‘I Wasn’t Prepared for How the Art World Would Treat Hannah’

Photo-Illustration: Curbed; Photos Getty Images

Walking through the Brooklyn Museum’s new exhibit “It’s Pablo-Matic,” the Jonathan Richman song “Pablo Picasso” kept running through my head, to the point where I couldn’t believe it wasn’t playing from loudspeakers. “Girls could not resist his stare and so Pablo Picasso was never called an asshole … not in New York,” the song goes. Well, no longer, I guess. Mostly, it calls Picasso an asshole subtly, artfully, using the resources of the Brooklyn Museum’s feminist art collection as counterpoints to the Picasso paintings and drawings that accompany them. It’s one of many museum exhibits worldwide honoring the 50th anniversary of Picasso’s death, but it’s the only one that takes on his unequivocal misogyny as its explicit topic, even as it showcases his work. But there’s a fly in the ointment: Hannah Gadsby, who co-curated the show with Brooklyn Museum curators Lisa Small and Catherine Morris. The foregrounding of Gadsby’s stated opinion of Picasso in their groundbreaking Netflix special, Nanette — “I hate Picasso” — can’t help but set the ground rules for any conversation surrounding the exhibit. The viewer is encouraged to chuckle at Gadsby’s captions, mostly one-liners mocking Picasso’s “attachment issues” and making cracks like, “Meta? I hardly know her.”

But it’s also a nuanced exhibit, with challenging and beautiful work by both Picasso and the non-male artists who’ve grappled with his legacy for the past 50 years. The main problem is that while the whole thing wouldn’t exist without Gadsby — they inspired it and helped Small and Morris select the art for it — their fame has overshadowed the exhibit’s intentions. New York Times critic Jason Farago called the title “It’s Pablo-Matic” “so silly that I cannot even type it” and went on in that vein viciously. Artnet, which has covered the show extensively, said that the feminist art seemed to have little to do with the Picassos on display, which seems false to me. The show closes with Mickalene Thomas’s odalisque Marie: Nude Black Woman Lying on a Couch. It’s hard to think of a more on-the-nose counterpoint to Picasso’s deconstructed nudes, but it’s true that the exhibit doesn’t connect any explicit dots. Weirdly, it may be making its points too subtly and too ham-fistedly, sometimes in the same caption. It’s a mess! But a fascinating mess. I talked to museum director Anne Pasternak about how it came to be.

Emily Gould: I’ve read everything there is to read about this exhibit, and there’s a lot, way too much, in my opinion.

Anne Pasternak: Emily, it’s so insane.

E.G.: And it just keeps coming. And now I’m adding to the problem.

A.P.: I think this exhibition is going to go down in the art-history textbooks, and I think it’s going to be talked about quite richly, actually. I’m looking forward to hearing your thoughts.

E.G.: Well, I just know a normal-person amount about art history. But let’s just start from the beginning. What was the initial seed of the idea for this exhibit?

A.P.: The Brooklyn Museum was invited fairly late in the day to be one of the 50 museums to mark this anniversary of the 50th anniversary of Picasso’s death. So I thought to myself, What can the Brooklyn Museum add to this conversation? It wasn’t lost on me that he died in 1973, which was the time period that you had women art critics and art historians expanding the canon of art history. Also, if you talk to young art historians, they are like, “I don’t care if I ever see another Picasso. I don’t care if I ever see another Degas.” There’s this desire to dispose of the past because people had terrible views, or had said terrible things, or done terrible things. Emily, you and I know that people are complex, and they are nuanced. People today, I think, are struggling with, how do you deal with the fact that some terrifically amazing artists have also said and done some bad things? Film, literature, visual art, music, you name it, there isn’t a person in the world who isn’t flawed. So I thought, This is something the Brooklyn Museum can lean into. These are the conversations that people are having today. Why should a museum not have these conversations?

E.G.: You wrote that you anticipated controversy. Why did you anticipate controversy?

A.P.: Well, there were a bunch of reasons for it. First, the Picasso Administration announced a placeholder title for our exhibition — “A Feminist Take on Pablo Picasso.” Immediately, the global media picked up on it and assumed that we were out to cancel Picasso, which is the most ridiculous thing of all time. Second, we know that this is a time period where there would be anti-woke backlash. Woke is a four-letter word. We were pretty confident that this could be instrumentalized by people, that people would join the pile-on. Also, museums sometimes invite artists to curate shows, and Hannah, in my view, is a very brilliant artist. But we weren’t sure if the art world would accept that comedy can be a powerful art form and that Hannah is an artist. And also, Hannah has said, on multiple occasions, “Picasso is a great artist, an important artist,” but they’ve also said on multiple occasions, “I hate Picasso.” So that was automatically going to be incendiary. But I was not prepared for how viciously the art world would treat Hannah. It’s been shocking, and hugely disappointing.

E.G.: It seems like Hannah’s participation has provoked the most controversy.

A.P.: I think it’s more complex than that. Hannah pushes on issues that are uncomfortable for us to look at. Here I am, a person who studied art history, who loves art of all time periods, as much as I love anything in the world. Listening to Hannah’s performance, Nanette, had me see things that I love with a new light — which has been enriching. When Hannah makes these jokes about the fact that women didn’t have clothes historically, or that it’s a women’s role to be lying naked in a field, it shows us that these images that we love, because we love art and art history, have become so much a part of our social, cultural, and personal psyche that we stopped seeing them for what they are. Yes, they’re about mythology. Yes, they’re about fantasy. No, we shouldn’t be policing people’s personal desires. At the same time, they have contributed to a history of imagery that, frankly, has left women unsafe. I think it’s much easier for women to understand that. I think it’s much harder for men.

E.G.: Do you have any sense of how many people have actually seen the exhibit?

A.P.: We’re at capacity all day. I can tell you, the video that we launched with Hannah, when the show opened, had over half a million views in its first 24 hours, I think. That was our second-most-liked social-media post of all time.

E.G.: Speaking of Hannah, Hannah has been asked if their voice belongs in the exhibit, and specifically in the context of the captions, and they responded, “Who benefits if my voice is not included?” What’s your take on that conversation about those captions, specifically the ones that are quippy one-liners?

A.P.: Again, I think it adds to the robustness of dialogue. Hannah’s perspective represents probably a significant percentage of the population. Plus, Hannah is a comedian/performance artist in their own right. Why would Hannah have any less right to comment on this than any other artist in the exhibition? I think Hannah’s positioning is right. Why on earth are we questioning that? Doesn’t that seem really bizarre? I think the people who are questioning that need to look pretty deeply at it, why they’d even posit that question.

E.G.: I’m just spitballing here, but I think it defies what people expect captions of artwork to be. They don’t expect them to be jokes.

A.P.: I’m sorry for people who don’t want a museum to be a fun experience. Not.

E.G.: Speaking of which, other than Hannah and Nanette, what other comedians, movies, or shows do you like?

A.P.: I watch Saturday Night Live religiously every season. I have a fondness for movies like Talladega Nights. And what’s the model one? What’s the matter with me?

E.G.: Zoolander.

A.P.: Zoolander. I laugh easily. I’m a normal human being. I’m not an expert in comedy, but there are a lot of comedians I really like because they say really hard things in really funny ways. Bill Burr is one of them. I have wide-ranging taste.

E.G.: Who is your favorite current SNL cast member?

A.P.: I mean, they just had all that major change, and last season wasn’t so great.

E.G.: A transitional season, to be sure.

A.P.: Yeah, whenever there’s a whole new cast, it’s always awkward the first year or two. Some of my favorite good leads, like Kate McKinnon, left, unfortunately. Cecily Strong. I still love Kenan Thompson because he just laughs at himself. I think Michael Che, and other comedians like Kenan Thompson, have brought a kind of consciousness about African Americans into SNL that has been really important. I like Chloe Fineman. I like Heidi Gardner.

E.G.: I don’t know half of those people.

A.P.: I like laughs as much as the next person. And something I do want to say is that I think and talk about Hannah as a comedian, and as a performance artist, who has crafted their own kind of art form. Which is why it’s been very frustrating to me to see Hannah being dismissed as a celebrity, and to not have their work be seen in the context of a very powerful, very thoughtful, very intelligent kind of critique. To dismiss what they’re doing, just because they’re famous, rather than really taking a look at their artistic practice, has been kind of shocking to me. And by the way, there are two exhibitions in Chelsea right now where very famous people have been asked to participate. Joel Coen, the great filmmaker, curated a Lee Friedlander exhibition at Luhring Augustine. And there’s Larry Gagosian’s Avedon show where they asked 100 people, mostly 100 very famous people, to each select a photograph. And this show, our show, is significantly more risk-taking. Hannah is actually a trained art historian and an artist in their own right, and people feel the desire to take them down. It seems really bizarre to me.

E.G.: Why do you think that is?

A.P.: I think it’s an excuse to try to find something to hate about the exhibition and to try to dismiss it rather than take it seriously. There are plenty of celebrities we can work with at the Brooklyn Museum. There is no shortage of celebrities who walk through our doors. That’s not what we did when we constructed this exhibition. We didn’t say, “Oh, let’s find a celebrity.” And I do think dismissing comedy and this kind of thoughtful artistic practice as “just a celebrity” is problematic.

E.G.: I don’t know how to ask this except for very directly. How has the coverage and the negative response made you feel?

A.P.: I don’t really feel pissed. I mean, I feel disappointed sometimes when I read some of these reviews. I feel disappointed that people are digging in their heels and trying to find anything wrong they can with the exhibition. But I feel optimistic, because I believe our audiences can handle nuance and do want to come and decide for themselves and really do want to engage with the exhibition.

E.G.: Is this reminiscent of anything that you’ve experienced before?

A.P.: I don’t know. I mean, we’ve had controversies before in every museum. If you’re not facing a controversy as a major institution, you’re probably not doing anything important worthy of attention. But every controversy is a little bit different.

E.G.: How do you deal with it?

A.P.: Well, one thing I’ve learned is that my Instagram account is mine. I learned this from somebody famous that I’m close to. They’re going to remain nameless. They’re like, “Anne, haters don’t get to use your hard work and reputation to hate on your account. Delete them.” Do you delete people, Emily?

E.G.: I didn’t always. And then at a certain point I started doing it.

A.P.: I started doing it. I don’t have to often. It’s actually a tiny minority of people, but if it’s just a criticism, I’ll keep it. But if they’re being hateful, they’re gone.

‘I Wasn’t Prepared for How the Art World Treated Hannah’