Chapter 3: The Customer is Always ____ (fill in the blank)

I try to encourage my clients and the readers of my website to take a little quiz. I call it “Your Own Personal Picasso Print Personality Profile”, or the PPPPP. One of my hypotheses in formulating the quiz was that art appreciation may be a function of exposure. Art may be a meritocracy, but is it a meritocracy shaped by the curators’ choices rather than the masses? Would the masses have picked van Gogh out of the pile of forgotten artists if curators hadn’t bought up his works and repeatedly invited us to view them? Would Pollock’s drippings be meaningless if not for the gallerists’ hype? I’m hoping that the PPPPP would enable me to better understand individual variations in taste regarding Picasso and, specifically, Picasso’s prints, and the correlations between these preferences and other cultural predispositions in fine art and music. From all this might come a better understanding of that sordid subject, the human mind. Failing that, perhaps I could just settle for winning an alliteration contest. Lately, though, I’ve been toying with the idea of compiling a PPPPP on everyone. The problem is that hardly anyone ever takes the quiz.

I finally cajoled one enthusiastic collector to take the quiz. Among its questions is the following, “Which are your favorite and least favorite prints on our website, and, for extra credit, why?” Let’s just politely say that artistic taste is not this client’s strong suit (sorry, dude!). His least favorite print was Tête de Femme (Bloch 256, below).

Tête de Femme

I was rather troubled by this choice, because I happen to find this print exceptionally beautiful, and so I felt especially motivated to try my hand at changing his mind. I was not motivated in this case by the prospects of a sale. The client was no longer buying Picassos. He had actually only bought a number of fake drawings in the past and had hired me just to authenticate and appraise them. Anyway, I asked him to indulge me in printing several copies of his most hated print, hanging them around a frequently visited room in his house for a week or so, and then reporting back to me as to whether the image had grown on him at all.  As you may have guessed, my experiment met with abject failure. My client hated the image every bit as much after a week of staring at it as before, maybe more.

Funny thing, beauty. Kant, the great eighteenth century philosopher who theorized extensively about aesthetics, insisted that beauty is inherent in the object itself rather than a subjective matter of taste. Failure to recognize true beauty, then, would be primarily a limitation on the part of the beholder. On a gut level, it’s hard to disagree with Kant. We naturally feel that something is beautiful, or it’s not. We like something, or we don’t. We think we’re right about our opinion, we know we’re right, but it’s immodest and impolitic to say so. Each of us is sure in his convictions, though a little reserved about admitting it, because after all, it’s just a matter of taste, right?

Maybe. But art appreciation also seems to be a matter of consensus. Van Gogh was not appreciated in his day; today we think he’s great. How could we and his contemporaries both be right? In our heart of hearts, we know them to be wrong! How ridiculous, we sniff—of course he’s a great artist! So art may be subjective, but if enough people buy into the same subjective opinion, then it becomes fact. Is that it? Is art a meritocracy after all? Now that we’ve established what it is, are we but haggling over Shaw’s infamous price?

Picasso is such a recent phenomenon, in the scheme of things, that we’re still building consensus over much of his work. For example, late Picasso (his last decade, say) was underrated for many years, yet in recent years has been coming into its own. On a more personal level, I find myself frequently at odds with my clients over the relative beauty of various Picasso prints. Picasso lovers, as perhaps art lovers in general, seem set in their beliefs and preferences, and I have rarely been able to change anyone’s opinion.

But I have my suspicions. Take my friend Doron. One of my closest friends, close enough to be family, an exceedingly bright and interesting guy, and, unlike me, still a practicing radiologist. In fact, the most meticulous and the most accurate radiologist I’ve ever met. I asked him to examine a photograph of a gouache and tell me what he thought.  He told me, we discussed it a bit, and I asked him whether he liked it. Answer: no. So I asked him to read a rather lengthy blurb that I had written about this piece, if you’d like to see to what lengths I went to try to instill some love of art in my friend. I thought I had really gone all out over one small gouache. So Doron had newfound understanding and appreciation for the piece. But as for actually liking it, however, his answer remained the same. Though I had to drag it out of him—I think he didn’t want to hurt my feelings (not that they were at all susceptible—I for one know what I like and can’t be induced to feel bad about it). His complete answer went something like the following. He doesn’t like Picasso, never did. He associates Picassos, and all my other art, with pleasant sensations, because he’s always seen them in my company, in my home, and he has pleasant memories of whenever we’ve been together. But, the Picassos alone, stripped bare of their association with me, leave him cold. He loves nature and music, but art doesn’t figure prominently in his life. If he had to pick a favorite painting, it would be Pavel Tchelitchev’s Hide and Seek (MOMA).

I have gathered that there is really no way to make someone like a particular artist or a particular work of art. On the other hand, I recognize that, although mine was a love-at-first-sight upon encountering Picasso in high school (I had a sheltered childhood), even my tastes within his oeuvre have evolved. For example, whereas at first I, too, simply thought he had lost it in his old age, I have grown to truly love late Picasso.

I am beginning to believe that in order to learn to love a particularly good piece of art which initially leaves one cold, one must fundamentally be imbued with good taste.  To what degree good taste is a function of nature versus nurture remains to be determined, but I suspect the answer, as in other related inquiries, leans toward the innate.  Taste, I have grown to believe, is as hard-wired and immutable as red-green colorblindness.  The immediacy of the experience of liking or disliking a work of art upon first encountering it is usually also a final experience. Nothing can take a first impression away.

At the time of this writing, I haven’t amassed nearly enough feedback from my clients and readers to know how often opinions can be changed on matters of taste. Or, for that matter, which are your favorite prints. Accordingly, as I put forward the rating schema of Picasso’s prints, I would value your comments, both immediate and delayed.

It is an integral part of my responsibility as an art dealer to guide my clients in making their selections. This guidance takes the form of running each print in question over the coals : by providing complete edition, impression, and condition details; by describing the beauty and significance of the piece, and by authenticating and appraising it. Any print left standing at the end of this exercise is buyable. (Ditto for drawings and paintings, except of course for edition and impression details.)

Ultimately, regarding matters of taste, the choice is the client’s. After all, it’s everyone’s right to collect whatever one fancies. But I venture a little further from time to time in pointing out to my clients that not all Picassos are created equal.

Picasso drew feverishly, generally on paper, but sometimes also on copper and other printing media. He was also a great experimentalist. As some experiments are bound to fail, some sketches inevitably do not stand on their own. A number of Picasso’s etchings resemble sketches more than finished works. Some of these prints are beautiful, meaningful, and significant. Others, however, are not.

Although there are buyers for all Picassos, and all Picassos are collectible, not all Picassos are created equal. And some are proverbially more equal than others. As Bill Rubin, who for almost 30 years was in charge of the Department of Painting and Sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, said, “Picasso has probably made more bad pictures than any other serious artist in history. He has also made more masterpieces than any other serious artist in history….” There are certainly many thousands of artists who created worse art, and those who never made any good art at all. But Rubin’s aphorism makes sense when one considers that Picasso’s output was so prodigious that even his failures outnumbered those of other artists. After all, he was an experimentalist who drew and painted tirelessly. The nice thing about the bad Picassos is this: they help satisfy the collectors’ ever-increasing demand, thus leaving the best Picassos for those of us with good taste!  Ditto for Picasso “afters”. So thanks, Pablo.

Many clients know they want a Picasso, but have no idea how to select one. Often they seem incapable of distinguishing “good” from “bad” Picassos. By the time they get to me, one piece or another on our website must have attracted their attention. I may then offer suggestions as to which selections to make, but obviously the final choices are the clients’.

There is certainly no shame in seeking expert advice. Many clients admittedly lack the time, experience, or even the taste to effectively discern between the many choices of art. I help my clients plot the universe of potential acquisitions along the continuum of overpriced to underpriced, and along the continuum of most to least beautiful. In so doing, the choices become much simpler. Clearly, “nice” works of art, especially well-priced ones, command the most attention. A later chapter will divide Picasso’s prints along these parameters and others in a systematic, comprehensive fashion. But first, let’s talk about these parameters and the rating system I have devised.

Actually, one caveat before we even do that. In addition to the rating schema which follows, there will also be many discussions of particular prints and particular groups and series of prints. None of these are essential to your love of these prints. Tom Wolfe, who railed against contemporary art in The Painted Word (mostly about minimalism and pop art as I recall, though it’s been decades), stressed the point that if a caption is required to understand and appreciate the art, then it is bad art. The art should speak for itself. In a successful work of art, the beauty, the joy or anguish, the depth of the artist’s vision should jump out and sear its meaning in the viewer’s conscious and unconscious mind without any intercession, certainly without a required digression to absorb a verbal explanation. But Wolfe hates the contemporary art about which he wrote. If, on the other hand, one has developed a fascination for a body of art, then its critical explanation and interpretation may become meaningful, if not as an integral part of art appreciation, then as an interesting complement. Knowing what the artist had in mind, the ground that his work broke, or the ways he was a product of his times or ahead of his times may be interesting, but they alone won’t make the work speak to you. So this is the spirit in which I offer the subsequent discussions. Read them if you wish, but note that they are not “required reading”.

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