In 1966, Paris's Petit Palais was preparing a retrospective of the work of Pablo Picasso. The exhibition would include paintings from every epoch of his career. But to the curators, it felt incomplete. Since his youth, Picasso had assembled three-dimensional objects from disparate materials as wood, wire, bronze, and refuse. But the artist had turned down every offer to show these pieces, and the works were kept in privacy. "Picasso's sculptures mainly kept Picasso company during his long hours in the studio," said MoMA curator Anne Umland.
The artist eventually relented to the Petit Palais curators, allowing them to show a selection of his sculptures, but the works have not been shown in the 49 years—until now. Yesterday, MoMA opened Picasso Sculpture, the second public showing of Picasso's three-dimensional work and the most comprehensive gathering of these works ever. Situated in the museum's 11-room, fourth-floor gallery, these works are displayed by the episodically driven periods during which Picasso created sculptural work, with each room representing a distinct period: "Early Years," "Cubist Years," "War Years," and so on.
This is the first time they've all been comprehensively put together, and it will likely be the last of such an exhibition in our lifetime. —Anne Umland, MoMA curator
"Unlike Picasso's paintings, which can be mapped as an unbroken thread, Picasso would have these windows of activity, which he would then abruptly end," said Ann Temkin, the museum's chief curator of paintings and sculptures. "And whenever he would return to sculpture his output would be dynamically different from the previous episode. It's hard to walk through the exhibition and believe you are seeing the same artist's work. There's no clear thread the whole way through."
Interestingly, the show does not start at the beginning, but at the end. On the fourth-floor landing, bathed in sunlight, the first sculptures of Picasso's that I came across were also his final, and his hand is immediately recognizable. These works of painted sheet metal included an origami-style chair; a miniature, lithe horse; a Michelin Man-like creature with outstretched arms as if to give a hug; and two prototypes of monumentally scaled works: Bust of Sylvette, a fixture of the NYU campus, and Marquette for the Richard J. Daley Center, more famously known in its park-sized incarnation as "Chicago Picasso."
In a bold curatorial move, however, MoMA has opted not to include labels for any of the 141 pieces included in the show. "We felt labels might be visually disruptive," explained Temkin. "But if people complain we can have them up in a day." (Glenn Lowry, the museum's director sitting adjacent to her, sputtered, "A day?") The risk of mis- or non-identification is dodged by a small, printed guide obtainable at the information kiosk. You can, of course, choose not to consult this. Picasso seems to have named many of his sculptures for organizational purposes alone. Given that these weren't made for the public in mind, why would Picasso even bother to give names to creations that are so visually distinct? Such was my thought when I discovered that the chair was Chair, the little horse Little Horse , and the Michelin Man? Woman with Outstretched Arms .
Once he learned the rules, of course, he immediately tried to figure out ways to break them. —Umland
Many of these objects come with intriguing backstories that are easy to miss without an audio guide. Take the six separate pieces all named Glass of Absinthe found in the "Cubist Years" room. The glasses are each topped with sugar cubes that are each dotted in different colors, touching upon the supposed psychedelic properties of the drink. But rather than make his own, Picasso laid his sugar cubes to rest upon real absinthe labels.
"The absinthe glasses were created in 1914, the same year that France banned the consumption of absinthe," explained Umland. "That was also the year WWI broke out, and Picasso's dealer was a German. His shop closed, and all the absinthe glasses except one kept by Picasso were sold off in private deals. We had a heck of time tracking them all down, but here they all are, together for the first time since Picasso had them cast." The room also includes two of Picasso's almost identical sculpted guitars, one made of metal, and one of cardboard.
"The cardboard sculpture in particular bewildered a lot of people who didn't see it as sculpture," continued Umland. "The truth was, Picasso was making things without actually knowing the rules. He was never trained as a sculptor. Which explains why the wires for strings are hooked on the rest of the body. He didn't know how to solder them on!" Then a laugh: "We actually call this the party room, since it's got music and drink."
After the outset of WWI, Picasso stopped making sculpture, instead focusing on his growing fame as a painter. The prompt for his return was a commission in 1927 to create a memorial for his friend the poet Guillaume Apollinaire, who had died of influenza at the war's end. Rather than return to familiar materials, Picasso enlisted the help of a metal sculptor, Julio González, who taught the artist how to bend and solder metal.
"One thinks of Picasso as the quintessential individual genius," observed Umland. "But he developed an intense workmanship relationship with other artists, who taught him how to use materials. Once he learned the rules, of course, he immediately tried to figure out ways to break them."
The many skeletal wire sculptures, included in the "Monument to Apollinaire" room, resemble Giacometti-like figures within geometric structures. Even from a short distance, however, it's hard to see them as more than lines. "Imagine proposing a monument that is basically made out of thin air," said Umland. None of Picasso's proposals were accepted.
I noticed a large upright assemblage standing in a secluded space in the gallery. Woman in the Garden is suggestive of its title, a seated figure seems to be pushed by a breeze as she tends to two large flowers. I wandered around her noticing the dimensional detail of the woman—no matter what angle I stood at, it seemed to be the right one. Here I felt Picasso had truly achieved a Cubist sculpture, that all perspectives were open game.
It turns out I wasn't the only one to appreciate the piece. Not long into my viewing, a TV crew walked in and set up in front of the sculpture. A TV newswoman began to speak rapidly in a Brazilian-accented Portuguese while gesturing at the work. I would encounter more TV crews, more cameras, and a horde of journalists, more than a press preview normally drew out. It dawned on me that this exhibition of Picasso's sculpture wasn't localized to New York City, that it was an international event.
"This is the first time they've all been comprehensively put together," confirmed Umland, "and it will likely be the last of such an exhibition in our lifetime."
It took me two loops to really take in everything. After the Apollinaire came a series of playful plaster busts of women's heads that, despite their bloated or mutated appearances, cast a feeling of joy at the female form—one of Picasso's favorite subjects.
Past that the lights dimmed, and we were thrust into the WWII years that Picasso lived out in Nazi-occupied Paris. As well as a lover, Picasso had a streak for defiance and dissent. One particular piece, Death Mask, a black paper skull that testifies in one bold metaphor to the horror of Nazi occupation. What is amazing is that Picasso had it cast in bronze—metals were strictly regulated by the Nazis, who plundered the material for their army, even melting preexisting artwork for ammunition—and if Picasso had been caught, he would have certainly been jailed. The skull is, then, a middle finger to Hitler.
Toward the end of the show, after a notable ceramic period at his home in Vallauris, Picasso became an increasing proficient "ragpicker," as Temkin described him.
"He made friends in Cannes and Vallauris with all the people who ran junk heaps, scrapyards, and demolition companies," she explained. "They provided his materials."
There's a crane with a spigot for a head, there's a little girl jumping rope with a wicker basket for a chest. Only the rope touches the ground. ("Picasso dreamed of a floating sculpture," noted Umland. "This is as close as he got.")
And then there are the bathers—six large wooden figures, Picasso's only multi-figurative piece made of disparate pieces of wooden, all slightly tanned and faceted in body. I wandered around them, wishing that I too were at a beach, noticing that one even had a panel hammered in his backside, with an etch for a butt-crack.
"Even at 75," said Temkin, "Picasso was just having fun with wood, hammer, and nails, making sculptures that were bigger than he was."
Picasso's final sculpture was the large abstract face that sits in Chicago. Supposedly he was offered $100,000 dollars for the commission. Picasso famously turned it down.
"It's a gift," he said. "For the people of Chicago, for everyone."
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Picasso Sculpture is on display at the Museum of Modern Art in New York through February 7, 2016.