Meeting Picasso, Again

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MoMA’s stunning show redefines the artist who defined modernism


  • Pablo Picasso, Woman with Hat, 1961 and 1963, Painted Sheet Metal, 49 5/8 x 28 3/4 x 16 1/8" Photo by Adel Gorgy

  • Pablo Picasso, Bird, 1958, Painted wood and forks, plaster, nails, screws and eyebolts, 10 1/4 x 26 9/16 x 4 15/16" Photo by Adel Gorgy

Forget everything you think you knew about Picasso’s work, or at least get ready to revise it.

MoMA, through co-curators Ann Temkin and Anne Umland, presents “Picasso Sculpture,” giving viewers the first chance in almost 50 years to see a whole new dimension of the spark of creativity, the endless curiosity and the staggering inventiveness of one of the world’s greatest artists.

Picasso made over 4,000 paintings, a mind-numbing thought, but he also created over 700 sculptures. Close to 150 have been gathered together in a truly once-in-a-lifetime show, a rare chance to see works that rocked the history of art.

The exhibition fills the fourth floor of the museum. Plenty of space gives viewers the chance to get in, around, under and up close to an astonishing collection. They’re grouped by chapters, in galleries that represent phases of the artist’s experimentation. Picasso worked feverishly, but sporadically, Umland and Temkin pointed out. He sometimes broke off for years at a time. Each burst of output is presented in a separate gallery with wall texts that give context and insight into their circumstances, motivations and impact.

“When people go through the exhibition,” Temkin said, “they might think that they were in a group show, because, as one goes from one gallery to the next, it’s such an absolutely new type of work that they’re going to come across…Every decade he invents a new language.”

Many of these works are unfamiliar to audiences because Picasso famously kept them to himself, almost never selling or exhibiting his sculptures. This may be because he thought of painting as his bread and butter and sculpture as his private work. Temkin and Umland point out in the catalog that, in the early 1900s, you were either trained as a painter, which Picasso was, or as a sculptor, which he wasn’t. For sculpture, there were accepted tools, materials and practices. Picasso threw out all those conventions, forever changing the medium—both for his own generation and those that followed.

But there may have been another, deeper motivation for keeping them close. Temkin and Umland suggested that he treated these works almost as though they were members of his family, filling his homes and studios with them. “If you have to place him within a sculptural tradition, it really…has far less to do with Western art,” Umland explained, “rather he’s looking to African and Oceanic art…and a tradition of object making that has a ritual function. [They] have a magic, an anima… a soul…He’s making things that aren’t just to look at. They have a spirit.”

The spirit that comes through in the exhibition is an explosion of unfettered imagination. From the late painted sheet metal works, through ground-breaking assemblages, wire sculptures and wooden compositions, time after time, you feel you’re looking at paintings that have somehow magically leapt off the canvas into the real world. Though the vision is consistent, the expression never stopped evolving. Temkin cited Picasso’s absolute “refusal to repeat himself.”

Part of the enchantment of art is that it allows you to inhabit the mind of another, to see what he saw, even for just a moment. That’s where the power of this show lives. Works stop you in your tracks because they’re tangible evidence of an eye and a mind so attuned, so in love with line and form and color and movement and all things that make up beauty that, through them, you realize that everything—every pebble, kitchen tool, piece of wood or child’s toy—has the potential to become a work of art.

In “Still Life” from 1914, scraps of wood are whittled, shaped, painted and glued to form an interior—complete with a glass of wine, a slice of bread (with sausages) and a table topped with a painted cloth, right down to actual pom-poms glued to the edge.

In the gallery documenting the Cubist years, all six of his series of absinthe glasses are gathered together for the very first time. The complex constructions vary from one to another more than seems possible for a set of six of the same spoon mounted on bronze casts of the same base. “Violin,” a gorgeous polychrome sheet metal and wire assemblage sings in line and color.

As the show progresses, “Woman in the Garden,” close to seven feet tall, with windswept hair, painted white, standing against a darker white wall seems to hint at the same vision, albeit transformed emotionally by despair, that occurs in “Guernica.”

“Bust of a Woman,” in creamy white plaster is erotic, tactile, fleshy and plump. “Standing Bull,” a painted ceramic only about a foot tall has an incredible beefy presence. There’s a group that feels totemic, including “Figure” from 1938 that resembles a Kachina doll.

Pay attention to the details. A highlight is the iconic “Bull’s Head” comprised of a bicycle seat and handle bars. But there are many such delights. A baboon’s face is really a repurposed toy truck. Eyes may be made of screws or grommets, or even tennis balls. The head of a poodle is really a crumpled napkin. Akimbo arms are just a set of cast-off stretcher bars.

Who thinks this stuff up? Only a mind for which all is art and art is all.

In the final gallery, “Bathers,” Picasso’s only multi-figured sculpture, fills an enormous platform. They hint at an artist perhaps pondering his own mortality—skeletal shapes in monumental poses. But, just to the left, the curators placed “Bird,” a wooden duck in flight with two painted forks stapled to the bottom forming a pair of feet, proving that whimsy and humor were as intrinsic to Picasso’s work as line and form. It’s a stunning and repeatedly breathtaking show.

What Temkin and Umland have done, in wrangling these creations together and getting them to MoMA (with all the attendant logistics, diplomacy and aesthetic considerations) is give us a great gift. They’re sharing their vision, their scholarship, their insight, four years of hard work, and their passion. And it’s a gift that keeps on giving. “Picasso Sculpture” runs through February 7th, providing the opportunity for repeated visits and a chance to become familiar with these astonishing works. See them while you can, and while you’re there, go and fall in love again with the MoMA’s great collection of Picasso’s paintings, seeing them with brand new eyes.

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