Guggenheim in Black & White


It costs $22 to enter the Guggenheim. Compare that to $25 at MoMA, or a suggested $25 at the Met and, as they say, it doesn’t scan. Shows are often a let down, even if the building is almost always thrilling. Maurizio Cattelan and Tino Sehgal were fun and engaging and now Picasso in Black and White offers another reason to return.

Sometimes Pablo seems like a team of artists. How else could you explain the gargantuan output? Filling a museum with paintings in shades of grey (mostly. there are a few debatable ones) is just a tiny slice of his work, but there is a huge payoff. The idea of painting in black & white seems like the idea of black & white photography, except it’s not. B&W photography was a technological limitation, while painting in B&W is a deliberate reductivist technique. It may come from sketching, etching and charcoal (all dry media) being translated to a wet one, but it is more than that. While B&W modern films and photography is inevitably referential, B&W painting is about abstraction, not nostalgia.

The exhibit is a chronological display that starts at the bottom with pieces from the beginning of the last century, and ends with some familiar tropes, but the middle is filled with unpredictable paintings that are a revelation. The invention of cubism makes sense in sketch form, though the early dates are simply startling. Thinking of cubism being coincidental with the Model T is a battle of what still looks modern with what may have never looked modern.

The postwar paintings grow out of the Guernica style solidified just before the war. Even the very last painting in the show, a 1969 self-portrait ‘kiss’, grows out of that tradition. But between the wars the style is pure search and invention.

Photography is prohibited, and most aren’t in the catalog, so hike up the ramp to be surprised by the artist you think you knew better than any other. And the museum you know so well has made a subtle yet powerful change to the painting displays in the rotunda - by pulling the walls forward of the 'skylit’ recesses that Wright created, everything is improved.

Go see Wright, go see Pablo, and see what the world would look like in B&W.