February 2016


Picasso Sculpture
Museum of Modern Art, New York
September 14, 2015 - February 7, 2016

Picasso's Sculpture

Much Ado about Very Little

by Michelle Marder Kamhi

The comprehensive retrospective Picasso Sculpture, recently closed at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, elicited rapturous proclamations from prominent critics during its run. In the eyes of New York Times critic Roberta Smith ("Picasso, Completely Himself in 3 Dimensions," New York Times, September 10, 2015), for example, it was not merely "great" but a "work of art" in its own right. It even prompted some art lovers to travel considerable distances to see it. A visitor I happened to talk with at the show told me her brother planned to fly down from Canada just for that purpose.

Despite the exhibition's exhaustive and exhausting scope (141 works spanning six decades of the artist's life), the bottom line for me was a net loss. For all his abundantly evident cleverness and invention, Picasso left me with a largely empty feeling. There was almost nothing I could connect with on an emotional level--other than in some cases a measure of disgust.

The show's "greatest coup," according to The Guardian's "dyed-in-the-wool Duchampian" critic, was reuniting all six versions of Picasso's Glass of Absinthe [more]--each of which incorporates an actual absinthe spoon. Much ado about very little either in size or substance, to my mind. But perhaps I needed to be high on absinthe to fully appreciate these psychedelically cubist distortions.

Next in line for critical kudos were five monumental plaster heads of Picasso's hapless mistress Marie-Thérèse Walter (e.g., Bust of a Woman [more]). These grotesque phallic-nosed sculptures were very likely among the pieces that The Guardian's critic found "bracingly and thrillingly ugly." They struck me as sickeningly repulsive (the natural human response to anything ugly) --the more so, when I considered the lovely young woman who inspired them. If Picasso had ever submitted to psychotherapy, these works surely would have provided rich fodder for his shrink. In that connection, it is worth citing psychiatrist Carl Jung's view that a side of Picasso was "fatefully drawn into the dark," following "not the accepted ideals of goodness and beauty, but the demoniacal attraction of ugliness."

Non-human animals fared a bit better in Picasso's three-dimensional oeuvre. And it was in works such as She-Goat that I found the few pleasures the show afforded me. In that captivating assemblage (incorporating elements as disparate as a wicker basket, palm leaf, and ceramic flowerpots), Picasso managed to embody the essence of a pregnant goat. Most tellingly, in contrast with his vastly overrated Bull's Head [more], one can lose sight of the assemblage's components to engage with the object represented. Equally effective for me in this regard was his Crane. And some pieces of decorative art with animal motifs, such as his Owl (Vase) with a fetchingly egg-shaped body, were also delightful.

The concluding gallery included two sheet-metal sculptures that have served as models for major public pieces. Sylvette--a cubist deconstruction inspired by the living beauty of Sylvette David, a young woman engaged to one of Picasso's neighbors on the Côte d'Azur--has been loosely reincarnated in cement [more] on the grounds of New York University. (I'm reminded here of art historian Wilhelm Worringer's theory that abstraction is driven by an impulse to distance oneself from reality and thereby seem to control it. Was that perhaps a factor in the psychology of this piece by an aging artist, recently abandoned by his longtime mistress Françoise Gilot, and besotted by the loveliness of a neighbor's fiancée?)

The other sheet-metal work in question, Maquette for Richard J. Daley center Sculpture, gave rise to this urban monstrosity in the heart of Chicago. Though the Daley piece is said to have become one of Chicago's "beloved icons," I suspect that its popularity owes more to Picasso's fame and its utility as an unintended jungle gym (visitors reportedly use the work's base as a slide!) than to its esthetic attributes.

In the end, I exited from this highly touted exhibition wondering if the vast majority of works in it would have gained anyone's attention were it not for the Picasso brand name and its attendant aura of "genius."