Sunday, November 1, 2015
The Power of Picasso’s Sculpture
The current show of Picasso’s sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art provides, as all who have commented have noted, a rare opportunity to have a fresh look at the work of the artist who dominated so much of the twentieth century. A considerable number of the works are being shown for the first time in this country, many on loan from the Musée Picasso in Paris. The artist was not trained in sculpture, and he kept many of his three-dimensional works in his own possession – they are often prominent in photographs of his studio. Though never for long a central focus of his work, he regularly returned to work in bronze, pottery, and plaster, often using found objects throughout his lengthy career, and viewing this extraordinary collection of objects does not so much as inspire new insights as remind the critic of why Picasso’s oeuvre is so much more powerful than much art since. The great innovator exemplifies the most classic values: emotional strength, vitality, traditional formal aesthetics, and a sort of soaring and unpredictable spirit that might emerge in one moment as wit and in another as insight. Even while participating in Cubism, primitivism, Surrealism, and socially conscious art, Picasso reminds us with the deft dodges and relentless dashes of his unique sensibility. His work could be invigorated by a manifesto yet it would never be contained within the confines of any theoretical program. In our own belatedness, even measured against a hundred years ago, I fear that nothing retains the power to arrest the viewer in the same way. Even were such impact possible today, few artists could make the kind of commanding use of space as one sees Picasso doing here in brand new ways in every room of the exhibit.
As abstraction arose in Dada and came to dominance in New York following World War II, Picasso explored its possibilities but always retained links to figuration. No admirer of Arp’s voluptuously biomorphic forms or Brancusi’s elegant imaginative leaps can doubt the potential for emotional power in altogether abstract work (familiar as well to listeners to Beethoven quartets), but for Picasso ever since his Cubist portraits, the tension between the artist’s view of a real-world object and the viewer’s is a significant element in the work . Drawing a pencil line on a brown paper bag, piling sand in the middle of a room, or sitting opposite a stranger in a gallery (no matter how prestigious the space) do not demand any investment of artistic intention nor can they offer significant aesthetic pleasure.
One hundred and forty works, nearly one fifth of Picasso’s sculptures, are on display in New York. Every viewer will have passionate favorites. Convinced that the value of each work of art is not inherent and automatic but rather is constituted in the consumer’s encounter with it, the most precise data on this show is perhaps contained in my reactions to individual pieces.
Guitar (1914) is a Cubist painting but burst into three dimensions, its refraction of representation combatted by its utter poise in placement, its serene symmetry reminiscent of great paintings such as the 1932 painting Girl Before a Mirror or even, for all its dynamic tension, Les Demoiselles d'Avignon of 1907. The use of a musical instrument as subject is emblematic of the artist’s life in Montmartre, suggesting art, beauty, leisure, cafes, and dance. Rendered in sheet metal and wire, as much assemblage as sculpture, its position hanging on the wall makes it seem partly a canvas while its shadows in the clear gallery lighting insist on its volume, thrust, and harmonic balance. The artist has established a firm beachhead on the margins of genre itself.
The painted bronze absinthe glasses of 1914 (with ready-made tin spoons), on the other hand, are a tour de force of anti-art, constructed in defiance of tidy art school design prettiness. The “glass” itself with its Cubist multiplication of surfaces has become clunky and crude, quite unlike those made of glass. They are painted with simple designs that might have come from the most archaic pottery. Yet their impression as one views each of the six in turn accumulates to mutate becoming complex, playful, and dynamic. The viewer recalls the same object surrounded by other artifacts of cafe life in the 1911 painting Glass of Absinthe.
Woman in the Garden( 1929-30), one of the rejected designs the artist submitted for Apollinaire’s gravesite, is likewise elegant and lyrical. The inherently weighty iron looks as though it is blowing in the wind and might take off at any moment. Open space is an element at least as important as metal here, and many of the iron portions are so thin as to approach the character of lines. Picasso again displays wit and discernment in his use of found objects and includes rounded forms in the shape of philodendron leaves to soften the otherwise prickly texture of a piece that, in its total impact, is suggestive of the poet’s energetic imagination or of a soul in flight.
The Bull (1958) is breathtaking: at once monumental in the husky torso and large head yet lyrical as any line drawing in the curves of leg and horn. And in the middle of the elegance every bit as demanding as a Matisse design, a pair of witty complications compete for attention: the infantile three dots for a face gazing at the viewer from archaic times and childhood and a tree branch, seemingly casual but in fact the axis of the composition. Here one sees art brut and objets trouvés as no mere theoretical assertions but as tools in the artist’s inventory of possibilities, intentionally employed to produce a calculated effect that maximizes allusive associations ranging from Neolithic bullheads through the Minotaur to Catalan bullfighting and the rich possibilities offered by parallels in the artist’s earlier and later work, including other pieces in the same exhibit: the bull’s head made of a bicycle handlebars and seat and a ceramic bull seemingly from the dawn of time with beautifully swelling forms and topped with schematic designs.
I appreciate the Head of a Warrior (1933) with its look of goofy eternal outrage, its tennis balls for eyes and off-kilter Trojan helmet, but the plaster heads of Marie-Thérèse seem to me less eloquent. The deformation in the 1931-2 Head of a Woman plasters strike me as evasive or perhaps just wandering. In my eyes the one The Museum of Modern Art owns is the best of the lot, its evocation of antiquity freshened and flavored by Cubism and Surrealism. On the whole, though, I prefer the classically balanced painting of the same model from 1932-4 (and the canvases featuring her from later in the decade). (I may have simply overdosed at the four “Heads,” a “Bust,” and a dozen other representations of the woman in one room together, reminding me that a single visit to a show so grand may be misleading.)
The show offers many other pleasures and revelations. A collection of casually collected and painted pebbles and pottery shards situates the viewer at the beginning and end of time, recalling the pleasure and mystic significance with which children can endow any objects through artistic manipulation. In a sly reference to the paintings by Renoir, Seurat, Cézanne, Gaugin and others, generally so pretty, Picasso’s The Bathers (1956) is instead an installation of lumber yard scraps looking sufficiently outsider to put me in mind of the temporary pieces people used to erect on the Oakland approach to the Bay Bridge. Even familiar works take on new significance in this rich context. The museum’s own 1950 She-Goat (which I have been at pains to call on every time I visit) is a veritable fertility deity with its swollen body (formed on a wicker basket) and udders (two ceramic jugs).
The reviewers have pulled out all the stops in their praise of the show: “staggering,” “dumbfounding,” “magnificent,” “a work of art in its own right,” and I need add no superlatives. In the broadest sense, Picasso’s Sculpture reminds every viewer what art is about, and every admirer of Picasso what is peculiarly his in twentieth century art. For one viewer at least, it was also a reminder of a time when the avant-garde’s power to shock, to challenge, and to surprise was fructifying and productive of new meaning and unsuspected beauty. Now, as techniques more radical than Picasso’s have become altogether mainstream in universities, galleries, and museums, when artists receive foundation grants to execute pieces using the fossilized remnants of avant-garde technique, the aesthetic payoff has become piddling indeed. Picasso in the end reminds us of the potential strength of art in a way that cannot be denied by a viewer with open eyes.