"Some Ways to Revisit a Painting: AD 1957, 2013, 2487, and 1957 again"
Exhibition essay for Desmoiselles d'Avignon
by A.E. Benenson
In 1957, Picasso painted Velazquez’s Las Meninas fifty-eight times.
In hindsight, the real scandal of Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon wasn't that it was a giant, rude painting of the inside of a brothel but that—at least in the beginning—it was actually a kind of virtual brothel itself. Traipsed around from studio to galleries, and eventually making its way into all kinds of museums, catalogs, etc., the painting set up shop wherever and whenever there might be an audience looking for a quickie. Here were all those primitivist faces you had been hearing about. Oh, they were disgustingly crude but what a thrill to be in contact with that real primal thing for the first time!
The thing is, if you look at Demoiselles today, none of this works—first of all the illicit charge of the "exotic" or "primitive" is gone (stop saying those words anyway, you sound racist). This is the stuff of libraries, not whore houses.
But something occurred to Christopher K. Ho recently. What if Demoiselles wanted to become a brothel again, what if it wanted to keep up with the times, and now casting around for the most obscene form at its disposal, it settles on Abstraction. Now here’s a fetish tailor made for contemporary aesthetics—something apolitical, sleek, solipsistic.
Take this one here, a color in the shape of nothing flattened between thin panes of glass and mirror, like a rare flower. This will do nicely as a thing to patronize and lust for in equal measure. And there: the clear lens with a golden rim. Isn't it just like a precious little window into a devastatingly simple mind? All of them, so invitingly laid out on neutral carpet—U.E.S odalisques.
So we'll tuck our heads into tipped-up collars, and with one last look for coasts clear, down we'll go into the gallery. We should be ashamed. And if we are lucky enough to actually feel ashamed, we know well enough that this is what we came for and so we let our shame well up until we can taste it like acetone. Still, we're very careful to avoid that fan-shaped one though, just a plain mirror: you sure as hell didn't come here to be caught out, least of all by yourself.
In William Tenn’s The Discovery of Morniel Mathaway (1957), an art historian named Glescu from the 25th century travels back in time to research Morniel Mathaway, an archetypal “before his time” artist, who lived in obscurity during his lifetime but whose work went on, posthumously, to become considered the paragon of Modern Art. When Glescu meets Mathaway, he is dismayed to find that the artist bears no resemblance to the historical figure he has studied—he is self-centered, buffoonish, and above all a terrible painter, whose work looks nothing like the canonized Mathaway. In short order, Mathaway steals Glescu’s time machine along with the Mathaway Catalogue Raisonné he had brought with him, stranding the art historian in the past. Conjuring his own former aspirations to be a painter, Glescu sets himself to the task of reproducing Mathaway’s entire oeuvre from memory, thus fabricating the very legacy that prompted his original mission.