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Looking into ‘The Big Blue’ at Ordovas, London (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

LONDON — In case you were in any doubt as to the true source of authority in the art world today, we now have an answer. Just before her boss chucked me out, a gallerina at Ordovas in London told me a work by Picasso couldn’t possibly be unfinished: “This work,” she declared, “has sold very well at auction several times.”

Cycling down Savile Row, my eye was caught by a Damien Hirst shark in Ordovas, the gallery of former Christie’s honcho Pilar Ordovas. I went in. Admission was only granted once the security guard had sized me up and asked me to deposit my backpack safely away from the art.

A gallerino jogged over to give me a show guide. The Big Blue — a motley selection of items arranged in that fashionable cross-period style — was “conceived by Damien Hirst” to explore “some of the ways in which the sea influences art.” A Roman sarcophagus fragment with a Nereid on hangs alongside a banal Baroque painting, “The Triumph of Galatea.”

As I was browsing the Sugimoto seascape and the Klein sponge, another man came in. “I’ve never seen a Hirst before, can I take a look? How many of these has he done?” The gallerina said there were 11 unique works but when he asked if they were for sale, she said, “I’m not going to comment on that,” as if its sale status were on a par with the nuclear passcodes or the president’s love life.

There is a 1920/21 Picasso in the show of a male bather standing upright at the center of the painting with two recumbent female bathers flanking him, and it would be a good painting if it were finished. A subtle square of sky behind the man’s head doesn’t match the rest, while around a woman’s head is a much darker patch with a black spot, as if an amateur restorer had spilled the varnish remover.

The gallerino assured me that the picture was fine, not badly restored or unfinished as I suggested. Then the gallerina came over. I gestured at the dark blotch and said that surely Picasso wouldn’t have left it like that in a finished form. Then came that response — “This work has sold very well at auction several times” — which knocked me sideways, and which indicated quite how inverted, perverted even, the art-money relationship has become. Ah, the market! I forgot that we have conceded all forms of cultural judgment to the thud of the gavel.

Never one to take rudeness unchallenged, I told the staff they were the snootiest I had ever met — and I include Gagosian in this — and to my surprise the other browser loudly agreed. This man, who had wandered in off the street, is unlikely to chance that again, but who cares, he wasn’t likely to buy anything anyway. That is a poisonous attitude.

The gallerini adopted a reflexive position of passive-aggressive abasement (“I’m so sorry you think that”) when the gallery manager came over, asking us to lower our voices and saying she’d heard every word, the fault was wholly ours. “My staff,” she said with an imperial self-assurance unsuited to someone retailing bibelots to the ungrateful wealthy, “have impeccable manners.” It was a mere second before she firmly, haughtily, asked me to leave — she was polite but would brook no refusal. My admission had been rescinded, my presence dispensed with. I picked up my bag from next to the looming security guard, there, I presume, in case anyone else had an opinion on the art, and left. Out I had been thrown.

Josh Spero is editor of finance magazine Spear's, art critic at Tatler and author of the forthcoming book Second-Hand Stories.

37 replies on “A London Gallery Threw Me Out Over a Picasso”

  1. Snobby gallerists…shoddy argument against the painting…a sky not matching is not all that crazy in terms of Picasso, let alone proof that the piece isn’t finished.

  2. It doesn’t have that Picasso finish about it, that is for sure. Almost like something he would have discarded and someone saved.

    1. Can someone please tell me what that “picasso finish” is? I’ve been to a few retrospectives and, if anything defines Picasso, it is the range of DIFFERENT styles he worked in.

  3. It’s hard to tell who’s more contemptible here. The whiny, entitled, know-it-all critic, or the “gallerina”.

    Ultimately, it shouldn’t have “knocked you sideways” that someone in the business of selling art would defer to the art market as a source of judgement and you can understand that her superiors might not appreciate her validating the opinion that it’s “unfinished”. Also, if you’ve spent more than 5 min in the art world you’ll understand why she didn’t want to engage in a sales conversation about a multi-million dollar piece with a guy off the street. The fact that the employees even decided to offer you a guide to their free show and engage you in discussion is pretty good in my book.

    1. This gallery doesn’t sell a majority of the work exhibited. Much of it is on loan from museums and private collections, believe it or not. Like a gallery version of Frieze Masters. They’re usually very courteous, as is the English way, but there’s some arrogance too given the location on Savile Row in Mayfair and the ‘prestige’ of what their dealing with. The critic could have spoken to them in a different manner and engaged in friendly debate instead of losing his cool then going further with the rant online. Ease the temper, man!

      1. Right. All the more reason they don’t want to get into sales discussions with random people off the street.

  4. Picasso was a Cubist for 10 years before making this painting. Breaking the flatness of the picture plane, as done here, is why he’s famous. The painting is signed. It’s finished. What the hell is wrong with this man.

      1. Right, it looks like one of Picasso’s male bather paintings, not a classical painting. Has this man not seen any paintings made after 1850? Put him in jail.

          1. Yeah, it looks like other male bather paintings. It also looks like paintings from the time period. And even if neither were the case, it’s not a valid inference that the painting is unfinished. And even if all of the above were not the case, it’s not a valid reason for a man to act like a brat. He should have been stun gunned.

          2. “I told the staff they were the snootiest I had ever met.”

            I suspect this is the reason he was asked to leave, not his opinion on the painting. If he had patiently engaged the staff (misgivings about the auction comment aside), he might have learned more about the painting beyond his superficial observation, but he decided to insult them instead. I would have given him the boot too.

          3. No, I would if they were questioning the integrity of my business and harassing my staff. I’d do the same if managing a McDonalds.

          4. I don’t think anyone here thinks that auction activity is an good argument that that the painting is “finished”.

            However, that doesn’t justify responding like an a**hole.

          5. I might respond with kind evasion, go back to my office, and call the person up front and keep them occupied until the petulant non-customer leaves.

          6. Using an auction price as proof of an artworks status is about as stupid as using a mis-matched sky as proof a Picasso is unfinished.

          7. When does a number of paintings on a particular theme become a “series” and when is it merely “other paintings”? This is pointless hair-splitting. Yes, Picasso made several paintings of male bathers during his underrated “neoclassical period”, around 1920-22, but they are less well-known than the generally more finished female bathers and classically-inflected nudes. See the one in the Barnes Foundation (BF#283) and the famous Pipes of Pan (1923) in the Musée Picasso, for example. This one looks to be of the same type as the former, and it is as finished as Picasso intended it to be. So calling it unfinished is both true and not; either way, it’s quibbling–I think you and the author need to look at some more Picassos.

      2. “classical” painting from 1923…there’s some kinda of strange difference in the sky color….and it happens to be around the sitters head as well. Where oh where have we seen this before?

        I guess if this is unfinished, Picasso has a lot of work to do yet.

  5. Valery was of the opinion that a poem is never finished, only abandoned. Might the same be said of a painting? Finished or not, it either stands as it is or it does not stand as it is. I have seen many perfectly wonderful ‘unfinished’ paintings.

    I wonder what Josh Spero has been looking at.

  6. Will you guys stop deleting my posts? The insightful article by the ‘criticino’ beggars belief. Does he stand next to Whistlejacket in the National Gallery and tells the attendant, ‘it is unfinished, innit’? Arrogant and ignorant as once, incredibly.

  7. Having worked in a gallery for some years the people who were consistently rudest to me were entitled writers, and those who felt that their status was not being given sufficient attention. It would seem in this case that both counts apply. The near constant trope by which this rudeness was articulated was a vague rallying against the elitism of the gallery. But as the habit of treating shop floor workers with contempt underlines, what was really being fought for was an acknowledgement of their belonging to the elite rather than any egalitarian principle.
    I have always found the staff in Ordovas polite, if overattentive. Sounds to me like the manager was defending her workers. Good on her. The least one would hope for.
    Yes, these private galleries can be elitist and foreboding, but the spectre of a Tatler editor being rude to a worker simply going about their work hardly seems like an effective, class conscious critique.
    The observation about the Picasso seems inane – but of course impossible to judge on screen

  8. I wouldn’t take “unfinished” to be a criticism, just a neutral observation. MANY unfinished pieces give us greater insight into how an artist thinks and works. But the art Nazi’s defensive response about sales at auction shows how she misses the point. For most of us — and I would even include many very wealthy collecrtors — it’s actually NOT about how big the price tag was. Otherwise we’d be framing and exhibiting sales receipts instead of art.

    1. On, don’t be silly. Sales receipts, indeed. This doesn’t even qualify as a ‘reasonable’ argumentum ad absurdum.

      AND . . . Seinfeld aside, there is nothing ‘Nazi’ about any of this. Please try to choose your words more carefully. Contrary to a lot of popular practice, words DO have meaning.

  9. This reminds me of when I was at San Francisco MOMA looking at a Garry Winogrand retrospective. I was there with a friend of mines class at her request. I knew, studied with and shot with Winogrand when he was an instructor in Texas. As I quietly talked to students about the plus’s and minus’s of the show informally ( the show was absolutely substandard) with two or three of us at a time I was approached by 3 museum guards and was told to stop discussing the art work with others or I would be removed from the premises. If I intended to talk about the work I needed to be cleared by docents department. Not wanting to raise a stink,I complied.Since then I have always regretted that I missed the opportunity to get thrown out of a museum for talking about the art. It would have been a badge of honor

    1. Or you could have gotten cleared with the docents.

      Museums usually have these policies for a reason, and it’s not because they want to stifle discussion of art.

    2. I would absolutely agree with you if someone where loudly pontificating about the work, but this was absolutely not the case.I spoke in a hushed tone. Furthermore, my comments were not negative.There was certainly room to comment on the show in that sense. Have of the images were never seen by Winogrand and the print quality was beneath that of his work prints. I knew this man and respect his work! On the other hand, a public museum is established as a forum for ideas. Are you suggesting that people not be of a mind to evaluate the work at hand. Perhaps we should put our hands over our eyes so that we “See no Evil”

      1. My guess is that museums have these policies because they don’t want roving bands of people without authorized supervision. This probably goes for things like school field-trips too. It’s also possible that they don’t want people posing (implicitly or explicitly) as museum employees or as someone acting on behalf of the museum.

        So I think you’re over-personalizing it. I doubt you were censured based on the content of your comments.

        1. To the contrary. I did and still do find it amusing. On the other, hand the adults I was with were amazed at the staffs actions. I chalk it up to mindless training on the part of those that train the security staff and myopic institutional policy. I certainly don’t think it was my comments. They were said quietly and personally to others.I seriously doubt they guards heard a word. I’ll say it again,a public art museum is a place where ideas are presented publicly. Discussion is part of the equation. Outside of someone dragging out a soap box, it’s ridiculous to defend a narrowing of the basic purpose of the museum. I’ve been to hundreds of museums in my 60 years and I can’t imagine not being able to respectfully discuss the merits of what is presented. I certainly hope you don’t staunch your opinion because your in one type of a building or another. You certainly seem open to expressing your ideas on this forum.There’s is a deeper irony here. I’ll refer again to 3 famous simians, hear, speak and see no evil.
          Still and perpetually amused….

  10. From an uninformed and uninvolved perspective, why the hubbub on either side? Whether its sold a zillion times or half the canvas is blank, it is Picasso.

  11. Plus, getting thrown out of anything, anywhere is a special moment. I still cherish the evening four of us were bounced from a formal charity event featuring Smashmouth. When the organizers and then security couldn’t force us to leave, they retrieved a policeman from up the street.

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