NEW YORK—“The old man couldn’t seem to get his mind off sex,” New Yorker writer Calvin Tomkins said in 1984 of Pablo Picasso (1881-1973)in reviewing a show of the artist’s late works at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum.
Picasso’s late period, variously dated from 1960, or ’63, to the end of his life, has been called “self-mocking” (Robert Hughes), “conspicuously reckless” (John Russell), a “mounting horror” (John Berger) and other things even less complimentary. The drawings, paintings and prints from this period are large, mostly figurative, colorful—and they frequently reference Old Master paintings.
Art experts and critics are divided about the artistic merit of the late works. But prices keep rising,along with the broader art market, as the availability of earlier Picassos narrows. The jump in prices is particularly remarkable because the supply of late Picassos is plentiful, report several auction house experts. Though Picasso was always prolific, the sheer magnitude of his output in later years—hundreds of paintings and drawings—is interpreted by many experts as a sign of the artist’s attempt to stave off death.
An exhibition of his late works, “Picasso—Painting Against Time,” includes 200 paintings, drawings, prints and sculpture, and is opening at Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Dusseldorf, on Feb. 3. The show, curated by Picasso expert Werner Spies, formerly director of the Georges Pompidou Centre, was on view at the Albertina Museum, Vienna, from Sept. 22-Jan. 7. The canvases created during these last years reveal “an intense erotic obsession with the female body [and] continue principles that are based on Cubism,” writes Spies in the catalogue for the show.
The artist’s late works continue to be far less costly than major ones from his Blue, Rose and Cubist periods. His 1905 Boy with a Pipe reached $104.2 million (ANL, 5/25/04) at Sotheby’s in 2004 and still holds the record for the most expensive painting sold at public auction. However, several experts point out, the late works are increasingly viewed as innovative, expressive, uninhibited and radical.
In an essay that appeared in ARTnews in 1973—one of the earliest favorable portrayals of late Picasso works—Picasso biographer, author and critic Pierre Daix observed, “Painters are never better than in the evening of their lives.” Writing of a 1973 show in the Grande Chappelle of the Palais des Papes, Daix said, “The exhibition demands to be judged and analyzed as if it were the work of a living artist, of someone who has not stopped creating.”
Michael Findlay, director of Acquavella Galleries, New York, told ARTnewsletter, “With very few exceptions, the paintings [Picasso] did during the 1960s and ’70s were seen as the kind of sloppy flailings around of an aging maestro who had seen better days.”
Still, by the time of the 1984 Guggenheim show, critical opinion had begun to change, largely owing to contemporary artists who identified with the later works.
‘A Loose and Loaded Brush’
“The themes that preoccupied Picasso—fecundity, virility, appropriating images from other artists—were also of great interest to artists in the 1980s,” says Findlay, noting that some late-Picasso collectors also own works by Jean-Michel Basquiat, Julian Schnabel and Andy Warhol, as well as German Neo-Expressionists such as Anselm Kiefer. Toward the end of his life, Picasso painted with “a loose and loaded brush,” Findlay observes.
In 1981 the Basel Kunstmuseum organized an exhibition of Picasso’s last ten years, and the Pace Gallery, New York, mounted a show of late paintings from the Picasso estate, Tomkins noted in his review, adding, “The clank of critical gearshifting could be heard on both continents.”
The 1984 exhibition at the Guggenheim wasfollowed by others, including: “Late Picasso” at the Pompidou Centre in 1988; “Picasso—The Last Decades” at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Australia, in 2002-03; and, most recently, the show curated by Spies.
Picasso did not exhibit the works he made toward the end of his life, and legal disputes among his heirs kept many of them off the market and unavailable for exhibition for years after his death, says London gallerist Helly Nahmad. The estate was settled in 1978.
Sharp Rise in Prices
Findlay pegs current prices for medium-sized paintings at $1.5/10 million, while drawings range in price from $100,000 to “several hundred thousand dollars.” That is a marked contrast to just a few years ago, when late paintings would top out around $2.5 million, says Findlay.
At present the Helly Nahmad Gallery in New York owns seven late Picasso paintings—four of them purchased at auction recently—which are priced from $2.5/7 million, gallery director Marzina Marzetti told ARTnewsletter. Last year the gallery sold its most expensive late-Picasso painting yet—a 1968 Mousquetaire (one of many in his Musketeer series)—for $8 million, to a private U.S. collector. In addition to paintings, the Helly Nahmad Galleryoccasionally sells the artist’s late prints (etchings).
Picasso turned out prints as prolifically as he did his paintings and drawings. According to Emmanuel Benador, a prints expert at New York’s Jan Krugier Gallery, the artist completed two major editions of etchings in his last few years—the 347 series from 1968, and the 156 series from 1969-72—some signed by the artist, some stamp-signed by the printer and others unsigned. Prices for these works range from $2,500/22,000, nearly double their prices just “five or six years ago,” Benador told ARTnewsletter. The difference between a work signed by Picasso and one without a signature may be as much as 40 percent, he notes.
A ‘Cornerstone’ of Collections
“Picasso is the cornerstone of most collections, Impressionist and modern, postwar and contemporary,” says Guy Bennett, head of Impressionist and modern art at Christie’s.
Picasso biographer John Richardson says longtime Picasso collectors “found the artist’s late work garish, crude, crass, and they just didn’t like them.” He adds that in the case of some of these pieces, Picasso “was just tossing them off.” But he calls the paintings of the later period “a wonderful field for people, many of whom have very little experience of art but who want something bigger and splashier in color” than works of the Cubist period.
Dealer Jan Krugier takes a similar view. In a telephone interview from his Geneva gallery, Krugier told ARTnewsletter that in Picasso’s last years, he was “very tired and very old, and not everything he made was okay. He might make one painting every day—and out of every ten, maybe two were okay and the other eight were not, and Picasso himself did not really care about the difference.” He noted that collectors of this period need “a good eye.”
Both Bennett and David Norman, head of Impressionist and modern art at Sotheby’s, believe that rising prices at auction for late Picassos reflect a growing appreciation of them by collectors worldwide, particularly Russian and east Asian. Some have acquired these works, they say, while others have pushed up prices through their bidding.
Norman foresees a continued rise in demand and prices for later Picassos—“with the likelihood of some sort of market correction as enthusiasm gives way to greater discernment.”
The top public-sale price to date for a late Picasso is $13.7 million, given for the 1963 oil-on- canvas The Painter and His Model, which trumped the $9.3/12.96 million estimate that Sotheby’s London had placed on the work at auction in June. Other top prices include: $10.1 million (estimate: $8/10 million), for the 1969 oil Harlequin with a Baton, at Sotheby’s New York in May; $7.9 million (estimate: $5.3/7.2 million), for the 1969 Seated Man with a Pipe, at Christie’s London in June; and $7.2 million (estimate: $4/6 million), for the 1969 Musketeer with a Pipe, at Christie’s New York in 2004.
Among the top prices paid for late Picasso drawings are: $1.7 million for the 1961 charcoal on paper, Arlequin, which Christie’s estimated at $600,000/800,000 in 2004; and $1.46 million for the 1971 wax, crayon and pencil Man and Woman, which also sold at Christie’s in 2004 (estimate: $400,000/600,000).