Nelson Rockefeller's Picasso Tapestries exhibit. Photo by Page Graham.
Nelson Rockefeller's Picasso Tapestries exhibit. Photo by Page Graham.

Nelson Rockefeller’s Picassos: Tapestries Commissioned for Kykuit” opens to the public on Saturday, Dec. 20, and will be on view at the San Antonio Museum of Art (SAMA) until March 8. A landmark event, this is the first time that so many of the commissioned Picasso tapestries (fourteen of eighteen) have been exhibited together outside of Kykuit, the Rockefeller family estate in Sleepy Hollow, New York, and administered by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. SAMA members will enjoy an exclusive opening reception Thursday evening and a members-only preview day on Friday.

Installation of Nelson Rockefeller's Picassos: Tapestries Commissioned for Kykuit. Photo by Page Graham.
Installation of Nelson Rockefeller’s Picassos: Tapestries Commissioned for Kykuit. Photo by Page Graham.

Curator William Keyse Rudolph, escorted us through the exhibition for a media preview.

“San Antonio Museum of Art (is) excited about the chance to tell multiple stories to our visitors. One is the story of Governor Nelson Rockefeller. One is the translation of one type of artwork into another. It is also the story of one of the great, towering, artistic geniuses of the 20th century and that is Pablo Picasso,” Rudolph said.

SAMA’s Curator of Latin American Art Marion Oettinger and Kelso Director  Katie Luber joined the tour as well, each adding juicy tidbits of knowledge along the way. The leadership of the museum is pleased to have landed this very special exhibition, made possible by the long-standing relationship that SAMA has cultivated with the Rockefeller family over the past few decades, a relationship nurtured by Oettinger fastidiously over his 30 year career with the museum.

The 30,000 square-foot Nelson A. Rockefeller Center for Latin American Art was dedicated in 1998, housing one of the most comprehensive collections of Latin American Art in the United States. At this time, the bulk of Rockefeller’s Mexican folk art collection was bequeathed to the museum by his eldest daughter, Ann Rockefeller Roberts.

Art aficionados in San Antonio may also remember that Picasso’s famed anti-war masterpiece, Tapestry after “Guernica” (now on display at the United Nations building in New York City) came to SAMA on loan from Mrs. Nelson Rockefeller in the summer of 2012.

This purchase by Governor Rockefeller in the 1950s in fact ignited his passion for pursuing more tapestries with Picasso (all acquired or commissioned between 1954 – 1975). With the impact of the “Guernica” tapestry, the seeds for this exhibition were planted.

“Marion opened the door for us because of his close relationship with the Rockefellers. He was the one who organized it, made sure that ‘Guernica’ would come here. Without that first connection, we would have never been able to do this fantastic show,” Luber said.

William Keyse Rudolph discussing Rockefeller's Picassos. Photo by Page Graham.
William Keyse Rudolph gives a tour of Rockefeller’s Picassos. Photo by Page Graham.

“The exhibition of ‘Guernica’ actually started the idea for ‘why not bring the rest of the story to San Antonio?’ We organized this exhibition working with our colleagues at Kykuit and the National Trust (for Historic Preservation),” Rudolph said. “The house closes for the winter in November and doesn’t reopen until April, so we asked if we could borrow the tapestries. This is the first time that these tapestries as a group have been seen in a museum outside of Kykuit.

“In a way this fulfills one of the wishes, to our understanding, of Governor Rockefeller. He was fascinated with the medium of tapestry and wanted to share his love of Picasso with the public. And he did in many ways. This exhibition by the San Antonio Museum of Art is our way of doing our part to help accomplish that goal.”

Indeed, in Rockefeller’s lifetime, these works were hung at the statehouse in Albany, in his offices, and he lent them out periodically with the idea of sharing the works publicly. After his sudden death in 1979, the tapestries went into a sort of repose. They were always on public view at the estate, but only at the estate.

Nelson A. Rockefeller believed in the transformative power of art and his love of modern art was encouraged by his mother, one of the founders of the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA). Rockefeller has been quoted: “I was always most strongly drawn to the work of the great European pioneers of modern art … of all of them, Picasso was always my favorite. His restless vitality and constant search for powerful new forms of expression, combined with his superb craftsmanship and sense of color and composition, have remained an unending source of joy and satisfaction to me.”

The execution of the tapestries was an extended process, to say the least. Governor Rockefeller chose the subjects. Some he owned, some were suggested by trusted colleagues such as the first MOMA Director Alfred H. Barr and still others that came across his path in his extensive travels. Permissions had to be obtained for works not in his possession. Picasso had to give permission to begin the process of transferring the work to tapestry. Ektachrome transparencies were procured and then sent to the atelier by the Rockefeller officials, all by mail, of course. Then the atelier proposed the design with a cartoon – essentially the blueprint for the design of the tapestry – and samples of dyed yarn, upon which more approvals were required. An excruciating process, but the results, as evidenced in the SAMA exhibition, were well worth the dedication of time and trouble.

Installation of Nelson Rockefeller's Picassos: Tapestries Commissioned for Kykuit. Photo by Page Graham.
Installation of Nelson Rockefeller’s Picassos: Tapestries Commissioned for Kykuit. Photo by Page Graham.

All of the tapestries were woven on a traditional hand loom of wool with the exception of one, which is executed in silk. They were created by Jacqueline de la Baume Dürrbach at Atelier Cavalaire, the studio in the Var region of southern France established with her husband René, a fellow artist. The process of weaving is a painstaking one that has not changed over time, and in this studio, the craft was practiced in the highest order. Picasso consulted directly with Madame de la Baume, working with her not only on the Rockefeller tapestries. They ultimately collaborated on 27 tapestries up until his death in 1973. The mark of Picasso and Atelier Cavalaire appear on every piece. Given Picasso’s monumental opinion of himself as a solitary genius, this collaboration was no small thing.

“It is interesting for the viewer to acknowledge the oscillation between the one and the many that happens in the translation of these works,” Rudolph said.

This show is a great opportunity for fans of Picasso, as well as those who admire fiber art and the production of fine tapestries.

“Often an assumption is made that art made of certain materials or certain methods don’t qualify as art. In my view, art challenges on many horizons of expectations. There is content and lasting value beyond the ordinary,” said Paula Owen, director of the Southwest School of Art (SSA) which has a program in fiber arts.

This timely exhibition certainly makes an eloquent argument in this regard.

A traditional hand loom in place for demonstrations on loan from the Southwest School of Art. Photo by Page Graham.
A traditional hand loom in place for demonstrations on loan from the Southwest School of Art. Photo by Page Graham.

SAMA has scheduled a variety of programming for all ages designed to complement the exhibition:

  • Southwest School of Art Collaboration: Weavers from the SSA will demonstrate tapestry making in the Cowden Gallery every Tuesday, 4:30 – 7:30 p.m. and on Sunday, 11 a.m. – 2 p.m.*
    • In addition to demonstrations, the SSA is also offering discounted weaving classes to SAMA members in the spring. For more details, visit the SSA website.
  • First Sundays for Families: Reconstructing Picasso: Sunday, Jan. 4 from noon – 4 p.m. Paint a portrait, construct cubist creations with Legos, make inventive collages and weavings. First Sunday is free for children 12 and under.
  • Date Night: Picasso Friday: January 23, 6 – 10  p.m. An evening of art, flamenco music and dance with two-for-one admission to the exhibition for non-members.
  • On His Own Terms: A Life of Nelson Rockefeller: Sunday, February 15, 3 – 4 p.m. A lecture by presidential historian and Rockefeller biographer, Richard Norton Smith – a revealing look at the political animal behind the art. Free with admission.
Installation of Rivera's "Dos Mujeres." Photo by Page Graham.
Installation of Rivera’s “Dos Mujeres.” Photo by Page Graham.

Finally, while visiting SAMA for the Picasso Tapestries, make a point of heading upstairs and over to the Rockefeller wing to see Diego Rivera’s cubist masterwork “Dos Mujeres” which serves as a nice counterpoint to the examination of the Picassos. Installed as a complement to the Picassos, it is on loan from the Arkansas Art Center Foundation. It is a stunning early piece by Rivera that illustrates the interaction and impact of these cubist contemporaries in Paris during 1911 – 1921.

“Rivera and Picasso have quite a relationship on this one,” Luber said. “In my opinion, I think it tells a fantastic story to even have them together in the same building.”

For more information about this and other exhibitions and programs at San Antonio Museum of Art, call (210)978-8100 or visit

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Tami Kegley

Tami Kegley has lived the life of an artist. Through multiple careers — dancer, percussionist, performance artist, sculptor, goldsmith, gallerist — she has pursued her need to create. The Great Recession...