A Textbook Case of Modernism

John Haber
in New York City

Picasso and American Art

Did you know that Picasso influenced American art? Honest.

If this sounds like the lead for an awfully naive review, one might be running on TV right now. I caught something like it within twenty minutes of writing my own. "Picasso and American Art" has probably drawn more camera crews to the Whitney than any show in its history. After so many years, this man's name is still magic. But has that magic always lit up America? If not, how how and when did it begin?

Oh, that Picasso

Without question, the Whitney could have used the idea as an excuse for fund raising and little more. It allows Modernism's biggest draw to enter a museum of American art, when the man himself never managed to visit America. Wall labels reproduce further work unable to travel. One can expect to see the usual masterpieces, go home happy, and wake up the next day oblivious. Roy Lichtenstein's Girl with Beach Ball III (National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1977)

What, then, shall I make of a show focused on seven American artists, starting with Max Weber, including John Graham, and ending with Pop Art? What about beginning the Picasso selections with a little-known, nearly abstract drawing? It does not sound like a blockbuster, and I could feel defenders of good taste cringing even before a pan in The New York Times.

Rather than pandering, or at least merely pandering, the Whitney has produced something serious—in fact, something much like a textbook. That means solid research and thoughtful comparisons, as if on facing pages. It means a canonical history of American art during the course of Picasso's lifetime.

It describes exactly when American artists saw exactly what. One puzzles over Stuart Davis as he slowly digests Synthetic Cubism without quite getting ready yet to have fun. One encounters Louise Bourgeois without her marble phallus as she leaves an epic Picasso retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, "Forty Years of His Art," and cannot paint again for two months. One sees Jackson Pollock, unable to get Guernica or Girl Before a Mirror out of his head, or Arshile Gorky, clinging to still life like Picasso's for ten years. The show ends on Jasper Johns, sifting through shadowy motifs from Johns's old age, as one artist comes to grips with Modernism's and his own.

It draws on works that I thought I might never see—or at least never see again after the Modern's even greater Picasso retrospective a generation ago. A preposterously large-breasted seated woman, from 1913, makes Fernando Botero tame and humorless by comparison. I had never seen Pink Angel, in which Willem de Kooning borrows a curve or two while making the electric yellow and pink canvas look already torn to shreds. At Pollock's own retrospective, drips overshadowed his Portrait and a Dream. Here it dominates a wall. A painful expanse of canvas separates swirling black bodies from a densely color face, and one hardly dares decide which to call a dream.

Textbooks, however, have their weaknesses, especially up on museum walls. I learned more about Modernism than I expected, went home happy indeed, and woke up the next morning asking wistfully what the show leaves out. Maybe that, too, pays tribute to Picasso's productive art, so far beyond just Guernica and Picasso in black and white. It just may leave his relevance today as slippery as ever.

The seven Russian aviators

Art history often imagines influence as a game of telephone. Even before Postmodernism and appropriation, things got interesting. A steals from B, who steals from C, who steals from . . . , until truth to an original vanishes into thin air. Pablo Picasso arrived in America more like the Marx brother's three Russian aviators, again and again—or not at all. As you remember, they kept getting halfway across the Atlantic, forgot the gas or the plane, and finally gave up and took the steamship. Somehow, however, Picasso kept flying.

To chart his influence, the Whitney documents every one of his landings. Weber, along with Man Ray, visited Picasso's studio in Paris in 1908, which helps explain why Weber dwells first on the massive, "primitive" figures and almost misses the breakthrough to Cubism entirely. Alfred Stieglitz displayed that nearly abstract drawing I mention in 1911, as part of Picasso's first exhibition in America. Of course, the big shock came with the 1913 Armory Show. There New York had to remember someone else's take on Cubism—in Marcel Duchamp and Nude Descending a Staircase.

Picasso's art made plenty of other appearances, including at the Brooklyn Museum in 1921, Guernica in 1939, and "Forty Years of His Art" at the Modern that same year. With that show, Alfred Barr defined both a modern art museum and its canon. Girl Before a Mirror graces the cover of Barr's 1946 update, Picasso: Fifty Years of His Art, and naturally MoMA's postwar rooms cannot get enough of Pollock.

One can see the Whitney trying, ever so gently, to shake American art free of Barr's narrative. It gives one room to a partial recreation of the Whitney Studio Club, which held its own Picasso exhibition in 1923. The room covers Synthetic Cubism's decorative overload, with just a hint of what came before and after. It left me wondering what would have happened had America seen more of Analytic Cubism first. Would it have knocked realism out of the box and modernized American art thirty years sooner. Would it have muted American art for good?

As a second part of the story, the Whitney considers Picasso's influence on individuals. If listing all those exhibitions sounds pedantic, pointing out individual responses sounds just plain silly. Who did not acknowledge modern art, and what in modern art does not go back to Picasso? The curators, Michael FitzGerald and Dana Miller, may not have found a solution, but at least they have an alibi. Picasso's art may live on, but the show quits with his death. The curators also allow a range of individual responses, such as Bourgeois's haunting and surprising figure in a landscape. Mostly, however, they narrow things to eight artists, counting Picasso, as textbook cases.

Max Weber plays the same role as in his lifetime, the semi-official American Cubist. Davis acts as the one prewar American who surely did get Modernism right, and John Graham serves again as the chide telling the 1930s that they should. Gorky, too, taught and nurtured others, while sticking to that still-life formula to the point of earning derision. Pollock and de Kooning appear because choosing one over the other invites way too many boring critical essays. In midcareer, Roy Lichtenstein applies his cartoon style to free reworking of late Picasso. Johns delves into Picasso for buried memories, like a psychoanalyst, a patient, or perhaps a scholar himself.

Anxieties of influence

Obviously Picasso means different things to different artists—or to the same artist at different moments. Some artists, such as Graham and Gorky, felt the influence as progressive and yet stultifying all at the same time. The thick crust of oil on Gorky's work of the time could well stand for weight he had not yet lifted from his shoulders.

Weber makes Cubism look academic before its time. Just once, however, it sets free the rhythms of New York. Chinese Restaurant substitutes colored paint for collage, as it squashes a Picasso tabletop right to the floor. I always misremember it as Chinese Restaurant Syndrome.

For others, one can see multiple influences over time. The more Davis finds himself, the more he picks up something about Picasso. Discovering Picasso rids him of nineteenth-century models. At first the zigs and zags of Cubism burden him with what amount to design constraints. Only slowly, mostly after his contribution to this show stops, do Picasso's bits of newsprint lead him to scraps from mass culture. At last the energy level and humor of twentieth-century America come to life.

Although de Kooning grapples with older artists all his life, he happily lets them ricochet off one another. Pollock sees motifs and ambitions akin to his own, while Lichtenstein and Johns prefer motifs they could not own. The Whitney notes that Johns starts borrowing only after he had made a career.

Sometimes A does become B become C, especially after the downtown scene gets into gear. As one exits the room for the Studio Club exhibition, New York artists get to talk to one another again. The exhibition includes Picasso's 1923 Woman in White, with its Neoclassicism, unfinished canvas, and seeming erasures. I could see the connection to standing figures by Gorky and de Kooning, as well as to enigma of Picasso drawings from the time. Mostly, however, I saw two visually daring and emotionally reticent portraits by close friends, and they gain in stature and enigma by hanging together.

A particularly messy Pollock may not derive from Picasso. Mostly, however, the crust reminds me of Gorky. A photo shows a drip painting in its earliest stage, and the Whitney argues that a Cubist grid guides it to its ultimate destination. I might have said that Pollock never loses touch with either impulse or structure. He stops when both become fully palpable and visible.

Stopping cold

Even when the wall labels do not have one looking at photographs, the show can remind one of textbook reproductions. It covers so much ground that the concept of influence actually becomes harder to pin down. It cannot give context within the full course of an artist's career, not even Picasso's. It cannot explore how Modernism first came to America in person, thanks to Duchamp and others during World War I. Picasso did not join them.

Conversely, given its focus on eight major artists, all of them male, it invests heavily in authenticity and originality as well as influence. A more direct trace of Man Ray, Duchamp, and Dada could have made consideration of all that more challenging—and even more fun. The other artists would have to appear less as side notes and more as part of the dialogue. I enjoyed when a Picasso sculpture inspires David Smith. The empty head of twin, badly aligned colanders makes leaves Smith in the dust. Perhaps the holes allow influence to leak out.

The exhibition has to omit other direct influences than Picasso's, but that can distort consideration of his as well. One cannot see Modernism elsewhere in Stieglitz's circle, as for Georgia O'Keeffe or Oscar Bluemner, with their sparer forms and spiritual intimations. One cannot see what Henri Matisse or European tradition more broadly meant to de Kooning. One cannot sort out how America handled Surrealism and Cubism, especially since Picasso had his hands in both. One cannot feel the modernist blow on the head that Pollock received from Lee Krasner and, via Krasner, from Hans Hoffman. Picasso back then had many intermediaries and many meanings.

Again like a textbook, the exhibition tends to reduce influence to recognizable motifs and styles. In the process, it may reduce Modernism as well. It ends with Pop quotation, but surely by then a visitor already sees Picasso as the painter of weeping faces and raging bulls. The show needs limits to survive, but it cannot let other ideas surface often. Next to the first Picasso, one catches a Stieglitz photograph, the dark grid of urban architecture. For a moment, one glimpses a whole other view of Cubism, as the two- and three-dimensional space of modernity.

An emphasis on direct quotation sidesteps interesting questions that the show itself raises. Should one see the course of American Modernism, from Weber to Lichtenstein, as a passage from commitment to appropriation? Did Modernism therefore phase itself out just when Picasso died—and Picasso and Matisse could finally end their rivalry? If the show continued through today, would Picasso's influence remain relevant. If so, would it still seem modern? If not, would he seem greater than ever?

A good show has to make art look good while raising good questions, and this one does, but it rarely stopped me in my tracks. I love puzzling out revelation and anonymity in late Johns, but I wanted more like a less-heralded aside. In a case, next to Johns's cast bronze beer cans, the Whitney places Picasso's Absinthe Glass, with its sculpted, painted sugar cube and real strainer. For once, the dizzying echoes of reality, representation, appropriation, and influence startled me, and any notion of a linear canon vanished in an alcoholic haze. I left the 1980 Picasso retrospective exhausted, as if emerging from a high fever. I left this one ready to curl up with a good book.

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"Picasso and American Art" ran at "The Whitney Museum of American Art through January 28, 2007.


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