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Weighty Matters

Botero’s chubby Guernica hits New York.

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Above, Abu Ghraib 65 (2005); below, one of his pre-political works, Woman With Fruit (1999).  

Fernando Botero is a famous and successful artist, maybe in part because he wasn’t ever taken that seriously. “A convivial unthreatening sculptor of cheerfully corpulent figures destined for major urban intersections,” says András Szántó, co-author of a 2005 Rand Corp. report on arts policy. The Time Warner Center has a pair of sculptures, casino magnate Steve Wynn is a collector, and though MoMA owns four of his pieces, neither is on display. But the 74-year-old Colombian makes a bid for a different kind of weightiness with a show, opening this week at the Marlborough Gallery, of paintings and drawings based on the U.S. abuses at Abu Ghraib. “Abu Ghraib was a shock to the whole world, and I was angry,” says Botero, who has dubbed the suite of works “my Guernica,” referring to the antiwar Picasso painting. The controversial exhibition, a hit in Rome and Germany, has brought the artist his best critical notices in years. So why is it opening at a blue-chip but somewhat blue-haired 57th Street gallery, especially as the works aren’t even for sale? Botero says the “Abu Ghraib” series is at Marlborough because museums won’t show it. “There must be many Republicans on the board of directors” of U.S. museums, he jokes. (However, at least a couple of institutions that have booked the artist’s upcoming touring career retrospective, the New Orleans Museum of Art and the San Antonio Museum of Art, say they’ve never been offered the works.) The buzz has helped Botero pieces break records at auction this year, two selling for over $2 million each. The price climb was particularly striking because Botero had largely been left out of the run-up in contemporary-art prices over the past decade. Pierre Levai, president of Marlborough, says that the gallery is showing them “without any political position.” Nonetheless, he adds, “New Yorkers will be interested.” Probably so. “Money follows headlines,” says Bruce Wolmer, editorial director of Art + Auction. “This isn’t Picasso doing Guernica, this is Picasso doing the same doves over and over again during the Cold War because it was commercial.”

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