THE MUSEUM OF MODERN ART
THROUGH FEBRUARY 7, 2016
MoMA’s not-to-be-missed retrospective of Pablo Picasso’s three-dimensional work fills up its entire fourth floor with 141 pieces across eleven galleries, which span a mind-boggling sixty-two years—from 1902, his last year in Barcelona, until 1964, nine years before his death. While by no means exhaustive—it is hard to imagine what an “exhaustive” exhibition for the 20th century’s most prolific, and uneven, master would look like—this show manages to assemble enough highlights across the years to give viewers a rough idea of Picasso’s journey through the multiple styles and working methods that he picked up and bent to his iron will. The quality of the selected work is very high, and sprinkled throughout are a handful of masterpieces. As is the case with his paintings, Picasso’s working methods in sculpture tend toward juxtaposition rather than synthesis. This gift for bricolage—Picasso’s uncanny ability to transform ordinary objects into works of art—surfaces again and again through his oeuvre. The truly jaw-dropping moments as a viewer come when Picasso gives freest rein to this tendency during his Cubist period, when he magically pulls together ordinary materials to realize work that transcends categories of painting and sculpture. These pieces feel absolutely contemporary, with an edge that makes current practitioners of abstract assemblage, like Frank Stella, look stodgy.
By comparison to the Cubist works, the least compelling sculptures appear in the galleries devoted to his Boisgeloup period—named after a chateau Picasso bought outside of Paris in the Boisgeloup municipality—from about 1930 up to the war years, when Picasso returned to modeling after a twenty-year break. During this time, Picasso fused the classical themes from his retour à l’ordre of the ’20s with a newfound fascination with Surrealism. The Surrealists, for their part, were only too happy to have an artist of Picasso’s caliber take an interest in their movement. Many of the pieces from the beginning of the period are plaster busts or heads of his mistress, Marie-Thérèse Walter. Picasso displays his gift for formal manipulation in this series, but the results feel derivative, especially in relation to the remarkable Surrealist work by Alberto Giacometti, Suspended Ball (1930 – 31), which has a totemic power that surpasses Picasso’s efforts from this period. As for the punning on the forms of a woman’s head and neck with a phallus, Constantine Brancusi has owned that subversive gesture ever since Princess X (1915 – 16). Nevertheless, Picasso’s Head of a Woman (1932), makes a strong impression. Standing about fifty-two inches high, its combination of appealingly smooth shapes, grotesque distortions of Walter’s features, and large scale translates sculptural tradition into an erotic and violent register, an accomplishment that would make any Surrealist proud.
Perhaps the strongest gallery, after the Cubist work, is the one with the Vallauris and Cannes assemblages of 1952 – 58. After the deprivation and isolation of the war years, when Picasso never left Paris despite his condemnation as a “degenerate” artist by the occupying Nazi authorities, this period sees a blossoming of activity. The gallery contains the MoMA staples She-Goat (1950), which perfectly captures the nanny-goat’s extreme contrast of fleshy underside—wobbling udders and all—with her bony back and head, and Baboon and Young (1951), which wittily uses the cast of a model car for the mother baboon’s head. The other works in this gallery have an irrepressible energy, including figures made of metal scrapes, nailed together bits of wood, and found objects. Picasso’s insouciance, combined with an unerring sense of gesture—consider the palm fronds, branches, and nail holes in Bull (1958)—shows a mature talent with nothing left to prove, bien dans sa peau.
While crowd-pleasers like She-Goat are great for bringing up MoMA’s viewership, do not short the most important works in this show, where Picasso reaches his creative peak. These reside in the gallery for Cubist Years 1912 – 15. It contains the most ground breaking, medium-bending works of the early 20th century, including the Glass of Absinthe series of painted bronzes from 1914. Tiny in size, these sculptures launched investigations into Cubism expressed in three-dimensional space and the readymade—the spoon resting on the top of all the “glasses” is an actual spoon. Even more engrossing are the hanging assemblages such as Mandolin and Clarinet (1913), or Guitar (1914), or Still Life (1914), which raise the question “Are they paintings, or are they sculptures?” They function as paintings to the degree that their placement on the wall demands viewing them head-on. From this position their spatial relationships take on a planar logic that mirrors that of Cubist painting. But functioning as sculptures, they assert their non-traditional materials—pieces of wood, paper, sheet metal, and found objects—in a manner directly opposed to the fictive space of traditional painting. Tough, informal, and loaded with contradictions, these wall works break so many rules it is difficult to imagine most people could see them as art objects when Picasso first exhibited them. Even in this crowd, Violin (1915), stands out for its audacity and formal verve. Using painted sheet metal and iron wire, Picasso orchestrates a cacophony of visual cues: Are we looking at a framed work? What is the painted surface doing to the metal—is it transforming it or enhancing it? What’s with the patterning versus the solid colors—is this decoration or something descriptive? Is this a surface, or a three-dimensional space? With these assemblages, Picasso offers us a completely credible, and in many ways even more challenging, complement to the esthetic supernova that was the invention of Cubist painting.
HOVEY BROCK is an artist and has an MFA from the School of Visual Arts Art Practice program. He is a frequent contributor to Artseen.