Genius: Wynn and Picasso

What dreaming can do for an era

Joshua Longobardy

Earlier this month, Steve Wynn made news when it was leaked to the public that he had, by accident, punctured a hole in his "La Reve" canvas, a Picasso painting Wynn was on the verge of selling for $139 million. Reports of the event no doubt had comical value. But in many ways it was a sad and poignant moment, and not just because Wynn is utterly enamored with the painting he damaged. No, it's also because Wynn and "La Reve"—ever since he bought the canvas in 1997 for $42 million (a record at the time)—have been inextricably linked by some fascinating internal threads. Above all, the dreams they encapsulate, the influence they've imparted on their respective surroundings and the inner carpentry the works of Wynn and "La Reve"'s artist exhibit.

La Reve (1932)

In English, "The Dream," rendered by Picasso's masterful hand during a time when America's economic crisis hit the art market in Europe with palpable force, was a highly influential work, according to scholars on the topic such as Markus Muller, author of Pablo Picasso and Marie-Therese Walter: Between Classicism and Surrealism. Muller says that with pieces like "La Reve"—a surrealist depiction of Picasso's mistress, the voluptuous Marie-Therese Walter, slumped, sleeping, and at least 10 nautical leagues deep in dreams—Picasso delivered the art world from the trenches in which it was dwelling at the time, and inserted it back into people's lives. As Adolph Bauler, a notable art critic at the time, puts it in his book Le Peinture, Picasso's work "was then [in the early 1930s] invading every home, becoming the main topic of every conversation." It was also Bauler who, with his typical irreverent tone, depicted Picasso in a fashion easily transferable to Steve Wynn, the gaming-industry tycoon to come many years down the road: "Picasso is the great psychologist of the century. He manipulates the masses like a prestigitator [sic] who ridicules the sublime, lavishes his poison on a humanity of neuropaths."

Without a doubt Picasso was appealing to the subconscious when he painted his sleeping beauty. It is erotic, overrunning with innuendo, and highly symbolic. According to Picasso scholar Pierre Daix, "La Reve" is a picture that presents Picasso's lover in spherical lines, curves, undulations, with zones of color barely indicated by outlines. And: "This canvas dissolves in tenderness the angular dimensions of the artist's earlier work."

Praise for "La Reve" is for its surrealist overtones, apt for its content: Picasso's wild and insatiable love and the dreams of the woman with whom he shared it.

It's a piece that appealed to something deep inside Wynn. He made it the star of his vast personal art gallery, and he has confessed numerous times that "La Reve" is the gem closest to his heart. In fact, before deciding at the 11th hour to name his latest Las Vegas hotel after himself, Wynn had been prepared to anoint it "La Reve."

Steve Wynn

Born in 1942, Steve Wynn, a man of immaculate dreams, arrived in Las Vegas to stay in 1967. He had just graduated from the University of Pennsylvania, where he took classes at the esteemed Wharton School of Business, and Las Vegas at that time was famous but small, according to journalist Marc Cooper, whose book The Last Honest Place in America: Paradise and Perdition in the New Las Vegas explores Wynn's giant influence on the city.

Cooper, like many others, says that Wynn was largely responsible for Vegas' economic and population explosions. Time magazine, in its latest edition celebrating the world's 100 most influential people, called Steve Wynn the gaming industry's most brilliant designer, and for good reason. He renovated the Golden Nugget downtown in the early '70s and turned its profits from $1 million a year to $12. In 1989 he revitalized the Strip with the Mirage Resort, his dream at the time, a $630-million project. Treasure Island came soon thereafter, and in 1998 he used $1.6 billion to manifest his new vision for Las Vegas—one of elegance and luxury—with the Bellagio Resort Hotel, where he would first showcase his beloved "La Reve" canvas.

But he still wasn't done—his dreams had not yet been exhausted. Five years later, Wynn, like a mad poet or an inspired artist, walked the Strip where the Desert Inn Hotel used to stand, envisioning every last sexy detail for his new masterpiece, the hotel which would be constructed in 2004 under the working title "La Reve." It was completed in April of 2005, with its signed name atop: Wynn.

With 215 acres, including a golf course, 2,716 rooms, and 60 stories overlooking the chimerical Strip, it is the largest privately constructed project in America.

In its construction Wynn had been meticulous, ambitious and even downright ruthless: The pioneer broke with several conventions, choosing natural over manmade light, narrow instead of wide spaces to insinuate intimacy, and plenty of spherical lines, curves, undulations, with zones of color barely indicated by outlines to symbolize motion. And unlike he had with the Mirage, Treasure Island, and Bellagio, Wynn built the spectacle this time on the inside, not the out—in this way reflecting a woman's dreams, wild and wonderful and wholly internal.

Inside, on the walls of Wynn's executive offices, there are authentic Warhols, Renoirs, and Matisses; and inside his personal office there are two large Picassos, including his favorite, "La Reve." Which he agreed on the first weekend of this October to sell to billionaire and fellow Wharton School of Business alumnus Steve Cohen, for a record $139 million.

The deal for "La Reve" had been finalized, and several friends had gathered in Steve Wynn's office to hear him discuss the piece's hidden treasures. Barbara Walters was there. As was Louise Grunwald, widow of former Time Editor in Chief Henry Grunwald. Screenwriter Nicholas Pileggi was also there, with his wife, Nora Ephron, author of hit movies Sleepless in Seattle and When Harry Met Sally.

As gesticulate as ever, Wynn stood by the Picasso piece, speaking with both his tongue and his hands. Then it happened. His elbow struck "La Reve," leaving a hole through which a ping-pong ball could pass and three-inch rips down either side.

"Oh shit," Wynn said, according to a post by Ephron on "Look what I've done."

In that post, written two weeks after the incident, Ephron writes: "I felt that I was in a room where something very private had happened that I had no right to be at."

And further: "It seemed to me I'd witnessed a tragedy."

According to Ephron, Steve Wynn's wife, Elaine, put the final and redemptive period on the story a few days after the historical puncture, when she said that this all was nothing more than a sign that her husband was meant to keep the painting that had always been particular to him. And so that is what he would do.

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