Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Picasso Black and White at the Guggenheim

The Milliner's Workshop, 1926
Believe it or not, it's been 32 years since MoMA’s Pablo Picasso retrospective. In addition to the Met’s King Tut show in 1976, it was one of the first such blockbuster exhibitions as we know them, necessitating timed ticket entry, long lines, and ubiquitous tote bags. That 1980 show made such an imprint on contemporary culture’s memory that it gave us enough Picasso for a very long time. MoMA did a thoughtful 2003 examination of Picasso in relation to Matisse, and Gagosian Gallery has showcased selections from the Spaniard’s work, but until the Guggenheim’s current Picasso Black and White survey, through January 23, 2013, his work has been oddly simmering in the background.

As the title implies, the Guggenheim’s show, organized by Carmen Giménez and travelling to the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, focuses on the artist’s black, white and in-between work. It’s a smart and bracing premise for Picasso, among the most prolific modern artists both in terms of sheer quantity and genre-wise, allowing some thematic pruning. A bit of a magpie, he flitted between styles and approaches, bouncing ideas off of his peers, experimenting constantly and keeping what stuck. The show covers an astounding stretch, between 1904 and 1971, with 118 artworks, 38 of which are new to our shores. The reductive nature of many of the artworks spotlights Picasso’s genius of converting concept into representation. 

Head of a Horse, Sketch for Guernica
There are many smaller-scaled sketches. A number are of day-to-day subjects; still lifes, cats and roosters, intimate portraits. Several are studies for some of his iconic larger politically-themed canvases, including Guernica and Rape of the Sabines, isolating a detail that might get lost in the larger tumult, such as Head of a Horse, Sketch for Guernica. Some freshly-seen works are astonishing, such as The Milliner's Workshop, which bridged cubism and surrealism and parlayed the quotidian into the realm of the sublime. 

Picasso's great output meant that he produced a lot of mediocre stuff while running through the checklist of the 20th-century's styles. But his named is equated with genius for a reason. This show refreshes an appreciation of how revolutionary and inventive he truly was, before the time of tote bags.  

Photos: The Milliner’s Workshop (Atelier de la modiste), Paris, January 1926. Oil on canvas, 172 x 256 cm. 
Musée national d’art moderne/Centre de création industrielle, Centre Pompidou, Paris, Gift of the artist, 1947. © 2012 Estate of Pablo Picasso/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo: CNAC/MNAM/Dist. Réunion des Musées Nationaux/Art Resource, NY

Head of a Horse, Sketch for Guernica (Tête de cheval, étude pour Guernica), Grands-Augustins, Paris, May 2, 1937. Oil on canvas, 65 x 92 cm. Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid, Bequest of the artist. © 2012 Estate of Pablo Picasso/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo: © Archivo fotográfico Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid

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