On Sunday, May 17th, Le Tricorne, the 19-by-20-foot theatrical curtain painted by Pablo Picasso in 1919 was unfurled at its new permanent home, the New-York Historical Society. It’s the culmination of a long battle between the New York Landmarks Conservancy which has owned of the curtain since 2005 but does not own the landmark Mies van der Rohe Seagram Building where the curtain has hung since 1959. The building is the property of RFR Holding and its art collecting co-founder Aby Rosen. He wanted the largest Picasso in the United States gone and would have had it spirited it out in the middle of night if the Conservancy hadn’t gotten an injunction in the nick of time. The dispute was resolved last summer when the Conservancy agreed to take down the curtain and loan it permanently to the New-York Historical Society for public display.
The curtain was taken down from its home of nearly 60 years during the weekend of September 7th, 2014. It took a team of technicians from Art Installation Design 12 hours to remove the curtain from the travertine wall and roll it from bottom to top around a 23-foot-long tube using a hand crank. They had to start rolling it before they even knew the exact mechanism that was keeping the curtain on the wall. That turned out to be hundreds of staples attaching to the curtain to two pieces of wood that were screwed to the wall with 19 stainless steel screws. The New York Landmarks Conservancy experts were concerned that the paint or canvas might crack or, in a catastrophic scenario, that the top of the curtain — the most brittle section — would tear from the weight of the rolled up bottom before the process was complete. You can get a glimpse what a nail-biter of a long night it was in this video from the New York Times:
Thankfully the curtain was entirely cooperative and once it was rolled all the way up, the tube was lowered to a steel rig to keep it stable for transport. Wrapped in bubble wrap, the tube was loaded onto a truck by a team from Auer’s Rigging & Moving and moved to the Williamstown Art Conservation Center in Williamstown, Massachusetts, where it was cleaned and conserved. Conservators found that the curtain is still “in excellent structural condition.” Other than repairs to a few small surface tears and removing some 1970s-era overpainting, all the curtain needed was a thorough cleaning. The front was cleaned by Conservancy exports when Vivendi deeded it to them in 2005, but the back was a different story. The last time it was cleaned was during the 1970s conservation, and a lot of grime had accumulated in the four decades since.
Once cleaned and conserved, the mighty curtain was again rolled up around its tube and trucked to the New-York Historical Society building on West 77th St. It was lifted to the second floor with a crane and then slipped in through the window.
With the curtain inside on Sunday morning, the installation got underway even as visitors came and went elsewhere in the museum. The riggers and art handlers climbed in and out of the shell of scaffolding surrounding the spot on the wall, painted pale blue, where the curtain would hang.
When the wall was ready, Tom Zoufaly, the lead technician for the art handling company, Art Installation Design, took over.
“It’s got to be slow,” he said. “I don’t want it to go slap against the wall. It will crack.”
The tube was rolled up to the wall. Some riggers pulled, hand over hand, on a chain-link pulley, and the tube began to creep up the wall with a sound like an ascending roller coaster. When it reached the top, others were waiting to slide the wooden slat at the top of the curtain into mounted brackets on the wall.
Once it was secured, they all shouted “Down! Down! Down!” and as some men cranked at either end of the tube, and others gently pulled it down, the curtain unfurled. A painted face peeked out, a woman in a black veil. Then the entire scene appeared: spectators at a bullfight.
When the curtain was freed from the roll, and hung flush against the wall, the crowd applauded.
Le Tricorne goes on display in second floor gallery of the New-York Historical Society starting May 29th.