News

Picasso: The Art Vandal’s Choice

by Jillian Steinhauer on June 18, 2012

Picasso’s 1929 painting “Femme au fauteuil rouge (Woman in a Red Armchair)” was vandalized last week at Houston’s Menil Collection by a man with a can of spray paint. According to the city’s Local 2 news, he stenciled the image of a bullfighter killing a bull with the word “conquista” underneath. A fellow gallery-goer caught the act on his cell phone, and the YouTube video includes a nice, semi-stunned “What the fuck?” at the end of it. Still, the observer later refused to show his face to the Local 2 new cameras (resulting in an absurdly awkward yet unmissable crotch-shot interview). That combined with his praise of the vandal make us a little suspicious that he might have been in on the whole thing.

“I just thought it was pretty cool how he just went up to the painting without fear, spray painted it and just walked off,” he said to Local 2.

Yeah. Cool, dude.

What’s more, whoever uploaded the video identified the vandal as Mexican-American artist Uriel Landeros. Local 2 reports that anonymous cell phone guy/citizen reporter/accomplice?! stopped Landeros on the way out to ask him why he did it. Landeros replied that he was an emerging artist and the spray-painting was meant to honor Picasso’s work. That seems like a bit of a stretch, but then again, considering that Picasso was the most machismo (read: womanizing) of all modern artists, a show of one-upmanship actually seems like an idea he might have embraced.

In any case, Tony Shafrazi would appreciate the spirit. The now blue-chip art dealer set the gold standard for Picasso vandalism back in 1974 when he famously spray-painted the words “Kill Lies All” on Picasso’s “Guernica” while it hung in the Museum of Modern Art. Six years later, he told Art in America:

I wanted to bring the art absolutely up to date, to retrieve it from art history and give it life. Maybe that’s why the Guernica action remains so difficult to deal with. I tried to trespass beyond that invisible barrier that no one is allowed to cross; 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.

While we’re hardly calling for everyone to take up their cans of spray paint and hit the museums, there is an important thought here: that art, as it gets subsumed by the establishment — which is largely the provenance of rich people — gains an almost holy aura but loses much of its power and immediacy. All art history students and art lovers have grappled with this issue at some point. How do we understand Duchamp’s urinal once it’s on view in a museum, or a picture as radical as “Guernica” once it loses its potent cultural context? In the case of Landeros, you can read the whole thing symbolically: the bull represents Picasso and his overwhelming presence in art history and art museums, while the young artist is the bullfighter who slays the dangerous beast.

Of course it’s up for debate whether spray-painting is the best way to reactivate these works. Some groups prefer stickers. Picasso himself allegedly painted over a canvas he once bought from Modigliani — although in a case that extreme, one suspects that he was trying to bury rather than revive the original work.

We contacted the Menil Collection for comment on the vandalism, but all they would say is that there’s an active police investigation into the matter.

UPDATE: “The Evolving and Bizarre Story of Houston’s Vandalized Picasso

  • Subscribe to the Hyperallergic email newsletter!

Hyperallergic welcomes comments and a lively discussion, but comments are moderated after being posted. For more details please read our comment policy.
  • http://www.facebook.com/vorisek Thomas Vorisek

    “..how do we understand duchamps…” jeez, that’s what arthistory is for! Spray painting doesn’t reactivate it, it destroys it in every sense. It only activates the attention towards the purpetrator, who desperately needs it… I would have gone crazy if i was there!

  • JosephYoung

    i can’t really endorse art vandalism either, but if your’e going to do it, picasso does seem the right choice. each piece carries the aura of rare and sacred relic despite the fact that he created some 50,000 works.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=719685716 Maite Awad Lobato

    Do you really think Guernica can lose it´s meaning? Seriously?
    Do we need Tony Shafrazi or whoever to bring back it´s meaning? Is this a joke?

    Haven´t you heard of the Irak War, Afghanistan or all the other wars? Can´t you relate those horrors with what Picasso painted?

    Or is this just another BORED OCCIDENTAL WHITE MAN trying to justify it´s shitty existence? and was this in 1974? Doesn´t Vietnam ring a bell in you to relate to El Guernica?

    and what´s another asshole doing spray painting another Picasso in 2012? does this poor soul auto claimed emerging artist thinks he is original? poor kid…. I pitty him.

    We need TRISTAN TZARA and all the great 20th century artists and intellectuals to come back from death and kick these ignorants asses. They thought about life, wrote manifestos, stayed up late wondering about the meaning of life, not sitting around youtube uploading how one kid wants to be famous. Do you think that´s guts? Guts are what Ai Wei Wei does…..

    21st century lost the meaning of art….. that solitary space of contemplation and silence which brings the possibility of deeper understanding of oneself and what´s around. And maybe then we can become better persons….

  • Dylan Reece

    There is absolutely no important thought here.

  • http://www.facebook.com/honestJohn Jaughn Hemmick

    Uh hh… You got it backwards. The vandal painted “conquer the beast” on picasso’s ‘woman in a red armchair.’ check your sources!

    • http://hragv.com Hrag Vartanian

      The video clearly shows the word “conquista.” I’m not sure what you are referring to.

    • http://twitter.com/jilnotjill Jillian Steinhauer

      Yes, Jaughn, you’re right—the title of the painting. I just noticed that myself. It’s been fixed. Thanks.

Previous post:

Next post: