Saturday, May 1st, 2004

Picasso: The Berggruen Album

May 3-June 26, 2004
Mitchell-Innes & Nash
1018 Madison Avenue, New York NY 10021

Pablo Picasso Album: Two Men and a Woman, 5.11.70 1970 pen and ink with felt pen on paper, 9-3/8 x 12-5/8 inches Courtesay Mitchell-Innes & Nash
Pablo Picasso, Album: Two Men and a Woman, 5.11.70 1970 pen and ink with felt pen on paper, 9-3/8 x 12-5/8 inches Courtesay Mitchell-Innes & Nash

It’s safe to say that no artist has been so over-exposed as Picasso. It isn’t simply the seemingly countless exhibitions and critical studies; his styles (all of them!) have so thoroughly infiltrated popular culture that no one thinks twice about the Picassoid typefaces in travel posters or the Picasso doves on hand-woven rugs from Mexican villages.

This makes it pretty difficult for any presentation of his work to seem new. Yet, to a surprising extent, “Picasso: The Berggruen Album” does just that. It helps that none of the 26 drawings have been publicly exhibited before this year. But the real novelty of the exhibition lies in the story that connects the drawings. They represent the entire contents of a sketchbook that Picasso filled over the course of eight days in 1970, in his ninetieth year. Acquired by collector Heinz Berggruen, the drawings were exhibited this March in San Francisco at the John Berggruen Gallery. (John Berggruen is the son of Heinz.) Currently lining Mitchell-Innes & Nash’s dimly lit walls, the drawings-all about nine by twelve inches, all horizontal-present a provocative, compressed capsule of the energy of a great master in his twilight years.

Most of the drawings were executed in pen and ink, but on some days Picasso added ink washes or switched to pencil. Taking these works in one by one amounts to a lesson in a kind of drawing, and it reminds us why Picasso so dominated much of the last century. While the theatrics of the artist’s late paintings often seem heavy-handed and rehearsed-they’re practically parodies of his earlier, stronger paintings-the supple tautness and invention in these drawings often lend an astonishing power to the images we’ve come to expect from Picasso: nude women in erotic poses, with leering, hairy male faces often intruding from the edges.

“Man and Woman,” dated November 9, shows off the expansive, muscular rhythms particularly well. Despite (or, really, partly because of) the distortions of scale and placement, Picasso gives a riveting energy to the gestures of the two figures: the weighty, bicycling legs of the female figure anchor the long, steady stretch of her torso towards an upper corner, from where her head twists suddenly back; the male figure becomes, through some brilliant act of artifice, a bundle of horizontally compressed forms, one meaty arm groping above the female figure and one below, with the face darting in-between to plant-almost-a kiss (or lick?) on a taut midpoint of her back. In the telling, the scene sounds faintly ridiculous-it is, as sheer narrative-and yet the authority of rhythm makes the forms compelling. Who ever caught more vividly and economically the dance of pursuer and fleer, and the criss-crossing trajectories of appetite and flirtation? Other modern artists worked in this idiom of spare pen-and-ink arabesques (Calder and Ellsworth Kelly come to mind), but never equaling this electricity of tightening and releasing contours, of focus and interval.
Other notable drawings from November 9 include a series of paired female nudes variously reclining and dancing or leaping, their gestures mirroring or opposing each other in dynamic fashion, limbs and breasts swelling through space in restless contradiction of the flatness of their arabesques. Ink washes in drawings from November 10 add a richness of atmosphere to the proceedings, but also dilute the galvanizing spareness of line; for me, these images become vulnerable to Picasso’s often schmaltzy imagery-in this case, an intrusion of the broad-hatted musketeers that he favored at the time. A November 6 pencil drawing features planes of filigreed patterns that might be a nod to Matisse. (Picasso called such effects “un peu Matisse,” according to John Richardson’s illuminating catalogue essay, though the aggressive instability of Picasso’s design actually gives the sketch a much different flavor. Perhaps no painter so completely melded machismo and artistic facility as Picasso, and while even Matisse’s most rigorous drawings seem to long for their consummation in color, Picasso’s, like Rembrandt’s and Seurat’s, can make color seem almost redundant.)

It must be said that watching Picasso at work may be something like observing Barry Bonds at batting practice. The mastery astounds, but there’s not necessarily much suspense. Or perhaps a better comparison would be to the more voluble Reggie Jackson, whose famous musing about “the magnitude of me” broadcasts the same apparently unconflicted hugeness of ego.

This publicness of ego does gnaw at one’s enjoyment of the work. Picasso assumes our rapt attention every time he steps to the plate. While he claimed that he habitually dated every work by the month and day in order to understand his own creativity, one can’t help wondering: isn’t it really so we can’t avoid monitoring it, too? The nifty catalogue, which re-creates the effect of the original spiral bound pad, reveals that not a single drawing here has an image on the reverse; they’re exhibition-friendly (unlike Rembrandt drawings, which often grace both sides of sheets that the master stored tucked into books for his own private purposes.)

The catalogue essay takes a rather kind view of Picasso’s frolicking narcissism, but many viewers may be put off another manifestation of Picasso’s ego. His unabashed sexual predatoriness suffuses the exhibition. In some drawings, women absently lift legs with the only discernible purpose of exposing genitalia. It can be fascinating to guess whether an artist’s images are drawn from life or imagination-the giveaway tends to be in the particularity of detail-and Richardson suggests that Picasso’s wife Jacqueline may have amicably posed for some of these drawings. In any event the faces tend to be anonymously classical, while the sex organs are loci of attention; if these are portraits, they’re not portraits of faces. The final three drawings (in both the sketchbook and the exhibition) feature the same vacantly staring model, identically posed except for the area below her waist. In the first, it’s covered by a bit of fabric. In the second, genitalia are exposed. In the third, hands cover the crotch. The three states of woman, Picasso-style?

Picasso probably didn’t consider such drawings to be confessional self-indictments or political statements. More likely he viewed them as morsels of universal poetic truths. Having spent a lifetime Picasso-fying everything from ancient Greek figures and African sculptures to Velazquez and Delacroix, it had become for him a reflexive act. But so great is his genius at energizing lines on a surface that his drawings usually prevail over the clich├ęs of their own prurience. To put it another way, much as his motifs served to focus his energy, and his Bacchanalian pose to give him cover, it was the vigor of his line that really makes such works remarkable.

John Berger believed that Picasso started to fail once he’d exhausted his stock of motifs. But banalities of theme apart, the drawings in the Berggruen album reveal not the slightest faltering of mind or hand in an eighty-nine year old. In that same “Man and Woman” drawing, Picasso at one point briskly limned the contour of the male’s forearm, and then, apparently without lifting pen, swerved to incise a distant section of the horizon line. It’s a horizon line that, seen in total, jags up and down crazily, placing one male foot at a enormous distance, while crowding a female one close to our viewpoint, and yet acting as perfect energizing foil to the figures’ roiling gestures. Was Picasso showing off? The answer, of course, is that he never stopped showing off.

To wish for a modest Picasso, however, is to wish for no Picasso at all, and perhaps even to wish away what he helped so much to create: the modern mythology of the artist as contrarian genius, that urbane bohemian who, part soothsayer, part rapscallion, makes us march to his different drummer. Picasso ended up catering to our laziest impressions of art history and wowing us with his sheer virtuosity of attack, as if he never really trusted our response anyway. But perhaps he underestimated his public. Go see this bite-sized sampling of a giant at Mitchell-Innes & Nash, just to treat yourself to some great drawings, and to remind yourself of why we’ll always talk about Picasso.