The new exhibition called Picasso Black and White, filling Frank Lloyd Wright’s great rotunda at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, ought to be called Picasso in Sepia. That’s because most of its 118 works include fawns and tans as well as blacks and whites and grays. And because the word “sepia” gets at a crucial force behind this art: photography. The show doesn’t just sample random moments when Picasso went monochrome, although its ambitions can seem that modest. The exhibition is important, maybe despite itself, because it helps us feel the impact of the camera on Picasso’s art.
Picasso said he wasn’t interested in abstraction, or even in style: all his art, even at its most bizarre, was supposed to carry some kind of information or truth about our world and the things in it. That’s the kind of access to reality that photography has always been about. By working so often in black and white (and tan), Picasso could insist that he also kept touch with the real.
In 2012 it’s not easy to sense that link between truth and the monochrome. In our age of digital color, taking a photo or shooting a movie in black and white—let alone in nostalgic sepia—is a sure sign of artiness. But 100 years ago, when Cubism was born, images that came at you in black and white, on newsprint, or in a newsreel represented the latest in information technology. Picasso, an amateur lensman, wanted to piggyback on that IT.
Porn once circulated widely as black-and-white photos, and they may lurk behind Picasso’s colorless nudes. Information about classic, color-filled paintings came to Picasso’s generation mostly in black-and-white photo-reproduction, which Picasso said he preferred—and which may have led to the grays in his own riffs on past masters. In the greatest moment of his career, his grayed-out “analytic” Cubism—which gets weirdly short shrift in this show—is about breaking the world down into the component parts that tell us most about it; Cubism’s photographic tones are meant to signal that. The sepias and grays of even the most illegible Cubist painting can make it seem more like a photo viewed through a kaleidoscope than like an arbitrary stew of forms divorced from reality. We’re asked to read such a painting as something like a message in Morse code (the other great information carrier of Picasso’s day) that’s become too degraded to understand, but whose original dots and dashes can still be made out.
In Picasso’s era, color in images could bring to mind the finished, fancy, over-thought paintings of the old masters and conservative hacks. A less arty, less processed contact with the world came, first, in the hasty black marks of a drawing on paper and then, after photography’s invention, at the moment that light passed through a lens onto monochrome film. Picasso was after that kind of contact, or at least a fine counterfeit. Photography spoke the language of truthiness, and Picasso aimed to echo it.