A Dialogue with Himself

John Haber
in New York City

Pablo Picasso: Sculpture

Every so often, one of the most prolific painters ever had to take a deep breath and step back. The result was sculpture, and the twentieth century does not get any better than this.

Seriously, sculpture? The titan of modern painting is sure to call up another image entirely, but surveys of Picasso sculpture keep discovering it again for a new generation. The latest, at the Museum of Modern Art, argues for its central place in modern consciousness—and in his art. With one hundred forty works, starting at age twenty, it shows Pablo Picasso collaborating with and influencing others. It shows him building a studio for sculpture and taking recourse to the medium when life interrupted everything else. It also shows him in a dialogue at crucial points in time with painting and himself. Pablo Picasso's Bull (courtesy estate of the artist/ARS, Museum of Modern Art, c. 1958)

Appropriation and improvisation

Seriously, too, taking a breather? When they were pretty much inventing Modernism, Picasso and Georges Braque visited one another practically every day to see what was new, and there was plenty. Later, he worked at times so uncritically that it has allowed others to dismiss anything he did but Cubism. Especially late in life, he marked a canvas with the precise day long before On Kawara had his date painting. One remarkable sculpture, Glass of Absinthe, comes in six versions, each by the artist's hand. Cast or metal sculpture may also allow reproduction in series by others—and MoMA's curators, Ann Temkin and Anne Umland with Virginie Perdrisot of the Picasso Museum in Paris, even speculate that he may have preferred the copies.

Perhaps, and it would only testify to his radicalism. There was more to the century's most overexposed artist than ego-tripping. Another critic and historian, Rosalind E. Krauss, has argued for multiples of sculpture by Auguste Rodin as undermining the whole idea of originality, and Picasso took that notion as his subject before Marcel Duchamp repurposed a bicycle wheel. He tops each absinthe glass with an actual spoon, holding a sculpted sugar cube. Each is different—and not because of Picasso. Appropriation, including Robert Rauschenberg and Rauschenberg among friends, begins here.

So perhaps, but that is just one side of what makes Picasso sculpture so innovative. The flip side of appropriation is improvisation. Anything can happen on the spur of the moment, just as Cubism might incorporate the day's news in an actual clipping—and at least one still life in sculpture has newsprint as well. Another has upholstery tassels. A medium once meant for worldly elegance and monuments gets to look precarious, like installation art today. More often than not, it thrives on the artist's hand.

If he was indifferent to the outcome of casting, the hand was what mattered. A weakening shows even in the sheet metal replica of another landmark, a cut-paper, string, and wire guitar. Yet his hand can be a mark of modesty as well. When decades later he decided to bone up on the craft by apprenticing himself to established studio artists, they said that no one else would hire him. One can feel his hand in the show's first room, with a plaster apple so rough that it approaches abstraction years before the term existed. It could also pass for the artist's fist.

He was using sculpture to step back as well. The show, like the medium, comes in waves. The breaks could explain its consistent quality, for an artist often associated with coasting and optimism. They could also explain its vulnerability. Sculpture tends to turn up when something is not working out—in his art, his marriages, or France. Even the absinthe glass picks up on the dour theme of loneliness and café society for Edouard Manet.

As one last part of its radicalism, sculpture also shows an interchange between it and painting—but then Picasso's painting had its elements of appropriation, improvisation, and sculpture, too. The first room ends on the brink of Analytic Cubism. Then the second picks up just when Synthetic Cubism had all but run its course. One medium picks up from and spurs another. And the interchange extends to two and three dimensions. In the words of his dealer, Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, Picasso was drawing in space.

Cubism: before and after

Wave by wave, the exhibition argues for the importance of sculpture. The first wave shows him trained only in painting but happy to give it a try. While his first sculpture, a small seated woman from the year 1902, is pretty lame, it has elements of a kneeling woman four years later, which adds curves out of Henri Matisse. Along with the apple are bronze heads of Max Jacob, the poet and a childhood friend, and of his first love, Fernande Olivier. The first still has the conservatism of nineteenth-century Spain and Paris, in the form of a jester. The second shows the marks of his hand leading him to Cubism, as he models the figure in successive twisted planes.

Picasso's Self-Portrait with Palette (Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1906)The room also has adaptations in wood of African art, another influence on Cubism. Still, Cubist planes had to take their own course without the insistence of bronze, and he quits. Three years later, he is back. Maybe Cubism could not break any further with the picture plane, but sculpture could. The paper Picasso guitar hangs on a wall, where traditional sculpture would not. Like it or not, the bare planes of its steel version also look directly to Julio Gonzalez and, in postwar art, David Smith.

The absinthe glasses on tall pedestals hold the room's center. Picasso is building on past painters, but also tweaking them and perhaps his own Blue Period. He has no time now for doleful sentiment. He may also be tweaking the conservatism of a Paris that had just outlawed absinthe. He is playing with the sculpture's resemblance to another twisted head—and then he dapples it with paint, like seeing spots after too much to drink. Before late Modernism bent over backward to distinguish abstraction from "mere decoration," he is throwing the distinction away.

The next room has work on commission in the 1920s, for a monument to Guillaume Apollinaire, the writer, at his grave in Père Lachaise. It did not go well. France could not make sense of the sculpture as a monument. Besides, improvisational as ever, Picasso kept starting over. He has a vaguely human and vaguely animal bow to Surrealism, a man resembling a large spoon, a woman made from a borrowed colander, and a woman in a garden in welded steel in collaboration with Gonzalez. He also has a more sizeable and abstract figure in wire and sheet metal, closer still to "drawing in space."

Notice yet another aspect of Picasso's dialogue with himself. He starts casually, grows more monumental, and then starts over. He almost sets aside his emotionally fraught and more playful side—and then he recovers a second wind. No wonder he could not deliver an actual monument at first. He does by the show's end, but by then he is the wise old man who can get away with that sort of thing. At least he can in the public eye. Yet the dialogue keeps recurring.

It comes about the hard way in the 1930s, forty-five miles northwest of Paris, its fate wrapped up in his love life. He builds a studio for himself and a woman, Marie-Thérèse Walter, and he has to cede it bitterly to another, Olga Ruiz Khokhlova. It marks perhaps his greatest commitment to sculpture of all, only he cannot hold onto it. It leaves him alone in a smaller studio in Paris on the eve of war. He will not flee the occupation, but he also will not collaborate. He will instead find an unexpected darkness and smallness of scale at the very peak of his career.

On the prowl

Those same stages reprise the dialogue. Work at the Bloisgeloup studio starts tall and thin, like that of Alberto Giacometti, and then coarsens and thickens, like that of Constantin Brancusi, with a brow like breasts or a stance begging like a dog. It may be a crude assault on female sexuality either way, but that should tell you what is on his mind. Three plaster sculptures isolate an eye, a bird, and a hand, like shattered body parts. A reaper and a warrior recall a noble past, but also a similar inability to go forward in men. Not just Europe is devolving into primitivism and war.

Work in Bloisgeloup includes relief sculpture, too, part again of the back and forth between two and three dimensions. Picasso also exhibits a seated woman at the Paris World's Fair in 1937, alongside Guernica. (Who knew?) He has, briefly, his monument, but in a dark hour. And then the darkness truly descends. A head of a woman from 1941 has a frightened dignity, but humanity mostly gives way.

Wartime sculpture includes a death's head and a cat on the prowl. It has the raw simplicity of a goat and dog in torn and burnt paper, like a child's game without the comforts of play. Yet it still represents one last period of appropriation and improvisation, with parts from a gas stove as Venus and a bull's head consisting of a bicycle seat and handlebars. Unlike Dada, Picasso does not abandon representation, but he takes the challenge to art personally. He also nurtures signs of hope, like a woman akin to folk art and a man bearing a lamb as a sacrificial offering. And he puts the dark side behind him at war's end.

He is off to the Riviera, first with Françoise Gilot and then with Jacqueline Roque. He enters the sculpture studio that refuses him a compliment, and he hardly minds. He takes molds from a spade and a watering can, and he moves happily between engraved pebbles and ceramic vases almost like Russian eggs. A last wave, in the 1950s, has more classics in bronze, including a goat with a prominent udder—and with a baboon and child cast from a toy car. A girl skipping rope, suspended off the ground, and a woman with a baby carriage describe life's new normal. A man built from chair legs and an easel describes art as right at home.

The show ends with one last reaching for the monumental before his death in 1973, with Picasso in the United States. His last years include public commissions for the Chicago Civic Center and New York University. I remember another huge woman's head from the Princeton campus, not in the show. I also remember it as the kind of public art one takes for granted rather than takes to heart. Maybe the show has to end this way, because so did his life, but I wish it did not stand outside the exhibition entrance, as the first and last word.

A plea for importance risks remembering only the big and familiar. MoMA has a room for photos by Brassaï from the 1930s and 1940s of much the same work. They allow sculpture to cast shadows that the museum's institutional lighting washes away. They also allow visitors to reopen the dialogue. One last great work, a bull from around 1958 in wood panels and a palm frond, reprises the disrupted flatness of that paper guitar. Unlike in painting, Picasso had the chance never altogether to settle in.

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"Picasso Sculpture" ran at The Museum of Modern Art through February 7, 2016.


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