All hail the genius of Picasso! When visiting Picasso Sculpture at The Museum of Modern Art, it is impossible not to stand in awe before the work of an artist who, although primarily a painter, revolutionized for all time what a sculpture can be. At the same time, as this survey exhibition well demonstrates, he produced a host of the 20th Century’s most iconic sculptures using an inconceivably wide range of materials, processes and forms. While Picasso’s achievements in his work in three dimensions are of high seriousness and continue to be of formidable influence (more on this later), it is clear that his attitude in making sculpture was often remarkably casual–at times, he appears to have been just fooling around.
I confess that I had the hubris to approach this exhibition, which was organized by Ann Temkin, Chief Curator of Painting and Sculpture, and Anne Umland, Curator, feeling that I had little to learn. Having been educated in New York and worked at the Museum of Modern Art (my spiritual home), I have long been familiar with its extensive collection of Picasso sculpture (it is second in size to that of the Musee national Picasso, Paris) and books on the artist, his sculpture and modern sculpture weight my library shelves. However, the retrospective proved a revelation. I had never been fully cognizant of the episodic nature of Picasso’s engagement with sculpture: he tended to produce work in cohesive groups united by a particular area of investigation, such that each gallery at MoMA was devoted to a different phase of his sculptural activity. These generally corresponded to his move to a new studio and to an engagement with new materials and tools, often with yet another wife or mistress as muse.
The exhibition opens in a gallery devoted to Picasso’s earliest work in three dimensions in which the artist still conceived of sculpture in terms of mass and volume. Here we find pieces located well within the Western tradition as well as the bronze Head of Fernande, which was widely exhibited and had considerable impact on Picasso’s contemporaries in the early teens, and the modest, largely unknown plaster Apple. The contours and surfaces of both the portrait head and fruit were “sliced into” and faceted in a manner akin to that seen in Picasso’s early Cubist paintings of the time, which owed to his looking at African sculpture in ethnographic museums and at the crude carvings of Paul Gauguin.
It is in the next gallery that Picasso brings you to your knees with the extent to which he stood sculptural tradition on its head. In works created between 1912 and 1915, Picasso moved away from carving and modeling to constructing sculptures out of wood and sheet metal, eliminating mass in favor of forms opened up in real space. MoMA’s own sheet metal Guitar is here as well as an assortment of wildly innovative, seemingly offhand and playful reliefs that Picasso kept for himself during his lifetime. While the Guitar‘s anthropomorphism has long been noted, an animated quality is also found in the painted, irregular polygon representing a die resting on the bottom edge of Glass, Newspaper and Dice (1914), the tiny die uncannily exuding a jaunty personality. Picasso’s ability to infuse dead matter (sculptural material and even still-life subjects) with a sense of life is among the artist’s consummate gifts.
Occupying the center of this gallery, each on its own pedestal, are the six versions of Picasso’s Glass of Absinthe (1914) gathered from assorted collections, an indisputable highlight of the show. In 1914, Picasso cast 6 bronze copies of a freestanding sculpture representing a glass of the debilitating liqueur and its accouterments from a wax original and painted each in unique fashion (one is largely unpainted). Each sculpture also incorporates an existing object–an actual absinthe spoon–nestled between the cast rectangular block of sugar and glass. (Absinthe is poured through a sugar cube resting on a slotted spoon before drinking.) Picasso used opaque bronze to render a transparent glass filled with liquid by opening its form, which he twists in a spiral (an effect exaggerated in some of the painted versions) so as to lead the viewer’s eye and body around the object, accentuating its three dimensionality.
Like Picasso’s other early work from Head of Fernande to Glass, Newspaper and Die, however, the Glass of Absinthe is strongly tied to Picasso’s investigations in painting of the time. As I am hardly the first to point out, the overall form of Glass of Absinthe is better understood by looking to MoMA’s Green Still Life (1914). In the center of this painting is the form of a glass with a swirl of liquid inside, the shadow of the glass falling on the bottle behind to create what appears to be a man’s profile. A similar pictorial device is carried over into the sculpture, a plane extending from the glass indicating both the shadow and the male profile. (The fact that elements in both the painting and sculpture are awry, evoking a drunken state, seems hardly accidental).
It was not until Picasso returned to sculptural activity after a 14 year hiatus, with a series of welded steel sculptures of 1927-31 initially motivated by his desire to design a monument to his friend Guillaume Apollinaire, that he moved from a painting-oriented conception of sculpture to truly three-dimensional concerns. For those who know of my interest in Robert Rauschenberg’s art, it will come as no surprise that many of sculptures to which I responded most strongly in this section of the exhibition and in those that follow are works that incorporate real life materials. These include the welded steel Head of a Woman (1929-30), in which the head is formed by two metal colanders, the plaster Head of a Warrior (1933), with its tennis ball eyes, and the cast bronze She-Goat (1950), whose stomach is formed by a wicker basket, the later a progenitor of Rauschenberg’s Monogram (1955-59; a taxidermically stuffed Angora goat with an automobile tire around its middle). Picasso’s Head (1958), a late wood construction consisting of a wooden box with scrap wood facial features and button eyes, which is at once ridiculously simple and charming as hell, is in turn a forefather of Mark Grotjahn’s painted, cast bronze sculptures made from found boxes and throwaway materials, like those currently on view at Anton Kern Gallery, testifying to the continued relevance of Picasso’s influence and inventions.
During the exhibition’s press preview, a photographer from The New York Times caught me with a colleague, Lewis Kachur, looking at yet another wood assemblage near the conclusion of the show (the image appeared in the Times‘ online exhibition slide show). In the photograph, Lewis is holding a tote bag prominently printed with the phrase “ART IMITATES LIFE,” which is wholly appropriate and serves as a grand coda to the Picasso Sculpture show. While Picasso’s sculptures often incorporate the stuff of life (real objects), they far more importantly are infused with the force life, “imitating” or embracing the best that life can offer: joy, wit, intellect, deep humanity, endless curiosity, a willingness to grow and change and more. The extent to which Picasso breathed life into sculpture takes the breath away.