The Missing Picasso Painting
In which our heroine finds that all things lost will be found. At Newark Airport. An artist friend of mine has a day job as a private investigator, and she told me something once that I’ve always remembered. She said that finding people even in this high tech world is often very low tech. You make phone calls. Someone picks up, says, “oh that guy, I haven’t seen him in AGES....”
They say they can do nothing for you. They hang up on you.….and then you wait…. and the guy shows up. Word has gotten around. What’s lost gets found. What I love about this story, and the stories of lost and found art I will relate here, is the role of chance, as well as human error and insight in equal measure. Inspiring stuff. And absurdly cinematic in its dramatic arcs.
In 2015, a lost Picasso was recovered at Newark Airport. The Pompidou in Paris, had realized the artwork was missing in 2001. (Imagine how much fun THAT staff meeting was. Quelle, #$%^!) Interestingly, there is no centralized database of missing or stolen objects, only efforts by various competing firms.
But then, 9 years later, a FedEx shipment from Belgium, labeled “Art Craft Toy” with a scrawled message, “Happy Christmas,” in French, was intercepted in Newark. Someone listed only as “Robert” had intended it to arrive at a warehouse in Long Island. Instead, customs officials determined that the shipment contained the 1911 painting by Picasso, La Coiffeuse. Value had been declared for customs as $37.
Which is exactly what WPA artists were paid weekly in 1933, when a young man from an Armenian refugee family calling himself Arshile Gorky was one of the first artists hired in the new government program which would eventually commission hundreds of extraordinarily talented artists, writers, dramatists, and journalists whose names we know and celebrate today.
A photograph taken of Gorky that year reveals a man who looks a bit like a sad-eyed Frank Zappa, wearing a sweater with an enviably cool pattern. His life is already intense, complicated, full of immense creative vitality and productivity as well as recurring drama and tragedies; mistresses, marriages, illnesses, car accidents, multiple mysterious fires in his studio, and a drunken Jackson Pollock trying to punch him one night, which he coolly ignored, according to witnesses. After a life that included barely escaping what is now Yerevan at a tender age, I imagine one boozed-up painter wasn’t much of a threat.
From an Armenian refugee family, he is described as having always drawn. His sisters later would say that as a young boy he would draw in his sleep, his hand moving with no pencil in it. Later, as a teenager in Watertown, MA, he will be fired for drawing on machines instead of working. He will rename himself after writer Maxim Gorky. He will come to New York City, where the photograph was taken. He will be remembered by his students for his bottomless knowledge and devastating honesty. And he will become a massively significant American artist who can be described as the last great Surrealist painter and the first Abstract Expressionist. Largely self-taught, he was passionate about Cezanne, and Picasso. He would go on to influence artists like Rothko, Motherwell, and de Kooning.
He was hired by the WPA to create murals for the Newark Airport Administration Building. Ten large works, titled Aviation: Evolution of Forms Under Aerodynamic Limitations, are created. In his required documentation for the WPA, Gorky argues for a belief in the future, and the need to create art that ordinary people will encounter wherever they are. The murals, as evidenced by photographs, related sketches and studies, and eyewitness accounts, are vividly colored and full of dynamic forms. And I urge you to look up the full text of Gorky’s wild, passionate, and poetic take on the “progress report” he was required to submit to the WPA. He starts with a description of watching a feather float in the air in the house he was born in Armenia, and then somehow connects it to the miracle of modern flight, in America, in Newark. It’s amazing in and of itself as a creative expression, a kind of memo as manifesto. The murals are unveiled in 1937.
And then they disappear in 1942, when the War Department takes over the building.
Decades later, in 1972, a worker removes an exit sign, and finds one thread with bright red paint on it.
Two murals, Mechanics of Flying” and “Aerial Map” are found under fourteen (!) coats of ordinary wall paint. They’ve been exhibited all over the world since then, now that Arshile Gorky is revered as one of the most important and influential figures in 20th century art, and now they belong to the Newark Museum, which means they belong to you. The other eight are presumed destroyed. But no one really knows.
What will be found next, in Newark?