Friday, May 1st, 2009

Pablo Picasso: Mosqueteros at Gagosian Gallery

March 26 – June 6, 2009
522 West 21st Street
New York City, 212 741 1717
Monday to Saturday, 10 – 6

Pablo Picasso Portrait de l’homme à l’épée et à la fleur 1969.  Oil on canvas, 57-1/2 x 45-1/2 inches.  cover MAY 2009: Tête d'homme du 17ème siècle de face, 1967. Oil on canvas, 25-1/2 x 21-1/2 inches. images © 2009 Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, Courtesy Gagosian Gallery
Pablo Picasso, Portrait de l’homme à l’épée et à la fleur 1969. Oil on canvas, 57-1/2 x 45-1/2 inches. images © 2009 Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, Courtesy Gagosian Gallery

Is it possible to admire the body of work unwrapped by “Pablo Picasso: Mosqueteros” at Gagosian for what it is––a heroic sowing of wild oats to the very end by an ageless, workaholic satyr––while refusing to wallow in cult-of-personality recidivism?  To judge by buzz and critical reaction, a complete rapprochement between contemporary art and its erstwhile maximum superstar has been engineered by the Gagosian machine , laying claim in the process to a nearly exhaustless market of sudden masterpieces.

Until now, the prevailing opinion has undervalued Picasso’s late work, as quantified by economist David Galensen’s hybrid analysis, Old Masters and Young Geniuses.  In his formulation (derived from an observation of Roger Fry’s), Picasso exemplifies the “conceptual” artistic innovator whose contributions diminish with age.  Cézanne would be the “experimental” exemplar who gets better over time.  Cézanne searches, perception by neurotic perception, for a truth he knows he can never find, while Picasso thinks with his gut, stakes out positions which compel others to follow, destroys painting in order to remake it again and again.  “I do not seek, I find,” he claims.  Charts of auction prices and frequency of reproduction in history books correspond, Galensen demonstrates, to typically distinct life cycles: conceptual artists peak early and experimental ones peak late.  It all gets a bit teleological when specimen artists are conveniently shoehorned into one or the other camp––e.g., if Picasso is conceptual then what is Duchamp?––but the regression-analyzed data seem robust enough to signal a distinct phenomenon.  At any rate, while Cézanne’s final Mont Sainte Victoire paintings fetch his highest prices, Picasso’s decline progressively for paintings after 1907.  Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, of that year, is the most reproduced work of 20th Century art according to Old Masters (Guernica is second); MoMA’s Mona Lisa, the Demoiselles is a fame machine within a fame machine and is literally priceless.  At the far end of the scale, Picasso’s rarely reproduced late work has commanded the smallest fraction of overall market value.

But the problem with late Picasso is real.  It has to do with his stubborn insistence on diaristic expressionism increasingly isolated from changing times.  Duchamp moved to New York, to the future, Picasso to the Mediterranean, the past.  (Try finding a single contemporary artifact depicted in these works.  No beer cans or soup cans here.)  And anyway, didn’t Warhol, finishing what Duchamp started, drive a stake of ridicule into the heart of sincerity, into merely “optical” talent?  From a postmodern point of view, Picasso’s restless hand, even at its most thrillingly uningratiating, even at its most goofy and cartoony, simply runs into a wall when it hits irony, as if trying too hard.  To an extent, you can laugh uncomfortably at the current exhibition’s musquetero/clowns with their limp swords, their Marcel Marceau flowers, but is this really the game Picasso means to play or have we been conditioned by Jim Shaw’s thrift store art, Richard Prince’s sad jokes, Kippenberger, Koons, and so on?  Picasso’s pretty girls and boys watched by old men seem rather prudish in light of sexual radicals like Aubrey Beardsley and Hans Bellmer, or even the gooey seductions of Lisa Yuskevage.  As for tapping into an unbroken stream of blood and sand descending from Minoan funeral games by way of Goya, the lonely torero staring death in the face is, surely, an existential cliché. There are Jackson Pollock paintings from around 1940 of minotaurs’ heads, homages to Picasso by way of Jung, that are so full of punishing psychic fury that the master’s versions in comparison can seem like Cotes D’Azur tourist ceramics.

Speaking of ceramics, it has been said that Picasso’s slumming in that medium prepared him for the painting-a-day speed of his final push, but if so it’s a mixed blessing, and another reason to hesitate before indulging in King Midasism.  Picasso, in his terrible, wonderful hurry to put another knot in the calendar––bunching up some of the threads of painting history while extending his dominion over another day––didn’t stop to tarry over hits or misses.  There are a going to be a fair number of the latter among the flurry, especially given his reliance on shorthand motifs.  That ubiquitous moonwoman profile glyph, which crops up often in the show, is a tip off.  I am unashamed to say that I love MoMA’s antecedent “Girl Before a Mirror,” but something about that glyph is just plain icky, fairly begging to be swallowed whole as a logo of beauty, and it reminds one of the far more cringeworthy pandering of Picasso’s warmest essays in domestic bliss.  Picasso paintings lacking in lust, paranoia, and competitiveness are usually prettified abominations.

So much is made of Picasso’s reckoning with the past in his deconstruction of Dutch and Spanish old masters, whereas the revelation of the Guggenheim’s achronistically hung 2006 exhibition, Spanish Painting from El Greco to Picasso: Time, Truth, and History was how the well-engineered salvos of Miró and Gris crisply held their own beside Goya and Velasquez, and how fresh and potent Dalí’s early work seemed.  The abundant Picassos, on the other hand, looked unintentionally out of place, undercooked in the company of their cussedly elegant forebears and rivals.  The current show takes aim more at Hals and Rembrandt, and the perverse feeling I got was that Picasso had it backwards, channeling the anguished depths of the former and the shimmering felicity of the latter.  InMousquetaire et femme à la fleur (4/18/1967) a version of a recurring lace-collared, mustachioed voyeur is scribbled with a certain self-regard.  This rote construction feels inflated in its “mastery,” conjuring the ghastly specter of Dali doodles from his pitiful decline.

Now for the good news: the current exhibition is a beautifully installed, justly scaled selection by a superb biographical advocate, John Richardson, and it delivers spleen and charisma.  An argument of rapprochement can indeed be made for late Picasso’s bearing on the renewed flourishing of bold pictorial improvisation in current painters such as Dana Schutz, Neo Rauch, Sue Williams, and Amy Sillman.  A still life of prickly flowers from 1969, for instance, makes you wonder what Picasso might have concocted had he loosed his grip on the familiarly self-contained terrain of the figure more often.  It is scathing with black whorls and stems that cut space like swords, and for once there is a dialogue between figure and ground, the glass vase refracting and congealing what passes through its lens, the scrawl of stalks grappling with the viscous, puffy ether around, behind, within.  This is something new, vintage Cubism plus hot graffiti expedience.  A neighboring room of prints pounds the point home with endless varieties of inky haste.  (The showstopper there is La Celestine from 1970, a matrix of 50 or so assorted small impressions on a single large sheet adding up to a comic book page of sorts, or a textbook on the possibilities of bitten copper;  it also recalls Gertrude Stein’s salon wall bristling with competing takes on Modernity.)

The more typical painting in the show settles for a kind of rough, porous collage that begs the question of space with sketchy aplomb.  Often he seems to be in a séance with Matisse, attempting quotations from his fond rival’s luxurious dance with pattern that feel, however, more like speedreading for the purpose of setting something decorative behind a figure, or, as in a racket-shaped patch of fabric on the Homme à la Pipe (11/7/1968), filling in a dead zone.  Still, this prevailing approach highlights the lively clash of touch, color, and attack well, and in Homme assis au fusil (9/17/1968) the stark green and white chevrons of this intergallactic warlord’s uniform stun with martial ferocity.

A couple of strong paintings that are signed with two day’s work confirm one’s suspicion that broad is not always better than deep. The Portrait de l’homme à l’épée et à la fleur, worked on in sessions 58 days apart in 1969, densifies and squeezes the sheepish figure and his loopy flower, and they push right back.  One leg juts diagonally into space with an authority Picasso rarely bothers to assert elsewhere and in the process he gets to a kind of bone-dry hyper-liquidity of light, like quicksilver.  The brilliant compression of this textural effect is hard to pin down.  Let’s say that it transmutates your eyes into psychedelic readiness, bracing for shocks by turns gorgeous or monstrous.  We see moments of this intensity in other paintings, but here it dominates.  Clearly, certain painterly options can only develop with drying time; just as much, some kinds of visions arise only from a second look.  Femme nue couchée, jouant avec un chat from 1964, also the issue of two days, is a cartoon of Manet or Titian or Ingres, the body crumpled but provisionally luxurious, the cat a deft napkin sketch.  What sets this painting above casual parody came out of the second day’s consideration, I’d wager: the whacky furrows of the face, routed into the canvas with slow curls of black and set off with a crisp Al Capp coiffure, and even more, the thick, jaggedly precise outline of a jutting hand which dangles a testicular ball of yarn.  The soft gray cat might be miles––or years––distant from that ferocious Art Brut mitt, and chilly sparks shoot from the spacetime gap.

The body of Gertrude Stein in Picasso’s 1906 portrait took ninety sittings, a Cézannian apprenticeship.  The face was solved in a day, apprenticeship over.  While one wonders what savage beauty might have arisen from picking harder at the scars had he lingered awhile in his last works, one can also admire the choice to be more Picasso than ever at the end.  Rather than a final magnum opus we inherit a thousand new loose ends.  His broad strokes resolve better at a distance, and their clashing, naked facture thrives in reproduction, to judge by an incident I witnessed: full security had to be called in to handle some novice art tourists intent on taking a souvenir snapshot of Portrait de l’homme à l’épée et à la fleur, evidently now a viral image.  Maybe Picasso was paying attention to Warhol after all, trusting to a strategy of sheer proliferation to seed the future; only a few images need achieve celebrity to buoy up the whole accumulation, and indeed, a sea change in the reception of the late work is clearly underway.  Picasso’s age-price profile in future editions of Old Masters and Young Geniuses will surely need revision.  The speculative dichotomy of the book’s title bears reappraisal as well, at least in Picasso’s redoubtable case.