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Picasso curtain’s fate hangs by a thread

Seagram Building owner Aby Rosen says Picasso’s Le Tricorne is impeding repairs to a wall.

NY Landmarks Conservancy

For more than five decades, the Four Seasons has been one of New York's most elegant and pricey restaurants; dinner there will easily set you back $300 or more for two. It's not just the octopus carpaccio or juniper-scented loin of venison that justifies the big bucks, though: People pay for the privilege of dining with Picasso.

Perhaps not for long. On April 2, the Supreme Court of New York will hear a case that has captured the imagination of not only New Yorkers but also of people in Europe, where it has been widely reported. The court is being asked to rule on the fate of a large stage curtain painted by Pablo Picasso in 1919, which has hung in a place of honour at the Four Seasons in the Seagram Building on Park Avenue since the restaurant opened in 1959. It is the largest Picasso in the U.S., and one of his largest works after his celebrated Guernica.

The current owner of the Seagram Building, Aby Rosen, has referred to it as a shmatte or rag, and was stopped only by a temporary restraining order on Feb. 7 from having the curtain removed. Rosen claimed there was a leaking steam pipe in the ceiling and that repairs were needed to the travertine marble wall behind the curtain. The curtain, he said, impeded repairs.

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But experts sent out by the New York Landmarks Conservancy were unable to find any leak or signs of shifting in travertine by more than an eighth of an inch.

"We sent out respected engineers who stated that there is no building emergency to justify taking down the curtain. [Rosen] made it clear that he just wants the curtain gone," Peg Breen, president of the Landmarks Conservancy, said in a phone interview. "The judge [in February] said it's part of the city's cultural heritage and he wanted to make sure it would be there for his children's children to see."

The threat to the Picasso and to the integrity of the Four Seasons is particularly troubling to Phyllis Lambert, daughter of Sam Bronfman, the Canadian who built Seagram's into the world's biggest liquor company. An icon of high modernism, the Seagram Building was created by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and opened in 1957 as the company's headquarters. Still in her 20s, Lambert was placed in charge not only of finding the right architect but buying or commissioning art works for her father's building, including the restaurant.

Depicting spectators at a bullfight, the curtain was commissioned by Serge Diaghilev, founder of the famed Ballets Russes, to set the scene for his then-new Spanish-themed ballet Le Tricorne, with music by Manuel de Falla. Picasso, married at the time to one of Diaghilev's dancers, Olga Khokhlova, painted the curtain in a studio in London, walking on the canvas in carpet slippers, sometimes using a paint brush tied to a broomstick, sometimes a toothbrush.

In 1928 Diaghilev, in need of money, cut out the central portion (the edges are believed to have had coloured diamond motifs) and sold it to a Swiss collector.

Lambert bought the Picasso – by then it had changed hands several times – through an art dealer in Athens for $50,000 of her own money, in order to avoid waiting for approvals and possibly losing out on the purchase. "It seemed a miracle to find a work whose size, muted tonality, and classical repose would fit Mies's building so perfectly," she wrote in her book Building Seagram, published last year by Yale University Press. The wall of the passage connecting the Grill Room and Pool Room of the restaurant was almost exactly the same size as the curtain.

After the curtain purchase, Lambert visited Picasso at his villa in Cannes to ask him to create four sculptures for the restaurant representing the four seasons. Although he seemed agreeable at the time, he never followed through.

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Rosen's real reason for trying to remove the curtain from so-called "Picasso Alley" is not hard to guess. "He is a big collector of contemporary art – he likes the kind of audacious work that is being done now. He wants to use it [Four Seasons] as his own gallery," says Lambert, reached on the phone in Montreal where she presides over the Canadian Centre for Architecture. "He also owns Lever House [on the other side of Park Ave.] and he has put lots of stuff in there, in the courtyard. He has put a Jeff Koons in the lobby of the Seagram."

With the Seagram Building, which has a large plaza in front that Mies likened to a clearing in the urban forest, Rosen does not have an entirely free hand. "We put in when the building was landmarked that anything that goes in the plaza has to have approval from the Museum of Modern Art," recalls Lambert.

She says she is willing to go to New York to testify in court, but she has not been asked.

The restaurant's interiors, designed by Philip Johnson, have been landmarked since 1993, but the curtain was excluded from landmarking because it is portable rather than attached to the wall, unlike a sculpture consisting of shimmering metal rods by Richard Lippold hanging over the restaurant's bar.

Vivendi, the French company that bought out Seagram in 2000, donated the Picasso curtain to the Landmarks Conservancy. It was the Conservancy that obtained the temporary restraining order and will be petitioning the court on April 2 to make it permanent.

The 5.8-by-6.1-metre curtain, whose fabric received a new backing in the 1970s, is too stiff and too fragile to be rolled up or bent; it would be impossible to move without cracking.

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Other cities follow New York's lead on heritage preservation, which is why the fate of the Picasso curtain is being watched in Canada.

The powerful Landmark Conservancy was founded in 1973, a decade after New Yorkers were stunned to witness the destruction of Penn Station, the legendary Beaux Arts travel hub designed by McKim Meade and White. Supported by the wealthiest corporations in the city including the New York Stock Exchange, Con Edison, Capital One Bank, Sotheby's, Estee Lauder Companies and Lehman Brothers, it has the funds to landmark buildings, run educational programs, enter into strict maintenance covenants, give grants and loans to maintain old buildings, and take non-compliant owners such as Aby Rosen to court. Its annual budget is about $3.7-million.

A dozen years ago its president, Peg Breen, was sent to Canada by the U.S. State Department to share her expertise with heritage preservation groups in Victoria and Vancouver.

"We live in a throwaway civilization with a throwaway attitude," says Lambert. "We need a process for preserving what we have. The Picasso is a major piece of the [Seagram] building and its history. There needs to be some way to protect this work because it is not the last time this is going to happen."

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