For over 50 years, a 19-by-20-foot stage curtain painted by Pablo Picasso hung in the Mies van der Rohe Seagram Building in Midtown Manhattan. The strange thing is, the building owners didn’t own Le Tricorne (painted in 1919), nor did they necessarily even want it there. After a long dispute and subsequent journey, the curtain finally found a new home at the New York Historical Society, where it was unfurled this past Sunday.
The New York Landmarks Conservancy has owned Le Tricorne since 2005, but the work has occupied its spot at the Mies van der Rohe Seagram Building since 1959. In recent years, owners RFR Holding wanted to take the painting down, reportedly to repair structural damage on the wall where it was hanging—though there’s been some dispute about the veracity of those claims.
The Seagram Building and the Four Seasons restaurant where the curtain was installed gained landmark status in 1989, but the Picasso wasn’t covered under those protections. In February 2014, the owners planned to take the piece down in the middle of the night; the Conservancy had to race to stop it with a court-ordered halt in the form of a restraining order. The battle found resolution last summer when the Conservancy agreed to take it down and loan it permanently to The New York Historical Society.
The curtain finally came down in September 2014; removing it took 12 painstaking hours. The team didn’t know ahead of time how the work was fastened to the wall, and ended up finding hundreds of staples attaching it to two pieces of wood that were screwed to the wall with stainless steel screws. The concern in removing the largest Picasso in the United States was that the paint or canvas might crack or tear, though thankfully, nothing like that occurred.
It was rolled from bottom to top around a 23-foot long tube with a hand crank, then wrapped in bubble wrap and taken to a conservation center in Massachusetts where it was cleaned, conserved, and repaired.
The Picasso was once the theater curtain for the Ballet Russes’ production of Le Tricorne, and the artist’s wife at the time—Olga Khokhlova—was a ballerina in the company and is depicted in the piece.
It arrived through a second story window to the New York Historical Society this past weekend and was rolled up to the wall to be installed. The New York Times described the sound of the riggers slowly but surely tugging on the chain-link pulley as being like “an ascending roller coaster.” The installation itself only took about 15 minutes.