Byline: Blake Gopnik
Why he showed us the world in black and white.
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. …