Picasso Sculpture review – a dumbfounding triumph

This thrilling exhibition resets Picasso to get a new age.  In three sizes, the artist shocks Contemporary art — such as Theseus, like Jesus Christ — has just two fathers.


Dad No 1, arrogant and priapic, is Pablo Picasso: 

that the  Spaniard that (with his friend Braque) violently broke the principles of representation and abandoned 500 years’ worth of western artistic tradition in his wake.  

Dad No two, understated and suave, is Marcel Duchamp: 

theFrenchman who bestowed regular objects together with the status of sculptures, and erased the boundary between art and life.  Picasso has the most significant oeuvre from the canon, with more than 20,000 works to his title; Duchamp has the smallest. Picasso needed your heart, Duchamp your mind.  

Art history requires both, of course.  However, the story of this past 50 years is one in which Picasso, once modern art’s eldest father figure, has had to accept joint paternity with Duchamp — and recently has seemed to be losing custody entirely.   

The latter’s irony and ideation undergird almost all  Contemporary artwork, while Picasso’s acts of bigheaded genius can sense passé. The result is evident among young artists, and young critics also: I’ve crossed oceans to see Duchamp exhibitions, while for Picasso I occasionally struggle to get on the subway.  www.surewin365.com

So the Best compliment I could pay to the display  Picasso Sculpture — a dumbfounding triumph that opens a week in the Museum of Modern Art in New York — is that it has made even mea dyed-in-the-wool Duchampian, right into a raving Picassoid.  In two dimensions Picasso is so familiar that you can settle into habit.   

This show recasts and revalorises Picasso, especially at his Dubious later decades, since the exhibition corkscrews out of”primitivist” totems into cubist explosions to near-pornographic plasters into bad-mannered bronzes. The functions are endlessly surprising, sometimes bracingly and thrillingly ugly, and wittier by far than their complements on paper or canvas.  They reset Picasso for a new era: an age whose artists forgot how much he can still teach us.  

He’s a painter first.  Picasso had no training as a sculptor, And didn’t even have a sculpture studio before he had been in his 50s.  Nor did he trace sculptural progress of this day.   

The development of Cubism, and a few early sculptures here evince Picasso’s deep love of non-western figuration: a 1908 walnut totem has the dimensions of a west African energy figure, while a woozily imbalanced mind is carved of beech and recalls Pacific statuary.  

The First works here feel safer than the paintings and Drawings Picasso was making between 1907 and 1911, starting with all the twisted Demoiselles d’Avignon (on perspective right upstairs from this series ) and operating through his analytic cubist headscratchers.  Then, in 1912–13, comes the thunderclap.

Picasso begins experimenting with cardboard, arranging pieces of the humble material into a sort of guitar.   However, where western sculpture was an act of subtracting using a chisel or awl, Picasso’s guitar is formed, revolutionarily, by incorporating bits together.   

And where bas-reliefs pose one standpoint, Half of the body is absent, and the sound-hole has been transformed from an absence to some protruding cylinder. The front and back soundboards do not line up.  The body and the emptiness are one, simulation is buried and dead, and sculpture will never be the same.  

In this show we see both the initial cardboard variant and a Later metal case, and both display not just the faceted compositional style recognizable from his painting, but also the force along with the stateliness of their African achievements Picasso learned from.

They look in the second gallery of this large show, and here you’ll also find the exhibit’s greatest coup — his absinthe glasses of 1914, made in an edition of six and reunited here for the first time since.   

These small, syncopated works are marvels of transubstantiation:

The liquid from the glasses becomes solid shape, while the translucent glass is rendered into opaque brown or even red and blue speckles. Each is topped with a true absinthe spoon, also:  a wink at his modern collages. Then the first world war intervenes.

No sculpture out of 1915 to 1927.  When Picasso returns to three dimensions, he has moved into a multiplicity of media and also a multiplicity of styles.  Wiry, iron drawings-in-space stand beside flowing, biomorphic bronzes.   

His slaphappy Woman in the Garden, from 1929-30, welds thin Rods and panels of white-painted iron into a sparking assemblage that, from several angles, seem like a hysterical chicken.   

Ahead of the war, Picasso was inquiring What is a sculpture?

Interrogating the medium with the identical rigour he attracted to his painterly experiments.  After the war, and for the rest of his lifetime, he barely cares about sculpture as a medium per se.  The sculpture studio (he gets one at last in 1930) becomes a free zone, a place for much wider, more rampant experimentation than the easel.  

Those people on team Duchamp can get very huffy about this

Later Picasso, and I have never had much use due to their boundless Velázquez quotes and garish 1960s nudes.  A lot of the later sculpture, too, is straight-up awful. The worst are the bronzes from the 1950s, of a woman skipping rope or a girl having a bottlecap-faced baby in a pram, are almost glamorized.   

Extended tail and a face composed, no joke, from a toy automobile. Yet unlike in the high-stakes realm of contemporary painting, where Picasso’s greedy late swerve can get you down, in the somewhat rocky terrain of sculpture even the bombs feel rewarding.  They are the product of an artist that still, that late in the game, was figuring out precisely what he wanted to perform.

And over and above, Picasso kept hitting the heights even as He got lost.  You will find the lascivious plaster busts of his mistress Marie-Thérèse Walter, astounding things in which noses turn into phalluses.

There are the semiotic riddles of the war years: 

The Magnificent bull’s head made from a bicycle seat and handlebars, and a burner by a gas stove flipped 90 degrees, like a standing figure.   

(It is the closest Picasso ever got into a Duchampian Readymade, though the title, The Venus of Gas, turns it to a paleolithic fertility goddess.  Along with the associations together with all the stoves burning everywhere in Europe till 1945 are unshakable.)  

Earthenware vases indebted to Minoan pottery have an unexpected Humility, as do late, good wooden bathers, flat totems whose bodies have been shaped, in two instances, from empty image frames.  

This is the most Important exhibition of Picasso’s Sculpture because the artist’s death in 1973, and many works here have never been seen in the USA before.   

(More than a third comes from the Musée Picasso in Paris — Recently surfaced, though not before some significant personnel upheaval.)   

Tremendous loans, most importantly the absinthe glasses, and have created numerous shrewd calls on demonstration.  The series is set up, remarkably, on MoMA’s fourth floor: 

  • Temkin and Umland have flushed off the entire postwar permanent collection to make the most of its smaller galleries and reduced ceilings.  
  • They’ve placed everything except the wall reliefs in the Midst of these galleries, so you can observe each function in the round.  
  • Best and Bravest of all, the curators have omitted wall text for individual functions: it’s Only you and the sculpture, in a space that feels like a new museum.  A new Museum that has discovered a new Picasso.