paintings at the Dalí Museum, offered several scenarios for the Picasso restoration.

"Time is of the essence in restoration," she said. "The fact that the paint wasn't completely dry is positive. And that the oil paint on the Picasso was completely dry. The Menil Collection has an excellent conservation department."

There is an irony in art vandalism. It has been made possible by the democratization of art, which for hundreds of years was available only to the very rich in their private homes. In the wake of revolutions and vast social changes, most of the greatest art in the western world became accessible to the public in museums and converted palaces by the late 19th century. But making art accessible also has made it vulnerable.

The motives for art vandalism seem to fall into three broad categories. Some vandals, usually younger people, consider it a prank. A few vandals have diagnosed mental disorders. Most, though, want to make a statement or garner attention.

The most egregious example is probably that of Tony Shafrazi, who in 1974 wrote "Kill Lies All" in red paint on Guernica, one of Picasso's most famous works. At the time, it was considered a political statement about the Vietnam War.

He said in a 1980 interview, "I wanted to bring the art absolutely up to date, to retrieve it from art history and give it life. ... I wanted to dwell within the act of the painting's creation, get involved with the making of the work, put my hand within it and by that act encourage the individual viewer to challenge it, deal with it and thus see it in its dynamic raw state as it was being made, not as a piece of history." (The painting was quickly restored, by the way.)

Shafrazi's obtuse art-speak drips with cynicism because he became, and remains, a rich and powerful art dealer who has never wanted "to retrieve" with more of his paint flourishes the expensive Francis Bacon paintings he sells.

That presumption and egotism seem to be at work in the instance of the vandalized Picasso work at the Menil. It's possible that if this vandal is an artist, he knew that a good conservator could remove all traces of his intervention, and the Menil Collection, with its own lab, has some of the best.

And what "honor" is there in an artist defacing a work another artist deemed complete when he finished it? Even more insulting is that he didn't do anything original. He used a stencil.

Information from the Houston Chronicle was used in this report. Lennie Bennett can be reached at (727) 893-8293 or [email protected]

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