For more than half a century, it has hung in the hallway of the Four Seasons Restaurant on Park Avenue, an immense work by one of the greatest artists of the 20th century. But Picasso’s curtain is coming down — and that might just destroy it.
“Le Tricorne,” a canvas 19 feet high that Pablo Picasso painted for a production by the Ballets Russes, will be removed on Feb. 9, according to the New York Landmarks Conservancy, which owns the work. It recently learned the news from RFR Holding, the real estate company that owns the Seagram Building, home of the Four Seasons. RFR says that structural engineers have concluded that the limestone wall where the curtain hangs needs repairs and could collapse, posing a danger to the art.
But the real peril is the coming rescue effort, says Peg Breen, president of the conservancy.
“One of RFR’s own movers told us that no matter how cautious they are, the work is so brittle and fragile that it could, as one of them put it, ‘crack like a potato chip,’ ” she said.
On the surface, the dispute is about grout and tiles, but it is also a collision of values and taste. Ms. Breen said she suspected that one of the founders of RFR was just not a fan of “Le Tricorne” — a person who heard him discussing the work said he dismissed it as “a schmatte,” Yiddish for rag — and was using the damaged-wall argument as a pretense to ditch it for good.
The executive in question is no one’s idea of a philistine. He is Aby Rosen, among the city’s most prominent collectors and chairman of the New York State Council on the Arts. His own tastes run to contemporary artists, like Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons, and he has told people that he wants to showcase highlights of his vast trove in the space now occupied by “Le Tricorne.”
Neither Mr. Rosen nor anyone contacted at RFR returned calls for comment.
Most people agree that the fate of “Le Tricorne” rests squarely in Mr. Rosen’s hands. The interior of the Four Seasons was given landmark designation in 1989, canonizing the achievements of Mies van der Rohe, the architect who designed the 38-story skyscraper, and Philip Johnson, who designed the restaurant, the costliest ever constructed when it opened in 1959. The Picasso, however, was excluded from the designation because, as the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission explained in a statement, it was owned separately and could be moved.
“It does not fall under L.P.C. jurisdiction,” wrote the commission’s spokeswoman Kate Daly, “and L.P.C. does not need to be consulted on its removal.”
“Le Tricorne,” which translates to “the three-cornered hat,” was painted over three weeks in 1919, in a studio in Covent Garden, in London. It was commissioned by Serge Diaghilev, the impresario of the Ballets Russes, a traveling company based in Paris. The Russian scene painter Vladimir Polunin, who helped paint the curtain, wrote that Picasso wore slippers so he could stand on the canvas as he worked. His tools, according to the critic Sacheverell Sitwell, who visited the studio, included a toothbrush.
In need of money to finance new shows, Mr. Diaghilev later cut out the center of the curtain — which depicts a Spanish bullring flanked by spectators — and sold it to a Swiss collector. In 1957, the cut curtain was acquired for $50,000 by Phyllis Lambert, the daughter of the Seagram founder, Samuel Bronfman. Ms. Lambert was 27 years old when her father asked her to help oversee the design and construction of the Seagram Building. She and Johnson decided “Le Tricorne” was perfect for the entryway.
“At first we considered the dining room,” Ms. Lambert said last week in a phone interview from Montreal, “but the curtain shows two horses dragging a dead bull out of a ring and that didn’t seem like the right image for a roomful of people eating steak.”
“Le Tricorne” is not regarded as one of Picasso’s masterpieces, partly because it strays from the avant-garde path he had started traveling a decade earlier with Cubism. Its sheer size reduces its market value, as does its origins as a stage prop. In 2008, when the conservancy wanted an estimated value for insurance purposes, Christie’s appraised the work at $1.6 million.
But the Picasso biographer John Richardson once called “Le Tricorne” the artist’s “supreme theatrical achievement,” and many art historians and architects consider it an integral part of the Four Seasons.
“It can’t be treated like just another picture that happens to be hanging on that wall and could be interchanged with something else,” said the architecture critic Paul Goldberger, who writes for Vanity Fair. “By virtue of years of being there, it has the effective status of being part of the architecture, even if it’s not part of the architecture.”
The curtain has apparently been on the verge of eviction for months. In November, Mr. Rosen called the conservancy to say steam was leaking from the wall in what is informally known as Picasso Alley, and needed repairs that could be done only by taking down the curtain.
“I asked for his engineer’s report and he said he didn’t have one,” Ms. Breen said. “I asked why any repairs couldn’t be done without moving the curtain. He said there was no room and that it should not be put up again because it would have to be moved in a couple of years when he planned additional work.”
Worry at the conservancy turned to alarm on Dec. 20, when it received a copy of a letter sent to the Four Seasons Restaurant, stating that work on the wall would begin the first week of January. That letter included a report by Severud Associates, consulting engineers, who expressed “significant concern” that several panels of the wall had shifted as much as half an inch horizontally. There is no mention of a steam leak, but further movement could “cause the panels to collapse, thus causing a potential safety hazard,” the letter stated. It closed with a warning: “The potential to cause damage to the Picasso tapestry exists should the panels shift further or collapse.”
The conservancy dispatched structural engineers, from a firm called Thornton Tomasetti, who visited the restaurant on Dec. 24, and again on Jan. 2, to tap, measure and scrutinize. They came to different conclusions. Yes, some panels had moved, they said in a report, but not many and less than Severud Associates had stated — more like a quarter of an inch at most. The movement did not happen recently and “drastic action is not required,” the report found. Instead, the engineers recommended monitoring the wall for any additional movement.
“In our opinion,” the report summarized, “all nondestructive testing and subsequent panel support repair, if necessary, can be done without disturbing the Picasso curtain.”
In a letter to Mr. Rosen on Jan. 14, the conservancy said that it would pay for the installation and continuing upkeep. It has yet to receive a reply.
If the curtain is removed, the Museum of Modern Art has said it would put the work in storage, Ms. Breen said.
“But then the question is when anyone would ever see it again,” she added, “if it survived the move.”