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'Picasso' Show a Shot in the Arm for LACMA : Art: The exhibition, which closed Sunday, was far more popular than several past shows that were expected to attract a similar audience.

May 07, 1994|SUZANNE MUCHNIC | TIMES ART WRITER

The best news at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art is that "Picasso and the Weeping Women: The Years of Marie-Therese Walter and Dora Maar" was a hit. When the show closed an 11-week run last Sunday, total attendance reached 153,867--making it the 12th-best-attended exhibition in the museum's 29-year history.

The show attracted a mere fraction of the people who packed into LACMA's top draws--"Treasures of Tutankhamen," which brought 1,250,629 visitors in 1978, and "A Day in the Country," a 1984 show of French Impressionism attended by 460,000 people. But "Picasso" brought nearly five times the 31,712 visitors of "Friedrich to Hodler: A Romantic Tradition, Paintings and Drawings From the Oskar Reinhart Foundation, Winterthur," the preceding attraction in the same galleries, and it proved far more popular than several past exhibitions of modern art that might have been expected to attract the same audience.

Indeed, most visitors had to wait in line to see 60 portrayals of anguished female faces and to learn about Picasso's relationships with the women whose appearances he transformed so dramatically.

The enthusiastic reception provided a welcome boost to the museum, which has endured severe cuts in budgets and staff during the past two years, but it also came as something of a surprise. Although an advertising campaign sponsored by Paine Webber was expected to pay off and the show was open on Tuesdays (when the rest of the museum is closed due to an ongoing budget crunch), the installation was designed for relatively intimate viewing--not for the large crowds that turned out to see it.

Judi Freeman, a former LACMA curator who organized the show, confesses that even she was surprised by the response. "It reflects a combination of interest in the art and life of Picasso and a healthy respect for women," she said, in a telephone interview from the Portland Museum of Art in Portland, Me. (Freeman resigned from LACMA to become Joan Whitney Payson curator in Portland, a position she has held since last August.)

"People responded on a personal-content level," Freeman said. "The exhibition gave them a sense of getting a look inside someone's life. People admired the strength of the art, but it's the biographical element that will be remembered."

Adding an unexpected hit to her resume has been a valuable learning experience, Freeman said. Despite the conventional wisdom that art should stand on its own merit, audiences want to make connections with the people behind the artworks that museums display, she said.

"The bottom line is that art has to be of certain caliber. It must be intrinsically interesting. But then it's a question of how to present it. If you just stick it on a wall, it's not going to be remembered," she said. "Everything in museums was made by somebody. We don't always know who that somebody was, but who that person was, is so intimately tied to the work that it can't be separated."

The exhibition will appear at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, June 12-Sept. 4, and at the Art Institute of Chicago, Oct. 8-Jan. 8, 1995. Several works from a variety of collections are expected to be added at both locations.

In addition, the Museum of Modern Art in New York is planning its own Picasso show, a survey of portraits, for 1996. The exhibition is being organized by William Rubin, MOMA's curator emeritus who recently disclosed his belief that the subject of many Picasso portraits from the 1920s was not his wife, Olga, but American socialite Sara Murphy.

Rubin's revelation has led to speculation about a Picasso movie exploring Picasso's relationship with Murphy. Meanwhile, Freeman has been approached by four filmmakers. It's too early to say if any of them will develop acceptable proposals, she said, but she hasn't ruled out the possibility.

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