“Picasso Sculpture,” a show at the Museum of Modern Art of nearly a hundred and fifty works by the definitive artist of the twentieth century, always figured to impress. It turns out to astound. I came away from the exhibits, which date from 1902 to 1964, convinced that Picasso was more naturally a sculptor than a painter, though all his training and early experience, and by far most of his prodigious energy, went into painting. He made mere hundreds of three-dimensional works, in episodic bunches, amid a ceaseless torrent of about four and a half thousand paintings. When moved to mold, carve, or assemble, he sometimes borrowed artist friends’ studios and tools and enlisted their collaboration—most notably, starting in 1928, with Julio González, who worked in iron. Picasso could be feckless about the standards of the craft. (The director of the ceramics workshop in Vallauris, where, in the late forties, Picasso took up the medium of fired clay, noted that any apprentice who went about things as the artist did would never be hired.) But, because Picasso was an amateur—nearly a hobbyist—in sculpture, it revealed the core predilections of his genius starkly, without the dizzying subtleties of his painting but true to its essence. At this magnificent show, curated by Ann Temkin and Anne Umland, I began to imagine the artist’s pictures as steamrolled sculpture. Most of his paintings conjure space that is cunningly fitted to the images that inhabit it. When the space becomes real, the dynamic jolts.
The show’s first gallery features the best known and, instructively, the least successful of Picasso’s early forays into the medium: “Head of a Woman” (1909), a bronze, cast from clay, which is complexly rumpled, in the manner of incipient Cubism. The work fails because the energetic surface articulation bears no organic relation to the head’s sullen mass; it amounts to a wraparound relief. The piece is a painter’s folly, which Picasso did not repeat (except with the similarly hapless plaster “Apple,” of the same year), even as its style vastly influenced such subsequent sculptors as the futurist Umberto Boccioni. (No innovation of Picasso’s was too tangential to spawn a modern-art cliché.) Picasso put sculpture aside for a few years, then returned to it as an extension of his breakthroughs, with Georges Braque, in the revolutionary aesthetics of collage. Two versions of the large, wall-hung “Guitar” (1912-14)—the first in cardboard, paper, and string; the second in sheet metal and wire—did for sculpture something of what Picasso had already done for painting: they turned it inside out. The term “negative space,” for the air that he let into the anatomized musical instrument, doesn’t suffice to describe the effect. The voids register as active forms, which the shapes passively accommodate. No longer set apart from the world, forward-looking art after “Guitar” adds the world to its inventory.
Then came the most talismanic of modern bibelots: “Glass of Absinthe” (1914), a small bronze of a cubistically fissured, ridged, and whorled vessel with, atop it, a filigreed metal spoon bearing a bronze sugar cube. Picasso created it the same year that the liquor was banned in France, in the mistaken belief that it made people crazy. (It was really just fancied by people who were prone to craziness.) All six casts of the work, from as many collections, are convened here for the first time since their creation. Each incorporates a differently designed spoon and is differently slathered or dappled with paint. The brushwork, especially in sprightly dot patterns, blurs the objects’ contours, rendering them approximate in ways that wittily invoke intoxication. But these are true sculptures, as judged by the essential test that they function in the round. Circle them. Each shift in viewpoint discovers a distinct formal configuration and image. Picasso here steps into the history of the art that, in order to move a viewer, requires a viewer to move. The best of his other Cubism-related works, such as “Still Life” (1914), which fringes a tipped shelf with upholstery tassels, run to assembled and painted reliefs, like pop-up pictures. Their dance of everyday stuff with august form—reality marrying representation—has never ceased to inspire generations of visual hybridists, from Kurt Schwitters to Robert Rauschenberg and Rachel Harrison, and it never will. But these works mainly harvested ideas from Picasso’s painting. His attention to sculpture lapsed again, until 1927.
Picasso’s creations in plaster, wood, and metal between that banner year and the mid-thirties belong in the first rank of sculpture since ancient times. Most are massy: female forms that can seem swollen to the point of bursting, or tumescent and writhing with sexual abandon. A glory of the show is the number of works rendered in fragile plaster, straight from the artist’s hand; he rarely paid much attention to the surface quality of the final bronzes, which tend to be dull. His initial masterworks of the period, made with González, are open networks of thin iron rods, vaguely suggesting jungle gyms, which gave rise to the somewhat misleading catchphrase “drawing in space,” coined by Picasso’s dealer, Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler. More truly, the rectangular arrays encage space. They yield an image—coalescing into a kind of drawing, of a geometrically abstracted figure—when viewed from either end. That’s delightful. But the wonder of the works is their appearance from other angles: the image pulled apart, accordion fashion, to drink in the ambient air. Again, emptiness becomes substance.
Notice, incidentally, how the rods meet the bases. As always, when a Picasso sculpture rests on more than one point each footing conveys a specific weight and tension, like the precisely gauged step of a ballerina. It presses down or strains upward in a way that gives otherwise inexplicable animation to the forms above. Few other sculptors play so acutely with gravity. David Smith is one. Another is Alberto Giacometti, whom Picasso befriended, admired, and mightily affected. Works in this show directly anticipate Giacometti’s skinny figures and even, by a few months, his classic, harrowing “Woman with Her Throat Cut” (1932).
Of the scores of pieces that merit lengthy discussion, I’ll cite one: “Woman with Vase” (1933), a bronze of a plaster sculpture that, cast in cement, accompanied “Guernica” at the Spanish Pavilion of the World’s Fair in Paris, in 1937. She stands more than seven feet tall, with a bulbous head, breasts, and belly, on spindly legs. Her left arm is missing, as if ripped off. Her right arm extends far forward, clutching a tall vase. Seen from the side, the gesture suggests a tender offering. Viewed head on, it delivers a startling, knockout punch. What isn’t this work about? It conjoins Iberian antiquity and Parisian modernity, love and loss, hope and anger, celebration and mourning. Another bronze cast of it stands at Picasso’s tomb, in the Château de Vauvenargues, as a memorial and, perhaps, as a master key to the secrets of his art. Certainly, it overshadows the somewhat indulgent—and, now and then, plain silly—sculptural creations of his later years, such as the gewgaw-elaborated bronze “Little Girl Jumping Rope” (1950). Exceptions from that time include a stunning selection of his riffs on ceramic vessels, lively bent-metal maquettes for public art, and a group of six “Bathers” from 1956: flat figures, one almost nine feet tall, made of scrap wood and standing in a shared, beachlike bed of pebbles. Its éclat might well sink the hearts of contemporary installation artists.
The herky-jerky intermittence of Picasso’s involvement with sculpture might seem an obstacle to a reconsideration of his achievement, but it proves to be a boon. Each generation looks at Picasso in its own way. This show gives us a Picasso for an age of cascading uncertainties. The story it tells is messier than the period-by-period, not to mention mistress-by-mistress, narratives of the past. Instead, each piece finds the artist in a moment of decision, adventuring beyond his absolute command of pictorial aesthetics into physical and social space, where everything is in flux and in question. We are in Picasso’s studio, looking over his shoulder, and wondering, along with him, What about this?
Adapted from http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/09/21/another-dimension
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