Picasso Sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art, New York
September 14, 2015–February 07, 2016
11 West 53rd Street, between Fifth and Sixth avenues
New York City, moma.org
In this edited exchange of emails, artcritical’s David Cohen expected — and received — multiple insights into MoMA’s unparalleled exhibition, Picasso Sculpture. The three practioners on his panel, Alain Kirili, Michelle Segre and Rebecca Smith, are sculptors of markedly distinct aesthetic outlooks but one thing they share is that they work very directly in materials whose intrinsic qualities are integral to their final result. A maker’s perspective permeates the discussion that follows. At the time of this exchange last month, Segre was the subject of a solo exhibition at Derek Eller Gallery, Kirili was taking part in two-person exhibitions at Art Omi (with James Siena) and at Hionas Gallery (with Bobbie Oliver), and large-scale works by Smith and her father, David Smith, had recently been installed together in a year-long display at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond, in the museum’s atrium (through March 1, 2016).
A wonderful thing about Picasso as a sculptor is that we are not looking at three-dimensional equivalents to images resolved already in what we take to be the master narrative, his paintings, but rather a viable, fully-fledged parallel career. If Picasso had only made sculptures, and predominantly those on view at MoMA, he would still be one of the giants of Modern Art.
At the very least, the sculptures hold their own to his painted and drawn imagery—even if his turns to sculpture are episodic. Regarding episodes, each process/material is like a new chapter, generating phases in his sculpture career analogous to the (arguably quaint, if not sexist) division of his oeuvre into “epochs” defined by his female partners! Of course, we might want to argue that divisions of the oeuvre by medium are moot: that any medium contains the DNA of the artist, and that his protean creativity is better divided by time than stuff, and that in a given moment he would express himself through whichever medium made sense and was to hand. But that is to miss a vital point in Picasso, the profound importance of the resistance of materials and processes, and not just their fluency.
The Surrealist writer André Breton famously dubbed Picasso a “creator of tragic toys for adults”. I don’t know if that characterization works especially well for his sculpture necessarily, but in the sculpture we definitely have a sense of serious play. We experience the artist at his most technically inventive, not just in terms of wizardry but also in the directness of his response to materials. Without implying indifference to the physicality of paint in his paintings, maybe a degree of novelty of, say, plaster or steel or ceramic brings out a child-like marvel and whimsicality in his sculptural inventions. Do you all agree?
Picasso was always inserting the story he wanted to tell regardless of the observable reality. In two-dimensional works he showed the profile of the nose, the full mouth, and both ears, for instance, attempting to do in a flat medium what sculpture can do — that is, describing the head in the round. But he goes further with sculpture, adding “distortions” that tell a story different from the real. In the amazing Cat made during World War II he juts out a rib on one side, communicating motion by showing the form of the Cat turning to one side, though the predominant posture is straight, stepping ahead, perhaps stalking. That’s how Picasso puts time into sculpture. This happens also with the Death’s Head of the same period in which the facets of the skull reveal themselves seemingly at slightly different speeds and with different relationships to the description of the subject. There is the full frontal effect of the face, but one side is thinner and bends in towards the profile view. When it proceeds to the several rounded facets of the skull, they drop off from looking head-shaped and look more like an abstract form. The skull was very convincing as a human remnant from the frontal view, but became less so from other views — perhaps the artist suggesting a rock that had never been animate — or possibly retreating from a grisly subject by mutating into an abstract form. David mentioned the importance of working directly with materials; the agility and layered meaning in these sculptures happen by thinking with your hands and your head at the same time.
Anne Umland and Ann Temkin have succeeded in a beautiful and rare installation for a sculpture exhibition: seeing all the sculpture in the round we can appreciate the circumvolution within each work. Truth be told, most curators are afraid of sculpture so they put them up against the wall, flattening them.
Picasso was protean and had a real love for diversity. It feels particularly present in his sculpture because he was free from dogmatic formalism and technical know how. At times, he could even create sculpture conceptually, employing the best craftsmen to execute the pieces for him.
MoMA’s show represents all the different materials Picasso used to amazing effect. But I would say that I regret that Head of Woman (1934) is over exposed in a way that flattens and whitens the concrete, with a loss of gravitas. I could feel this major sculpture much better in its original setting at the Musée Picasso of Antibes where interior lighting brings out contrast and density of material.
I was partly raised in the South of France and I did run into Picasso at Madoura in the 1960s. I also enjoyed seeing the sculpture Man with the Lamb on top of a base in the middle of Vallauris, at the market place where farmers would come and leave a cup of coffee or vegetables at the base of the sculpture as if it were an offering, part of a cult for life. Pierre Daix once wrote to me in a letter that Picasso would have liked to see this sculpture in a public setting “accessible to children and dogs”.
My wife, Ariane Lopez-Huici and I have one of Picasso’s bronze sculptures in Woman (1945) series in our collection. We keep it with prints from the Vollard Suite in our bedroom. It is one where he puts pressure with his thumb into clay to represent a head, something that I’m reminded of in the details in my own forged pieces. MoMA’s sculpture show really reveals in depth that Picasso is about solar incarnation, where Eros fights and wins against Thanatos: the way Ariane and I strive to be, consistently, in our art and life.
I would say that the success of the show owes a lot to the exceptionally generous loans from the Picasso Museum in Paris. This show reflects a very fruitful and great cooperation between these institutions. Before the creation of the Picasso Museum and the publication of Werner Spies’s volume, “Pablo Picasso: The Sculptures”, a large portion of Picasso’s work in sculpture was neglected by the general public. I always knew that Picasso as a sculptor was the best-kept secret in 20th century art!
I wanted to mention that while we all know that Picasso’s art was influenced by African sculpture, I hadn’t known that he saw African and Oceanic art during his earliest sculpture-making days and in fact collected it. Matisse, Picasso and their generation of artists were perhaps the first to integrate African and Oceanic art into their sensibilities and practices — no one more so than Picasso. Did any other European artist comprehend, appreciate and integrate the art of another culture into his practice so fully and at such an early date as Picasso?
Pcasso’s 1914 Guitar (ferrous sheet metal and wire) is for me his most important sculpture. It is tremendously compelling in several distinct ways. It opens up a constructed object into its separate layers, splaying them out like turning pages in a book. He pushes collage, recently invented by Braque, into the more three-dimensional manifestation of constructed sculpture. Apart from extending the forms of sculpture, this work addresses itself to the viewer in a unique way, phenomenologically. One experiences the simultaneity of object recognition and its opposite — the abstract exploration of its forms. It announces itself as a guitar then seduces you into the exploration of its busy surface, curves, shifting rectangular planes, and rivets you with a dark circle in its center. Most of what you experience visually has nothing to do with a guitar. The sheet metal and wire are so thin and fragile, the velvety surface almost tangible, that they almost belie their physicality. Yet the presence of many deep shadows insist you are looking at an object. This work opens the door to Jasper Johns’s green and orange American flag; David Smith’s burnished stainless steel surfaces; any art object that does one thing and “says” another.
The 1914 Guitar, the Absinthe edition, Guitar (Paris, 1924), the black-and-white painted Head (Paris, October, 1928) the late folded sheet-metal works are parts of a stream of assemblage works that played with illusionism in sculpture. This is another aspect of Picasso’s extending the sculptural language by adding on what painting does. Picasso opened up the space of reliefs into what for me is an extremely rich place that many artists work in today with an enormous range of expression. Composition with Glove, 1930, is made up of a tableau of real objects attached to the back of a stretched canvas over a wooden frame. The objects are unified with a coat of sand painted predominantly white with a little light blue. The sandy surface recalls the presence of color (rust red in the case of Guitar) and both share an overall finely-textured surface. And like that sculpture, Composition with Glove denies its apparent identity (as a painting) and declares itself something else —a sculptural assemblage. It is the literalization of image-making in that it gives you the objects behind the flat, imaginary window of the painting plane. Still within the frame of the picture, the tableau of real things exists as object and picture — most especially the hand of the artist (i.e., the glove). There is a feeling of fullness, richness and integration about this artwork. The real object co-exits with illusion and metaphor. It overflows the shallow space of the stretched canvas — it comes in through the back door, so to speak. It breaks the imaginary space of the stretched canvas painting and renders it a sculpture, stuffing it with real things.
This Picasso show really did feel like a rare treat. It’s already unusual to see any major sculpture shows in museums, probably for the physical threat Alain mentions, which is ironic, since our human environment is so full of “objects” and “bodies,” and then the physicality and materiality of this show is like a welcome punch in the face. Picasso’s ability to project a kind of hyper energy in his work can be quite thrilling and I think in his sculptures in particular there is a sense of freedom, and even joy, like someone working outside the constraints of a program. The combination of his lack of formal training in sculpture, and his incredible resourcefulness at self-teaching and exploiting the knowledge and technical prowess of others, as well as literally seeming to devour materials and techniques to get his visions realized…all these things contribute to the power of the work. I was struck by how often he went back and forth between skinny line and flat planes, and bulbous, fat blobs, mirroring the trajectory of his paintings. But the kinds of distortions and flattening of space and form that he invented in his painting, when carried over into sculpture, have a different kind of relationship to the real world in that they are objects competing in an environment in the round– unlike the paintings, that set up a formal presentation of an illusion of an object, the sculptures are in fact objects that occupy their environment, so they have a kind of earth-bound connection that feels very organic, even as he is playing with pictorial issues. Rebecca, you touched on this aspect of his work too…I like your description of experiencing the guitar piece.
I’d like to say something more about the general issue of sculpture and what I call the expressive impulses: the graphic, the chromatic, the plastic. Picasso is a great gamesman, and also of course inveterately restless. I used to have a secret theory that – counter to his actual development or career path – he was first and foremost a sculptor, and that painting, for which he is of course best known and celebrated, is, in a renewed one-man paragone debate, the subservient medium. What this show is making me think about is the possibility that he is actually a constant subverter of medium: in painting he is often drawing or sculpting, and his painterliness – the visceral enjoyment of paint, the scumbling, the scatological aspect of smear – is essentially haptic; but then when he is actually sculpting there is so much that is actually painterly: the absinthe glasses, individually colored, essentially make of the edition a 3D print, but also the post-war flat steel pieces, sensationally displayed at the entrance to the show, become supports for graphic or painterly marks. Should we be thinking of him simply as an unbounded creator indifferent to the boundaries of medium, or as playing an active with (against) medium definitions and boundaries?
I would love to hear more about the skull. It was done during World War II of course — and to have it cast in bronze was illegal because it was against the war effort — so there you have art sabotaging warfare!
I also thought the man with the lamb was about the war experience. Picasso said it wasn’t the Lamb of God but I can’t believe that in a Catholic country in those days a work by a Catholic could use a lamb in this way and not having it to be about sacrifice and a symbol of Jesus, the Prince of Peace. Here is a man who is cradling a stricken symbol of peace, the animal is crying out, and he is stolidly standing there holding this burden — expressionless, almost faceless, and he has no penis. I can imagine feeling impotent living during wartime in an occupied country.
You are absolutely right about the illegal context of his creation and his status as a degenerate artist in that time. The sculpture, Death’s Head (1941) is a bomb. That’s the way it reads in Brassaï’s photograph. Picasso is a fighter, a terrorist in some very profound way. Robert Capa photographed Picasso with Death’s Head in his hand.
Death’s Head is much bigger than a human skull, and it had another purpose and meaning: to me, Death’s Head needs to be viewed as extremely dangerous, like some sort of grenade. Spanish artists love skulls but with Picasso it is not melancholic but rather a weapon of massive destruction, which is heavy and solid. I am not an art historian, but what I can offer is personal testimony as an artist. The work of Picasso is deeply autobiographical and we feel it so well in this show. His different loves appear at each step of his life and his art, here in his sculptures Fernande, Dora Maar, Marie-Thérèse, Sylvette.
But David, to pick up on your question: For me Picasso’s art and each sculpture are revealing signs of my own evolution through time, sexually, and emotionally. With Picasso sexual desire is present until the end of his life: he spoke about that matter with Brassaï in a New York Times interview in 1971: “we always think about it even if we don’t do it”. And elsewhere in the same interview: “Whenever I see you, my first impulse is to reach in my pocket to offer you a cigarette, even though I know very well that neither of us smoke any longer. Age has forced us to give up but the desire remains. It’s the same thing with making love. We don’t do it any more, but the desire for it is still with us.”
At the same time, Simone de Beauvoir was the first to write on the subject of old age as pariah in our western society in her book “La Vieillesse”. Picasso treats that subject constantly with gusto and immense drive for creation, even when the old king turns into a voyeur. This is the trajectory from Les Demoiselles d’Avignon of his youth to the bacchanals of the king/voyeur particularly focused on the female sex. On one of his white sheet metal sculptures, the female sex and its hair are drawn with the flame of a torch that cuts into the surface of metal.
His granddaughter Diana Widmaier-Picasso wrote a fantastic book on the eroticism of her grandfather: “Picasso: Art Can Only Be Erotic” (2005). Picasso’s Boisgeloup period is so celebratory of sexuality. These monumental heads of Marie-Thérèse transform the nose and eyes into sexual attributes in a way that is just amazing! I remember when Beyeler and Reinhold Hold exhibited a show of 20th century sculptures in Riehen, Switzerland (the show included my own work), the Jeannette heads bronze series by Matisse were placed in confrontation with the Boisgeloup heads. What a great moment of art and of sculpture in that century.
The models of this sculpture are in the show and the enlargement is nearby in MOMA’s garden. It is a rare experience of a successful enlargement, which is rare in sculpture. We have to keep in mind another very successful enlargement and interpretation by the betograve concrete sculptor Carl Nesjar of the Bust of Sylvette in cement (at 36 feet high, it weighs in at 60 tons!). Nesjar produced 30 works of Picasso on a monumental scale, including the Head at Princeton University. It would have been a good idea, in my opinion, if MoMA had included as a suggested itinerary of the monumental sculptures for which they have maquettes in the show.
I wanted to respond to what David said about Picasso’s way of bringing in sculpture when he’s painting and vice versa. You bring up the question of motivation; I don’t think Picasso is oblivious to the boundaries of medium, or even that he is deliberately “subverting”. It seems to me that he is blending because these boundaries came down for him and why? Is it because he absorbed African art so fully that it seemed natural to paint sculpture and add materials like sand fiber to paint? That’s part of it but there is also the way technology was changing the world. His blending of two and three dimensions is accomplished in a more realized way than traditional relief at the time of a technological revolution — the telegraph, photography, telephone, film. Rosalind Krauss has written about Picasso’s work in relation to film. Space was conquered by technology, spewing images everywhere. This seems to me to be the underlying change that blurred the boundaries.
I feel that I have occupied a place that blends two and three dimensions for almost my whole art-making life. Even when I purposely undertook the project of making three-dimensional sculpture — a body of work consisting of large, bulbous plaster sculptures built around globelike armatures — I added the pigment to the plaster and dripped it like thick paint. It wound up being very painterly sculpture. An early body of work was two-sided, painted reliefs that basically offered alternate views that were never either flat or in the round. I have found different ways of manifesting that sense of art-making space ever since. While constructed as an object or sculpture it also partakes of painting space, a metaphorical space, window, page of text, electronic screen. We are looking in and looking at.
What I find very successful in the show is the great selection of small sculptures. For instance, the whole group of small glazed earthenware from 1947, the terracotta Standing Woman (1945), and the tinted foundry plaster Standing Woman (also 1945) are great examples of the subtle distinction in materials that Picasso did appreciate. In addition, knowing that a number of those sculptures exist in bronze, I regret that we did not see any of the bronzes.
Of course, I am an admirer of the very linear work by Picasso and the nice series of studies for the monument to Guillaume Apollinaire, Figure (1928). It pleases me very much because we can see various ways to express the head or hands. But most of all I, of course, really like Figure (1931) in iron and iron wire, materials Picasso used very early on because he could work it “cold”, in other words by hand and without heavy equipment.
I would like to highlight the term Werner Spies coined as “The Encyclopedic Sculpture”, which are sculptures from the 50s that use a huge diversity of objects for an assemblage-sculpture: The she-goat in bronze is really beautiful, but the stage before in plaster is extraordinary and that is true for all the other sculptures by Picasso for that time. It would have been fantastic to have a number of them to fully appreciate how Picasso could go from a stage of heterogeneity of material to the unifying version in bronze.
But those remarks are in no way a critique of the show. On the contrary, it proves that the show is so exciting that we want to express all the possibilities to celebrate the most autobiographical and protean artist of our time.
The question of subversiveness is an interesting one in Picasso. On one hand his work can be emotionally neutral and formally analytical. The coolness (temperature) is very seductively off-set by the sensuality of the artist’s touch. On the other hand, he has a psychologically heavy side to his work that uses distortion and caricature to bring in emotion in a frozen, theatrical display. There’s often a comic, absurd aspect…I’m thinking of those crazy plaster heads, so proud and strong in their stature and yet profoundly ugly—mutated, spastic body parts with sexualized noses and butts for cheeks. The welded pieces from the Julio Gonzales days also play with this kind of re-imagining of human form– the figure becomes a giant, mechanical insect with precariously balanced limbs and extensions. This kind of dismantling of one’s expectations of what the human figure looks like feels so fresh and contemporary, it could have been made by a young artist working today. Certainly this qualifies as subversive for its time in the sense that it is intentionally turning topsy-turvy any traditional, academic approach to the human form (or animal or plant, etc), and I can’t imagine that he didn’t know he was doing this! The influence of African and Oceanic art is huge here and I think Picasso looked at this work and found a way to sublimate emotion into the destruction and re-arrangement of the figure. At the same time this supposedly intentional subversion appears to be coming so naturally and unforced, like someone who is exploring every vision coming to their head in the mechanics of inventing. This is part of Picasso’s appeal—that he seems to just do whatever the fuck he wants!