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.