MOMA’s Phenomenal Picasso Sculpture Exhibition – Images and Texts


“Picasso Sculpture,” a show at the Museum of Modern Art of nearly a hundred and fifty works by the definitive artist of the twentieth century, always figured to impress. It turns out to astound. I came away from the exhibits, which date from 1902 to 1964, convinced that Picasso was more naturally a sculptor than a painter, though all his training and early experience, and by far most of his prodigious energy, went into painting. He made mere hundreds of three-dimensional works, in episodic bunches, amid a ceaseless torrent of about four and a half thousand paintings. When moved to mold, carve, or assemble, he sometimes borrowed artist friends’ studios and tools and enlisted their collaboration—most notably, starting in 1928, with Julio González, who worked in iron. Picasso could be feckless about the standards of the craft. (The director of the ceramics workshop in Vallauris, where, in the late forties, Picasso took up the medium of fired clay, noted that any apprentice who went about things as the artist did would never be hired.) But, because Picasso was an amateur—nearly a hobbyist—in sculpture, it revealed the core predilections of his genius starkly, without the dizzying subtleties of his painting but true to its essence. At this magnificent show, curated by Ann Temkin and Anne Umland, I began to imagine the artist’s pictures as steamrolled sculpture. Most of his paintings conjure space that is cunningly fitted to the images that inhabit it. When the space becomes real, the dynamic jolts.

The show’s first gallery features the best known and, instructively, the least successful of Picasso’s early forays into the medium: “Head of a Woman” (1909), a bronze, cast from clay, which is complexly rumpled, in the manner of incipient Cubism. The work fails because the energetic surface articulation bears no organic relation to the head’s sullen mass; it amounts to a wraparound relief. The piece is a painter’s folly, which Picasso did not repeat (except with the similarly hapless plaster “Apple,” of the same year), even as its style vastly influenced such subsequent sculptors as the futurist Umberto Boccioni. (No innovation of Picasso’s was too tangential to spawn a modern-art cliché.) Picasso put sculpture aside for a few years, then returned to it as an extension of his breakthroughs, with Georges Braque, in the revolutionary aesthetics of collage. Two versions of the large, wall-hung “Guitar” (1912-14)—the first in cardboard, paper, and string; the second in sheet metal and wire—did for sculpture something of what Picasso had already done for painting: they turned it inside out. The term “negative space,” for the air that he let into the anatomized musical instrument, doesn’t suffice to describe the effect. The voids register as active forms, which the shapes passively accommodate. No longer set apart from the world, forward-looking art after “Guitar” adds the world to its inventory.

Then came the most talismanic of modern bibelots: “Glass of Absinthe” (1914), a small bronze of a cubistically fissured, ridged, and whorled vessel with, atop it, a filigreed metal spoon bearing a bronze sugar cube. Picasso created it the same year that the liquor was banned in France, in the mistaken belief that it made people crazy. (It was really just fancied by people who were prone to craziness.) All six casts of the work, from as many collections, are convened here for the first time since their creation. Each incorporates a differently designed spoon and is differently slathered or dappled with paint. The brushwork, especially in sprightly dot patterns, blurs the objects’ contours, rendering them approximate in ways that wittily invoke intoxication. But these are true sculptures, as judged by the essential test that they function in the round. Circle them. Each shift in viewpoint discovers a distinct formal configuration and image. Picasso here steps into the history of the art that, in order to move a viewer, requires a viewer to move. The best of his other Cubism-related works, such as “Still Life” (1914), which fringes a tipped shelf with upholstery tassels, run to assembled and painted reliefs, like pop-up pictures. Their dance of everyday stuff with august form—reality marrying representation—has never ceased to inspire generations of visual hybridists, from Kurt Schwitters to Robert Rauschenberg and Rachel Harrison, and it never will. But these works mainly harvested ideas from Picasso’s painting. His attention to sculpture lapsed again, until 1927.

Picasso’s creations in plaster, wood, and metal between that banner year and the mid-thirties belong in the first rank of sculpture since ancient times. Most are massy: female forms that can seem swollen to the point of bursting, or tumescent and writhing with sexual abandon. A glory of the show is the number of works rendered in fragile plaster, straight from the artist’s hand; he rarely paid much attention to the surface quality of the final bronzes, which tend to be dull. His initial masterworks of the period, made with González, are open networks of thin iron rods, vaguely suggesting jungle gyms, which gave rise to the somewhat misleading catchphrase “drawing in space,” coined by Picasso’s dealer, Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler. More truly, the rectangular arrays encage space. They yield an image—coalescing into a kind of drawing, of a geometrically abstracted figure—when viewed from either end. That’s delightful. But the wonder of the works is their appearance from other angles: the image pulled apart, accordion fashion, to drink in the ambient air. Again, emptiness becomes substance.

Notice, incidentally, how the rods meet the bases. As always, when a Picasso sculpture rests on more than one point each footing conveys a specific weight and tension, like the precisely gauged step of a ballerina. It presses down or strains upward in a way that gives otherwise inexplicable animation to the forms above. Few other sculptors play so acutely with gravity. David Smith is one. Another is Alberto Giacometti, whom Picasso befriended, admired, and mightily affected. Works in this show directly anticipate Giacometti’s skinny figures and even, by a few months, his classic, harrowing “Woman with Her Throat Cut” (1932).

Of the scores of pieces that merit lengthy discussion, I’ll cite one: “Woman with Vase” (1933), a bronze of a plaster sculpture that, cast in cement, accompanied “Guernica” at the Spanish Pavilion of the World’s Fair in Paris, in 1937. She stands more than seven feet tall, with a bulbous head, breasts, and belly, on spindly legs. Her left arm is missing, as if ripped off. Her right arm extends far forward, clutching a tall vase. Seen from the side, the gesture suggests a tender offering. Viewed head on, it delivers a startling, knockout punch. What isn’t this work about? It conjoins Iberian antiquity and Parisian modernity, love and loss, hope and anger, celebration and mourning. Another bronze cast of it stands at Picasso’s tomb, in the Château de Vauvenargues, as a memorial and, perhaps, as a master key to the secrets of his art. Certainly, it overshadows the somewhat indulgent—and, now and then, plain silly—sculptural creations of his later years, such as the gewgaw-elaborated bronze “Little Girl Jumping Rope” (1950). Exceptions from that time include a stunning selection of his riffs on ceramic vessels, lively bent-metal maquettes for public art, and a group of six “Bathers” from 1956: flat figures, one almost nine feet tall, made of scrap wood and standing in a shared, beachlike bed of pebbles. Its éclat might well sink the hearts of contemporary installation artists.

The herky-jerky intermittence of Picasso’s involvement with sculpture might seem an obstacle to a reconsideration of his achievement, but it proves to be a boon. Each generation looks at Picasso in its own way. This show gives us a Picasso for an age of cascading uncertainties. The story it tells is messier than the period-by-period, not to mention mistress-by-mistress, narratives of the past. Instead, each piece finds the artist in a moment of decision, adventuring beyond his absolute command of pictorial aesthetics into physical and social space, where everything is in flux and in question. We are in Picasso’s studio, looking over his shoulder, and wondering, along with him, What about this? 

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peter schjeldahl

Peter Schjeldahl has been a staff writer at The New Yorker since 1998 and is the magazine’s art critic.


Art & Design
Review: Picasso, Completely Himself in 3 Dimensions


SEPT. 10, 2015
Picasso’s “Woman With Hat,” made of painted sheet metal in the early 1960s, is in “Picasso Sculpture” at the Museum of Modern Art. Credit 2015 Estate of Pablo Picasso/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, Philip Greenberg for The New York Times




“Still Life With Guitar,” 1912.


“Standing Bull,” 1947 or 1948.


“Bust of a Woman” in the gallery Boisgeloup Sculpture Studio, 1930-32.


Many exhibitions are good, some are great and a very few are tantamount to works of art in their own right — for their clarity, lyricism and accumulative wisdom.

The Museum of Modern Art’s staggering “Picasso Sculpture” is in the third category. Large, ambitious and unavoidably, dizzyingly peripatetic, this is a once-in-a-lifetime event. It sustains its vision through a ring of 11 grand spaces on the museum’s fourth floor, tracing the serial genre-bending forays into three dimensions wrought by this 20th-century titan of painting. Each bout lasted a few years and was different from the one before, and each has been given its own gallery, more or less.

With one stunning exception — the voluptuous saturnine Marie-Thérèse Walter — the women in Picasso’s life don’t herald stylistic changes in the round as they tend to on canvas. In sculpture, the materials become the muses.

The show, which opens on Monday, is the latest in a string of landmark Pablo Picasso exhibitions for which the Modern has been justly famous since 1939. It is full of loans that perhaps only this museum has the clout to secure, including about 50 pieces from its collaborator, the Musée Picasso in Paris. The approximately 140 sculptures here were made between 1902 and 1964; encompass at least 10 media — among them wood, plaster, sheet metal, clay, beach-smoothed pebbles — and, in assemblage, all manner of found objects great and small. The galleries are dotted with works never before exhibited in New York, and reunite related efforts not seen together since they were in Picasso’s studio.

The show’s two grandest, most thrilling reunions are the gathering in its second gallery of all six “Glass of Absinthe” sculptures of 1914, those tiny weirdly Keatonesque charmers of painted bronze that can suggest drunken faces and profiles; and in its fourth, the five monumental tumescent heads in white plaster of Marie-Thérèse, more than have ever been shown together, at least in the United States. Seen from the vantage point of the absinthe glasses, the first Marie-Thérèse bust looms in the distance, as if at the end of a garden.

High points aside, there hasn’t been a Picasso sculpture survey of this scope in this country since 1967. That’s when the first large exhibition of sculpture that Picasso ever permitted reached the Modern after incarnations in London and Paris. He kept his sculptures close, like family, and none closer than the great plasters, which were apparently absent from the ’67 presentation. He lived among great jumbles of them from the 1930s on, as attested by the photographs that Brassai took in the artist’s studios between 1932 and 1945. Two dozen Brassai images line a small gallery here, adding to the show’s ricocheting cross-references and insights.

Credit2015 Estate of Pablo Picasso/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, Philip Greenberg for The New York Times

Like its predecessor, this exhibition raises the question of whether Picasso was a better sculptor or painter. It’s a tough call. In each medium, he disrupted art with a track-switching masterpiece: In painting there is the vehement “Demoiselles d’Avignon” of 1907, on view in the fifth-floor galleries, one of the central pylons on which he and Braque erected Cubism. And he did art perhaps an even greater favor with the boxy constructed wall piece “Guitar” — a 1914 work that initiates modern sculpture by establishing space itself — hollowness, volume, weightlessness — as one of its primary materials.


Picasso was more completely himself in three dimensions: a magician, a magpie genius, a comedic entertainer and a tinkerer with superb reflexes. His many gifts — versatility, voraciousness, a need for constant reinvention — are more sharply apparent in real space and tangible materials. We can’t miss his consummate grasp of tactility and form or of the potential for found objects and materials to lead double lives. Screws could be legs of a girl reading a book. A spigot could be the crest of a crane whose body and tail feathers were once the head of a shovel. A small flat-faced deity carved from a scrap of wood is reddened and rubbed until it looks like ancient terra cotta.
“Glass of Absinthe,” 1914. Credit 2015 Estate of Pablo Picasso/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, Philip Greenberg for The New York Times

With the exception of cast bronze, which he seems not to have cared for, Picasso never met a material he couldn’t subdue, exalt and transform at the same time, nor come across an idea in other art — whether ancient or contemporary — that he could not use. There’s no wasted motion, not an extra grain of matter, just a supreme economy. Even pedestrian pieces have redeeming aspects. The inexplicably beloved bronze “Man With a Lamb” of 1943 may strike you as the best Leonard Baskin ever, or maybe a monument to John Cleese, but the big clumsy hands with which the man grasps the struggling creature are extraordinary. And, in fact, Picasso mastered bronze when he personalized it by painting it, as he had with the absinthe glasses.

That’s just one way he brought painting with him to sculpture. In the show’s eighth gallery, covering 1945 to 1953, he paints with glaze on ceramic vessels in the shape of figures and animals, on bronze casts of assemblages, including the shovel-backed “Crane,” and on a woman and toddler cobbled together from flimsy scraps of lumber that might be a work by an outsider artist. Here also, he makes monstrous assemblage flowers for a ceramic pot and a watering can from wood, metal and crockery shards ingeniously stuck together with plaster and painted. Their bristling energy and yellow colors suggest a homage to van Gogh’s sunflowers. And then, in the same time span, he goes tiny and smooth, incising stunning little faces on impeccably chosen beach pebbles, out-Kleeing Paul Klee with a little Cycladic thrown in for good measure.

Picasso’s constant motion is much more apparent, and maybe more fruitful, in sculpture. In the show’s opening gallery, which covers 1902 to 1909, we see him first in capable thrall to Gauguin with a pint-size unfired clay rendering of an old seated woman, whose sensitive face is clearer in a Brassai photograph later in the show. But soon come the double jolts of Iberian and African sculpture, evidenced by a scary little wood idol, carved from what once seems to have been a table leg painted green. Its furious black eyes are the heads of tiny screws.

He also always cut his losses. In this first gallery, the 1909 bronze “Head of a Woman” is powerful as ever, but also more clearly one of the great dead ends in early modernism: a futile attempt to bring the flickering facets of Analytical Cubism, and Cézanne into three dimensions. The future of sculpture lay with Braque’s innovation, Cubist collage.

Goaded by African art, Picasso then arrived at the groundbreaking “Guitar” by coaxing collage’s flat clean shapes into three dimensions. This mirage of hovering planes, voids and shadows in sheets of cutout, darkly rusted ferrous iron is simultaneously a mask, a body and a musical instrument. In addition to breaking open sculptural space, it made self-evident structure almost de rigueur. Next to it hangs its crucial dry run, an exact but radiant replica in creamy paper and paperboard. They preside over the absinthe glass bronzes like proud parents.
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Because of an editing error, an earlier version of a picture caption with this review misidentified the gallery in which “Bust of a Woman” is displayed. It is the Boisgeloup Sculpture Studio, 1930-32, not the Monument to Apollinaire, 1927-1931.

“Picasso Sculpture” opens Monday and runs through Feb. 7 at the Museum of Modern Art; 212-708-9400,

A version of this review appears in print on September 11, 2015, on page C21 of the New York edition with the headline: Picasso in 3-D. Order Reprints| Today’s Paper|Subscribe



‘Picasso Sculpture’ Review: A Master’s Genius, in 3-D at the Museum of Modern Art

Picasso rarely hesitated to sell his paintings, but he treasured his sculptures as if they were members of his family.

New York

Almost 50 years have passed since a major exhibition of Picasso’s sculpture appeared in the U.S. The one that just opened at the Museum of Modern Art will be a revelation to everyone who sees it.

‘Woman in the Garden’ (1929-30), by Picasso ENLARGE
‘Woman in the Garden’ (1929-30), by Picasso Photo: Estate of Pablo Picasso/ARS, New York

Despite Picasso’s fame, his sculpture is one of the best-kept secrets of 20th-century art. Trained as a painter, he rarely hesitated to sell his paintings, but he treasured his sculptures as if they were members of his family and did not agree to a full-scale exhibition of them until 1966, when he was 85.

Picasso’s approach to sculpture differed from that of most of the leading sculptors of his time, such as Alberto Giacometti or Henri Matisse, who cast many of their works in editions of multiple copies for sale. Except for his late, large-scale works, Picasso kept most of his sculptures as unique objects, or cast a single example for his own collection. He hoarded the unique works and peopled his studios and homes with them. Only after his death in 1973 did these sculptures become visible as a part of the collection of the Musée National Picasso in Paris. Even then, the cramped spaces of that historic building prevented successful display of the sculptures.

While paintings can be reproduced with mind-bending precision, a sculptural object must be seen directly to be understood. The curators of “Picasso Sculpture,” Ann Temkin and Anne Umland for MoMA and Virginie Perdrisot for the Musée National Picasso, have presented viewers with a remarkable gift. MoMA has cleared one of its suites of permanent collection galleries so that it can devote 22,000 square feet to the exhibition—twice the space used for the huge show of Matisse’s cut-outs. This exceptional generosity allows each of the 141 sculptures in the exhibition to rest in splendid isolation. Even when crowds fill the galleries, visitors will be able to circulate freely among the sculptures and discern the crucial differences that emerge as the objects are examined from multiple perspectives.

Picasso’s phenomenal creativity is as evident in his sculpture as it is in his paintings and graphics, yet his sculptural imagination stemmed from two fundamental approaches: one based on mass, and the other on planes. Building objects with layers of clay or plaster is deeply rooted in the history of sculpture, so it is not surprising that Picasso first employed that method. “The Jester” (1905), a modeled bronze bust, joins the tradition of the great 19th-century sculptor Auguste Rodin. Over his long career, Picasso transformed this essentially realist art with invented anatomies, such as the metamorphic masses of the series of women’s heads he made in his Boisgeloup studio (1931) and the macabrely disfigured “Death’s Head” (1941), a memento of the Nazi occupation of Paris.

Picasso’s ‘Baboon and Young’ (October 1951).
Picasso’s ‘Baboon and Young’ (October 1951). Photo: Estate of Pablo Picasso/ARS, NY

For all the physical presence of these sculptures, Picasso’s greatest contributions to the medium lay in the plane. The crossroad was “Head of a Woman” (1909), whose solid form is split by angular cavities and protrusions. But the revolution came with “Still Life With Guitar,” which he made from paper in 1912 and two years later built in a sheet-metal version (the two hang side-by-side in the exhibition). By constructing objects from sheets of paper or metal, Picasso upended tradition. Instead of dense forms, sculpture became a play of structured voids. Instead of a fixed mass, it became articulated space that opened to the surrounding environment. Instead of portraying people, sculpture became an art of things. The progeny of the “Guitar” range across 20th-century art and encompass the installation art so ubiquitous today.

Perhaps even more important, Picasso’s use of common materials immersed his art in the everyday world and broke down boundaries between art and life. Soon he began building works from reclaimed bits of wood, metal and found objects. He crossed the border between painting and sculpture by treating his objects as canvases for colors in works such as the fringe-trimmed “Still Life” (1914). As Picasso said, his goal was to “trick the mind,” rather than simply fool the eye.

Picasso’s creative process never segregated sculpture from painting or any other medium. Nonetheless, MoMA’s segmentation of his production not only allows the museum to showcase these little-known objects, it also highlights issues of Picasso’s career that are most clearly defined in sculpture.

The Picasso who emerges in this exhibition is far from the stereotypes of individualism and self-expression that still largely define popular opinions of his art. Instead we find an artist intent on collaboration and seriously engaging issues of public art.

Two of the finest galleries in the exhibition display the works that set him on this dual course: the airy wire constructions of 1928 that treat space as a palpable entity and the imposing assemblages of cut and found metals, especially “Woman in the Garden” (1929-30), both made with Julio González. All stem from a commission to commemorate his great friend, the poet and critic Guillaume Apollinaire, and all seek to communicate to everyone Apollinaire’s sweeping, multifarious imagination.

In the final decades of his life, Picasso’s drive to create large-scale public works led to collaborations with everyone from metal fabricators to concrete casters and blasters, and culminated in the monumental head (1967) of Cor-Ten steel that stands in Daley Plaza in Chicago. The delicate maquettes for these sculptures included in the exhibition are fitting descendants of the flimsy paper guitar he made more than 50 years earlier.

Mr. FitzGerald teaches the history of modern and contemporary art at Trinity College, Hartford, Conn.




Picasso Sculpture review – a dumbfounding triumph

With its pornographic plasters and bad-mannered bronzes, this thrilling exhibition resets Picasso for a new era. In three dimensions, the artist shocks

Picasso Sculpture
Picasso’s She-Goat, 1950. Photograph: © 2015 Estate of Pablo Picasso/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Modern art – like Theseus, like Jesus Christ – has two fathers. Dad No 1, arrogant and priapic, is Pablo Picasso: the Spaniard who (with his buddy Braque) violently broke the rules of representation and left 500 years’ worth of western artistic convention in his wake. Dad No 2, understated and suave, is Marcel Duchamp: the Frenchman who bestowed everyday objects with the status of sculptures, and erased the boundary between art and life. Picasso has the largest oeuvre in the modernist canon, with more than 20,000 works to his name; Duchamp has the smallest. Picasso wanted your heart, Duchamp your head.

Art history needs both, of course. But the story of the last 50 years is one in which Picasso, once modern art’s undisputed father figure, has had to accept joint paternity with Duchamp – and lately has seemed to be losing custody altogether. The latter’s irony and ideation undergird almost all of contemporary art, while Picasso’s acts of bigheaded genius can feel passé. The effect is evident among young artists, and young critics too: I have crossed oceans to see Duchamp exhibitions, while for Picasso I sometimes struggle to get on the subway.

Picasso Sculpture
Head of a Warrior, 1933. Photograph: © 2015 Estate of Pablo Picasso/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

So the greatest compliment I can pay to the exhibition Picasso Sculpture – a dumbfounding triumph that opens next week at the Museum of Modern Art in New York – is that it has made even me, a dyed-in-the-wool Duchampian, into a raving Picassoid. In two dimensions Picasso is so familiar that you can settle into habit. In three, Picasso shocks. This show recasts and revalorises Picasso, especially in his dubious later years, as the exhibition corkscrews from “primitivist” totems to cubist explosions to near-pornographic plasters to bad-mannered bronzes. The works are endlessly surprising, sometimes bracingly and thrillingly ugly, and wittier by far than their complements on canvas or paper. They reset Picasso for a new era: an era 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 until he was in his 50s. Nor did he follow sculptural developments of the day. What he did care for, early in his career, were African and Oceanic sculptures, which he encountered day after day in the fusty galleries of Paris’s Musée d’Ethnographie du Trocadéro. African sculpture’s bold, stylised forms were integral to the development of Cubism, and some early sculptures here evince Picasso’s deep love of non-western figuration: a 1908 oak totem has the dimensions of a west African power figure, while a woozily imbalanced head is carved of beech and recalls Pacific statuary.

Picasso Sculpture
Guitar, 1924. Photograph: © 2015 Estate of Pablo Picasso/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

The earliest works here feel safer than the paintings and drawings Picasso was making between 1907 and 1911, starting with the twisted Demoiselles d’Avignon (on view right upstairs from this show) and running through his analytical cubist headscratchers. Then, in 1912–13, comes the thunderclap. Picasso starts experimenting with cardboard, arranging pieces of the humble material into a sort of guitar. It’s mounted on the wall and protrudes only slightly, like a bas-relief. But where western sculpture had been an act of subtracting with a chisel or awl, Picasso’s guitar is formed, revolutionarily, by adding pieces together. And where bas-reliefs present a single perspective, Picasso’s guitar has gone haywire. Half of the body is absent, and the sound-hole has been transformed from an absence to a protruding cylinder. The front and back soundboards don’t line up. The body and the void are one, simulation is dead and buried, and sculpture will never be the same.

In this show we see both the initial cardboard variant and a later metal example, and both display not only the faceted compositional style familiar from his painting, but also the force and the stateliness of the African achievements Picasso learned from. They appear in the second gallery of this large show, and here you’ll also find the exhibition’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 in the glasses becomes solid form, while the transparent glass is rendered into opaque brown or even red and blue speckles. Each is topped with a real absinthe spoon, too: a wink at his contemporary collages.

Picasso Sculpture
Glass of Absinthe, 1914. Photograph: © 2015 Estate of Pablo Picasso/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Then the first world war intervenes. No sculpture from 1915 to 1927. When Picasso returns to three dimensions, he’s moved into a multiplicity of media and 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, look like a hysterical chicken. Before the war, Picasso was asking What is a sculpture?, interrogating the medium with the same rigour he brought to his painterly experiments. After the war, and for the rest of his life, 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 even broader, more uncontrolled experimentation than the easel.

Those of us on team Duchamp can get very huffy about this later Picasso, and I have never had much use for his endless Velázquez quotations and garish 1960s nudes. Much of the later sculpture, too, is straight-up awful. The worst are the bronzes from the 1950s, of a girl skipping rope or a woman pushing a bottlecap-faced baby in a pram, are almost comically tasteless. There’s a squat, pockmarked bronze of a baboon with an extended tail and a face composed, no joke, from a toy car. Yet unlike in the high-stakes realm of modern painting, where Picasso’s egotistical late swerve can get you down, in the somewhat freer terrain of sculpture even the bombs feel worthwhile. They’re the product of an artist who still, that late in the game, was figuring out just what he wanted to do.

Picasso Sculpture
Baboon and Young, 1951. Photograph: © 2015 Estate of Pablo Picasso/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

And over and over, Picasso kept hitting the heights even as he got lost. There are 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 glorious bull’s head made from a bicycle seat and handlebars, and a burner from a gas stove flipped 90 degrees, like a standing figure. (It’s the closest Picasso ever got to a Duchampian readymade, though the title, The Venus of Gas, turns it into a paleolithic fertility goddess. And the associations with the stoves burning elsewhere in Europe until 1945 are unshakable.) Earthenware vases indebted to Minoan pottery have an unexpected humility, as do late, great wooden bathers, flat totems whose bodies are formed, in two cases, from empty picture frames.

This is the most significant exhibition of Picasso’s sculpture since the artist’s death in 1973, and many works here have never been seen in the United States before. (More than a third comes from the Musée Picasso in Paris – newly reopened, though not before some major personnel upheaval.) The curators, Ann Temkin and Anne Umland, have bagged some astounding loans, most importantly the absinthe glasses, and have made numerous shrewd calls on presentation. The show is installed, unusually, on MoMA’s fourth floor: Temkin and Umland have flushed away the entire postwar permanent collection to take advantage of its smaller galleries and lower ceilings. They’ve placed everything except the wall reliefs in the middle of the galleries, so you can see each work in the round. Best and bravest of all, the curators have omitted wall text for individual works: it’s just you and the sculpture, in a space that feels like a new museum. A new museum that has unearthed a new Picasso.



MoMA’s ‘Picasso Sculpture’ Retrospective Is a Revelatory, Witty Triumph


“Picasso Sculpture,” now at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, is by turns staggering, intimate, revelatory, radiant, witty, and leisurely paced. Spanning a 60-year period, the show features 140 works, both large and small, reed thin and exaggeratedly rotund, that were cast in bronze, welded in iron, modeled in plaster, carved in wood, folded from sheet metal, and assembled from all sorts of flotsam and jetsam. Ordinarily, museumgoers gasp over paintings executed by this protean artist during his astonishing 80-year career. This time you’re going to hear a lot of oohs and aahs in front of his inventive three-dimensional works. Only the third retrospective ever devoted to Picasso’s sculpture, it is spaciously installed in the permanent collection galleries on the fourth floor.

Pablo Picasso, Guitar, 1924, Paris, painted sheet metal, painted tin box, and iron wire, 43¾" × 25" × 10½". ©2015 ESTATE OF PABLO PICASSO/ARTISTS RIGHTS SOCIETY (ARS), NEW YORK/MUSÉE NATIONAL PICASSO, PARIS

Every room tells a different story. The show opens in 1902, when Picasso was 21 and living in Barcelona. He’d already been to Paris and was about to return there. At art school in Madrid, he had become familiar with the touchstones of Greek statuary from plaster casts; now he was looking at contemporary masters like Auguste Rodin, Edgar Degas, Paul Gauguin, and even André Derain. By the end of this brief period, the Spanish-born artist was melding tradition and innovation, a leitmotif of his career as a sculptor. Never wavering in his commitment to recognizable imagery, he transformed his subjects and themes with different materials and techniques as well as a range of styles. At first, he was tentative; later, he went full throttle. In 1909, for example, when he modeled Head of a Woman—Fernande, his companion—as well as Apple, he merely broke up their surfaces with faceted, Cubist planes.

Step into the next gallery, where Cubism holds sway, and you’ll find works by Picasso from 1912–15 that altered the history of sculpture. With sheet metal, tin plate, iron wire, nails, and scraps of wood, he created a life-size guitar, violins, a mandolin, a clarinet, and drinking glasses that elevated the stature of still life to a subject as worthy as portrait heads and standing figures. The vivid colors with which the artist completed these Cubist reliefs and small objects are as important as the unusual materials he used.Pablo Picasso, Glass of Absinthe, 1914, Paris, painted bronze with absinthe spoon, 8½" x 6½" x 3⅜". ©2015 ESTATE OF PABLO PICASSO/ARTISTS RIGHTS SOCIETY (ARS), NEW YORK/THE MUSEUM OF MODERN ART, NEW YORK, GIFT OF LOUISE REINHARDT SMITH

During the spring of 1914, Picasso also cast in bronze a series of six “Glasses of Absinthe” that have been reunited for the first time since they left his studio. Except for one that was left in its raw state, he painted all the others with different patterns and pigments. As visual puns, each absinthe glass sports a pair of eyes and a wide mouth beneath a jaunty “hat” that, formed from an actual absinthe spoon topped by a bronze sugar cube, resembles the type of straw boater worn by the French entertainer Maurice Chevalier.

Unlike in his life as a painter, Picasso made sculpture sporadically. But there was a method to these episodic forays. He seems to have been inspired to work in three dimensions at the birth of distinct art movements that he had a hand in launching. He didn’t execute another extended body of three-dimensional works until 1928 when he was commissioned to make a memorial for the grave of his close friend the poet Guillaume Apollinaire, who died during the great influenza epidemic of 1918. With iron rods, he created three versions of a charioteer. Their linear character and open spaces call to mind classic, monochromatic Cubist paintings of 1911–12. If you picture Picasso making a line drawing of, say, the robe and vertical axis of the Charioteer of Delphi, you’ll see how, yet again, the classically trained artist melded tradition and innovation.Pablo Picasso, Woman in the Garden,1929–30, Paris, welded and painted iron, 6' 9⅛" × 46⅛" × 33⅜". ©2015 ESTATE OF PABLO PICASSO/ARTISTS RIGHTS SOCIETY (ARS), NEW YORK/MUSÉE NATIONAL PICASSO, PARIS

This time, Picasso remained active as a sculptor. During the heady days of Surrealism’s reign in Paris, between 1929–35, the Spanish-born painter responded by creating some of his most memorable works in three dimensions as well as a series of astonishing graphite drawings on fine-textured woven paper of imaginary standing and seated women. Readily accepted as a colleague by André Breton, the pope of Surrealism, Picasso developed aspects of his Cubist sculptures that related to the tenets of the latest art-world sensation.

Having earlier worked with unlikely materials, Picasso now realized he could make larger, more fully in-the-round heads and figures. To assist with welding colanders, other objects, and scraps of old iron into unique sculptures as convincing as statues, he enlisted Julio Gonzalez, a fellow Spaniard. Three of their masterpieces reign in their own gallery. Woman in a Garden (ca. 1930–32), one of the masterpieces of this period, indeed of Picasso’s entire corpus, could not be more fetching, an adjective not often applied to the plastic arts. With her hair blowing in the breeze and her animated pose, she seems propelled toward some sort of tryst.Pablo Picasso, Head of a Warrior, 1933, Boisgeloup, plaster, metal, and wood, 47½" x 9¾" x 27". ©2015 ESTATE OF PABLO PICASSO/ARTISTS RIGHTS SOCIETY (ARS), NEW YORK/THE MUSEUM OF MODERN ART, NEW YORK, GIFT OF JACQUELINE PICASSO IN HONOR OF THE MUSEUM’S CONTINUOUS COMMITMENT TO PABLO PICASSO’S ART

The next gallery is dominated by astonishing taut, white plaster heads of women on a gargantuan scale. Yet again, Picasso looked to the past—in this instance, classical Greece—while being very much of his time. I’ve always imagined rods like those used to create the earlier charioteers to have formed the armatures of these elegant behemoths. One reason these works are so impressive is that Picasso had been thinking about how to create them for a very long time. During 1920 and 1921, he made a group of pastels and paintings with figures that had massive, pneumatic-like bodies. At this moment, he had the ability to translate this idea into three-dimensions.

As you enter the fifth space, which is dedicated to the years 1933–37, Woman with a Vase (1933), another magnificent work, metaphorically lights the way for your tour of the second half of this breathtaking retrospective. She’s a knockout who once stood in proximity to Guernica in the Spanish Loyalist Pavilion at the Paris World’s Fair of 1937. She, more than the iron-rod charioteers, looks as if she would have made a fitting memorial to Apollinaire.Not surprisingly, during the war years Picasso’s sculptures are less adventurous. But from time to time, he rose to the occasion with works where the subject matter is emphasized to a greater degree than stylistic concerns. You’ll find the painful Death’s Head (1941) as well as the impressive Man with a Lamb (1943), which reminds us how innocent people are slaughtered as battles rage.Pablo Picasso, She-Goat, 1950, Vallauris, bronze. 46⅜" x 56⅜" x 28⅛".©2015 ESTATE OF PABLO PICASSO/ARTISTS RIGHTS SOCIETY (ARS), NEW YORK/THE MUSEUM OF MODERN ART, NEW YORK, MRS. SIMON GUGGENHEIM FUND

After the war, Picasso’s sculptures take on a childlike aspect. He seems to be making three-dimensional objects as if he were playing with toys. He’s having fun with ceramics. He celebrates pregnancy by portraying a woman with a ceramic vessel for a belly and two for breasts. He introduces a now-beloved menagerie, including the popular She-Goat (1950) and Baboon and Young (1951), which has a head formed from model cars. And there are the magisterial “Bathers” who stand in a pool of pebbles.

The show closes with a flourish. Like a magician at a kids party, Picasso folded sheet metal into heads, women with outstretched arms, and chairs. You leave the show entertained and exhilarated and wondering why you hadn’t realized how Picasso, time and again, changed the course of the history of sculpture.

Copyright 2015, ARTnews Ltd, 40 W 25th Street, 6th Floor, New York, N.Y. 10010. All rights reserved.


September 9, 2015 2:54 p.m.

How Picasso the Sculptor Ruptured Art History


Pablo Picasso, Chair Cannes, 1961. Musée National Picasso–Paris. 2015 Estate of Pablo Picasso/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

On October 9, 1912, Pablo Picasso wrote a letter to Georges Braque, his confrere in Cubism, whom he later derided as “my wife” and who, for his part, described himself and Picasso as “two mountaineers roped together.” “I am in the process of imagining a guitar,” Picasso wrote — a line that still sends shivers. He went on to declare that, after their summer working together in the South of France, he was hijacking two of the biggest artistic ideas of the century: collage and three-dimensional assemblage. Both would change the landscape of art: Via collage, painting took on a more physical body, changing its spatial presence forever; assemblage did all this, too, but in even more varied materials and space, a technique so radical that it essentially remapped the boundaries of painting, bas-relief, molding, and sculpture. Both ideas were Braques’s! As Picasso himself said, “Great artists steal.” Or as Matisse put it after a studio visit from Picasso, “He will put it all to good use in time.”

We don’t think of Picasso as a sculptor, but we should. He was a great one. In the years after that summer with Braque, Picasso performed a vivisection of 500 years of Western spatial perspective. For much of the 19th century, artists like Constable, Corot, Courbet, Manet, and many others tried to break the rigid illusionistic strictures and the structure of vaunted Renaissance perspective. Yet no matter what artists did, including Monet — breaking down every brushstroke into a physical thing that functioned at once as a mark and a picture, each one being absolutely equal to every other stroke, all but doing away with illusionistic space altogether — still, the borders and surfaces of the object reasserted themselves. With collage and assemblage, Picasso finally jarred space from a kind of 500-year sleeping sickness, a system that had silted up, impeded, and confined vision. With these works, Picasso broke forever from Renaissance tradition into modernist, Einsteinian relativity, the paradoxical space where things exist in different dimensions at once. It’s important to remember, of course, that Renaissance perspective was maniacally practiced only in the West. In Asia, Africa, and most of the rest of the world, systematic illusionistic space never caught on. In the West, however, Picasso (and the others) set space free.

Now, for the first time since the Museum of Modern Art’s epic 1967 “The Sculpture of Picasso,” MoMA returns to this fertile delta with more than 150 of his slabbed, shattering, avian-shaped, hallucinogenically assembled sculptures. This is a fantastic show. The work in this exhibition represents a macro evolution in the history of art, and at MoMA, you will see objects that look like loofahs shellacked with tough nuggets and nettles; vertebrae forms; craniums that look like crustaceans; dolls and Roman soldiers that might be from the Crab Nebula; iron-cage works that go off like slow fuses, morphing into movies, maps, and sliding diagrams. I found myself constantly having to catch my breath, reassessing what I thought about Picasso’s sculptures, even seeing a lot of what I thought were clunkers as packing information that scores of artists are still putting to good use. (One abstract cast of a crumpled paper bag basically gives rise to artists like Jean Debuffet and movements like Art Informel and Tachisme.) Whatever you do, don’t miss this exhibition; this is exactly the kind of show MoMA is made for. Museum co-curators Ann Temkin and Anne Umland (with Virginie Perdrisot) make MoMA’s fourth-floor galleries look more beautiful and useful than they have ever looked. Linger in these spaces; the chance won’t come again for a long time. “Picasso Sculpture” could be one of the great learning experiences of your seeing life.

Above all, this show lets you know in your bones that beneath it all, Picasso’s art was always sculptural — always structural, architectural, and tectonically imagined first. Picture the shapes and planes of his Cubist paintings as cut up and pieced back together as sculptures. Or traditional sculpture and objects crushed into bas reliefs, then given more dimension. That is virtually what he did. “It would have sufficed,” he said, “to cut up [the Cubist paintings] — the colors being no more than indications of difference in perspective, of planes … and then assemble them … [as] sculpture.” At another time, he said he analyzed “form into separate geometric components … presenting simultaneously several views of the same object as though the spectator were walking around it or turning it over in his own hands.” It is so wildly revolutionary that it makes you wish that artists like Tintoretto and El Greco had tried this centuries ago! Or reversed the process, and we would have seen Bernini tectonically flattened.

At MoMA, you will see all these separate components — faceted shapes, tectonic plains, abstract forms, axiomatic lines, and more — in sculptures that all point to undiscovered dimensions. But not in the first gallery. The figurative works here, from 1902 through 1909, are really just Picasso turning the key in the sculptural ignition; assimilating Degas, Maillol, and Matisse; African, Oceanic, and early Iberian sculpture, seeing what he can put “to good use.” The primitive-looking wooden totemlike objects have nowhere near the force of the Kongo power figures with hundreds of nails hammered into the surface that predate them; they look as if they might have been made by Gauguin, but lack his sense of decorative flatness. Or elsewhere, since Rodin did smushed female forms, so does Picasso. Still, two pieces from 1909 vibrate with a more pressing tension. The first, a small plaster Apple, which looks like a Chinese cube puzzle carved by Cézanne. It clues you in — despite not being an especially convincing sculpture — to the simultaneity that Picasso is after, as the apple looks like it is changing shapes and being seen from several perspectives at once. The other is the solid bronze Head of a Woman, whose angled, sluicing protrusions radiate the drama of two-dimensional Cubism that is already happening in his paintings and is about to detonate into sculptural space. But the bust is still leaden, bound to a space and governed by a gravity that are about to give way.

The rupture comes in the next galleries. Categories prolapse in constructed, cut, painted, assembled, and cast works that might be bas-relief, paintings, sculptures, all of the above, or none at all. You’re seeing something never seen before, yet Picasso does it with such utter clarity that you can feel the scales fall from your eyes. And even think, I could do this. Ponder the incomprehensibly influential guitars. For the first time in the history of Western sculpture, the inside, or the hollowness, of form is depicted — here, the hole of the guitar becomes an object with space and illusion all at once. Imagine Michelangelo’s David somehow also revealing chest cavity and organs flip-flopping and interfacing with the outer surfaces, seeing this beautiful boy from behind and in front at once. The guitars represent a new kind of illusion and a new realness in sculpture simultaneously, where the object comes to self-explanatory life and negative space isn’t a void anymore. In the same astounding gallery are the famous absinthe glasses, which do the same things but in more compact scale, using curves, torque, and twists, exploring different material states and gravity in ways that push dimensional limits into something like the uncanny. Are we really seeing these things from all sides — including the liquid — at the same time? The same thing is happening in the guitars.

Opportunistic superpredator that he was, when Picasso took, he took fast. Between that October 1912 letter to Braque and December 3 that year, he made paperboard, string, and painted-wire guitars, each of which exists in a spectrum of different non-narrative spaces at once. By 1915, in addition to groundbreaking collages, Picasso fashioned more guitars out of sheet metal, paper, wood, nails, string, canvas, and painted wire paper. Three of them are here. And still radioactive. These works change the sculptural game. The guitars are what Donald Judd later called “specific objects”: neither conventional sculpture nor musical instruments, but something else. (In fact, let’s use “something else” as one of the definitions of art.) At the same time, the guitars also seem to contain interior dimensions never before probed in sculpture. By 1915, there’s the splayed-open violin that lets you see the inside, outside, and left and right sides of the object at once. You think, Yes! He’s doing with sculpture what he does in paintings: finding a way to see breasts, anus, vulva, eyes, buttocks, belly button, and mouth at the same time! Picasso’s sculpture so encompasses this strange all-at-once dimension that today, flatfish with eyes on the same side of their heads are called “Picasso fish.”

In the middle of this gallery are the six painted bronze absinthe glasses, each with a real sugar spoon, each cast from an identical wax mold. Every one of them looks different; I have no idea how. They’re almost too much to deal with. Each comes to cartoonish life, at once slabbed and angular, Neolithic and modern. Here you witness the interior interweaving and untwining of form, temporal shifts, visual glitches, the force of an imagination dancing. Picasso decants the absinthe, lets you see the glass and through it. The liquid substance transforms into a decorated vessel, then slush, solid, translucent, polka-dotted plasma, all while appearing malleable, in changing states, or freezing. The sugar cube on the spoon turns into a boulder, a minimalist sculpture, and part of a pyramid about to be dropped into this vast alchemical caldron. Fins on the glass might be vestigial body parts, cooling devices, or mating plumage; spirals are really flanges; balance is impossible. Is the cup tilting? Twisting? Stable? Serving itself? We simultaneously behold this twisty thing from above, below, left, and right. In this gallery, Picasso’s works create the sculptural equivalent of what is known in geometry as a tesseract, ­a four-dimensional analogue of a cube, or a hypercube, which some speculate would, if entered in one place — say, MoMA — deposit you under the ocean or in another dimension. Whatever’s happening here, that’s what happened to art in 1912: It started in one place and ended in another.

After this outburst, there was sculptural silence from Picasso for almost a decade. The show picks up again in 1928, with two small, curvaceous bronze shapes that could be a woman running on a beach as you see the thunder of the Cubist guitars made more pliable, organic, sensual. Make a mental note; they foreshadow something spectacular to come. In fact, almost everything in this gallery is stuff that Picasso will put to real use further along.

The next gallery gave me whiplash. And got me hot. This space is a bacchanalian garden of voluptuous, abstract female forms made between 1930 and 1937. Here are new hieroglyphic shapes becoming faces, heads, breasts, mouths, vulvae — pendulous forms that are so unphilosophical and distorted that they become concretions of garrulous, graceful, free-flowing, libidinous meaning. This work doesn’t fit into any other concurrent movement of the time; Picasso is off the sculptural reservation here. Biographer John Richardson tells us that the woman Picasso was picturing was his “greatest sexual passion.” Her name is Marie-Thérèse Walter. Picasso spotted her when she emerged from the Paris Metro on January 8, 1927. Instantly smitten, he approached, proclaiming, “I’m Picasso! You and I are going to do great things together.” She’d never heard of him and was 17; he was 45 and married. So began a ten-year frenzied secret affair that cast Picasso as consuming monster, inflictor of abject cruelty (she was “a slice of melon” which he “denied … orgasm”). It is in these sculptures (and paintings of this period) that Picasso’s art gets fleshier and more organic, as he claims a larger part of himself and catapults himself from Cubism forever.

Many academics pooh-pooh this and much that follows in Picasso’s work. It’s true: At this point, he does break with modernist teleological progress, and certainly with Cubism; most of what comes next doesn’t fit neatly anywhere art-historically. Only in Picasso-ism. And he produced epic amounts of art, much of it not that good or even very avant-garde-looking. Yet it’s squeamish and persnickety to limit the greatness of Picasso to just Cubism and a few other high points. In this gallery, you see art that is blissed-out, brutal, Greek, goofy, a genus of modern Venuses rendered in new formal topographies. With Matisse, Miro, Calder, and others, Picasso is paving the way for much of the biomorphic abstraction used by artists all over the world ever since. The busts of Marie-Thérèse are a real depiction of how love deforms. They’re the ones I’d want in my inner museum. They also lead directly to the desexualized screaming faces and tortured forms of Guernica (1937). The curators also provide a great insider finger-wag at and lesson about Picasso the psycho pirate. Installed in the center of this gallery is the bronze Reclining Bather (1931). This work comes directly out of all Matisse’s much-earlier nudes. Placed here, it is a reminder that, though Matisse was never this animally sexual, without his incredible lifelong influence, many reckon that there’d be no continually reforming (a.k.a. catching up) Picasso. That’s how thorough these curators are.

There’s so much more: galleries packed with uncovered information for artists and viewers, single works that can detonate into whole careers. Please visit this exhibit more than once; every gallery is a world unto itself that deserves attention. And before you leave the show, think about where it is in the museum. And why. All other rotating shows have been elsewhere at MoMA, in temporary galleries. While many museum visitors might protest the absence of the usual masterpieces on this floor, we must be grateful that MoMA undertook the gargantuan task of totally dismantling the fourth-floor permanent collection for the Picasso show. The ceilings and spaces of the second- and sixth-floor galleries would have overwhelmed, dwarfed, and distracted from this work. Other spaces at MoMA are too small. And composite cement floors would have been wrong. Temkin and Umland’s Picasso show points to a way through MoMA’s spatial problems, suggesting that these galleries don’t always have to be static with teleologically installed masterpieces from the enormous collection. Instead, they can be used for continual experimenting with the greatest collection of Modernism on Earth, opening that collection up, letting the world see just how incredible MoMA really is, and perhaps helping to heal a multitude of sins. This Picasso show lets us see things we hadn’t dreamed of before. All while seeing an artist edging into undiscovered spaces, interstices between flatness and dimensionality, spaces that are at once ancient Egyptian, clear, and Mesopotamian in insistence. Picasso lifts a veil. I might still want to live with a Matisse, but “Picasso Sculpture” lets us know that space — even MoMA’s — really has a wide wingspan.



Photo Essays

Pablo Picasso, Now in 3D

Installation view of 'Picasso Sculpture' at the Museum of Modern Art with Pablo Picasso's "Sylvette" (1954) at left and "Little Horse" (1961) at right (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

It’s hard to get excited for another Pablo Picasso exhibition. He is, after all, the Steven Spielberg of European modernism — flashy, prolific, proficient at a vast range of genres, and overrepresented in the mainstream cultural canon. But Picasso Sculpture, the Museum of Modern Art‘s (MoMA) first exhibition since the late 1960s devoted to the master painter and collageist’s three-dimensional works, is an opportunity to discover a relatively obscure part of his practice. Save a handful of exceptions, Picasso kept his sculptures to himself until the penultimate decade of his life, and even now only certain types of works are widely circulated: the Cubist still lifes, the plaster busts of women, the bronze and wood assemblages derived from his encounters with African art. These works figure prominently in Picasso Sculpture, but so do his incredibly fine and playful ceramic vases of the late 1940s and early ’50s, the somber bronzes he made living through World War II in Paris, and the funny, whimsical plaster and wood sculptures of the mid ’30s. While so much of Picasso’s two-dimensional work has been rendered static by its status as seminal art history, many of the sculptures in this show are refreshingly surprising and inventive.

One of Pablo Picasso's "Glass of Absinthe" painted bronze sculptures from 1914, all six of which are included in 'Picasso Sculpture'

The exhibition’s roughly 140 works are arranged in mostly chronological order across 10 rooms on MoMA’s fourth floor. Each gallery is devoted to works produced during one specific bout of sculptural production. Unlike his continuous two-dimensional output, Picasso went long stretches without making sculpture and then would apply himself to working intensely with one type of imagery, style, or material for a few years. A room off the “War Years” gallery features a small presentation of 24 photographs Brassaï took in Picasso’s studio in 1932 and 1943, offering a sense of how he lived with the works spread across every available surface.

Controversially — at least for those easily offended by unorthodox exhibition design — there are no wall labels in the show. Each visitor must arm herself with a 24-page booklet that lists the vital stats for each work. Speaking at Wednesday’s press preview, MoMA’s chief curator and the co-curator of Picasso Sculpture, Ann Temkin, explained that conventional wall texts would have been impractical and confusing, requiring visitors to continually zig-zag from the pedestals and display cases to the gallery walls and back, while the booklet allows them to get and stay nose-to-nose with the works. And there are plenty of small, intricate pieces that benefit from close and sustained inspection.

Pablo Picasso, "Woman with Leaves" (1934)

What’s most startling about Picasso’s sculptures is how, for the most part, they do not seem to have aged. All those Cubist collages and blue period portraits may look like relics of the last century, but pieces like the tiny plaster figure “Woman with Leaves” from 1934 — whose dress was made by pressing corrugated cardboard into wet plaster and whose face resembles an ancestor of the beloved robot Johnny 5 from Short Circuit — or the group of five small, wand-like wooden sculptures of standing and seated women from 1930 — evocative of outsider art but also Alberto Giacometti and Louise Bourgeois’s many totemic or needle-shaped sculptures — look like they could have been made last year.

The rooms devoted to bodies of work made between 1933 and 1937 and between 1945 and 1953 are especially rich in such seemingly ageless works. One rarely seen group, installed in a display case in the latter room, is a set of nine small pebbles, bone fragments, and chunks of ceramic into which Picasso engraved faces. The tiny works’ lines and features are very sharp and elegant, but the unconventional, improvisational choice of medium and method epitomize what makes Picasso’s sculptures so interesting. He was never formally trained in three-dimensional art making, as he was in painting, and it shows in both his willingness to break with tradition and convention, and his tendency to delve into practices like bronze casting, welding, and carving as he learned to master them. This resulted in some of the wonderfully strange, funny, and enduring works that make this show so worthwhile.

Installation view of 'Picasso Sculpture' at the Museum of Modern Art with Pablo Picasso's "The Jester" (1905)

Pablo Picasso's "Seated Woman" (1902) is the earliest work in 'Picasso Sculpture'

Pablo Picasso, "Still Life" (1914)

Installation view of 'Picasso Sculpture' at the Museum of Modern Art with Pablo Picasso's "Head of a Woman" (1929–30) at left and "Woman in the Garden" (1929–30) at right

Installation view of 'Picasso Sculpture' at the Museum of Modern Art

Installation view of 'Picasso Sculpture' at the Museum of Modern Art with Pablo Picasso's "Head of a Woman" (1931, cement) at left and "Head of a Woman" (1931, plaster) at right

Installation view of 'Picasso Sculpture' at the Museum of Modern Art with Pablo Picasso's "The Reaper" (ca. 1934) at left and "The Orator" (1933–34) at right

Pablo Picasso, "An Anatomy: Three Women" (1933)

Installation view of 'Picasso Sculpture' at the Museum of Modern Art with Pablo Picasso's "Death's Head" (1941) at left and "Man with Lamb" (1943) at right

Pablo Picasso, "Woman in Long Dress" (1943)

Pablo Picasso, "Cat" (1941)

Installation view of photographs by Brassaï of Pablo Picasso's Paris studio in 1932 and 1943

Installation view of Pablo Picasso's small engraved pebble and ceramic works in 'Picasso Sculpture' at the Museum of Modern Art

Installation view of 'Picasso Sculpture' at the Museum of Modern Art with Pablo Picasso's "Pregnant Woman" (1950) at left and "Pregnant Woman" (1949) at right

Installation view of Pablo Picasso's ceramic works from between 1945 and 1953 in 'Picasso Sculpture' at the Museum of Modern Art

Pablo Picasso, "Insect" (1951)

Pablo Picasso, "Little Owl" (1951–52)

Pablo Picasso, "Woman Carrying a Child" (1953)

Pablo Picasso, "Goat Skull with Bottle" (1951)

Installation view of 'Picasso Sculpture' at the Museum of Modern Art with Pablo Picasso's "Woman with a Baby Carriage" (1950–54) in the foreground

Detail of Pablo Picasso's "Baboon and Young" (1951)

Installation view of 'Picasso Sculpture' at the Museum of Modern Art

Installation view of 'Picasso Sculpture' at the Museum of Modern Art with Pablo Picasso's "Woman with Outstretched Arms" (1961) at left and the exhibition's latest work, "Maquette for Richard J. Daley Center Sculpture" (1964), at right

Picasso Sculpture opens September 14 at the Museum of Modern Art (11 West 53rd Street, Midtown, Manhattan) and continues through February 7, 2015.



MoMA Explores Picasso in the Round

WSJ goes inside the installation of the blockbuster exhibition ‘Picasso Sculpture’


Just outside the closed fourth-floor galleries at the Museum of Modern Art, normally home to works from MoMA’s postwar collection, museum guards have been diplomatically turning away visitors on the hunt for masterpieces like Jackson Pollock’s “One: Number 31” and Jasper Johns’s “Flag.”

MoMA is temporarily rearranging itself to make room—a lot of room—for an artist who, perhaps more than any other, has helped shape the museum through the decades: Pablo Picasso.

Opening Sept. 14, “Picasso Sculpture” will occupy the museum’s entire fourth floor, in a show exploring the artist’s work in three dimensions. MoMA is the only venue for the exhibition, the largest U.S. presentation of his sculptures in nearly a half-century.

Given the Spaniard’s profound influence on 20th- and even 21st-century art, and the stratospheric prices his paintings can command at auction, it would be a stretch to describe any aspect of his work as under-the-radar. But if there were a candidate for that distinction, it would be the sculpture, which hasn’t received nearly the same number of dedicated exhibitions as his paintings.

Trained as a painter but self-taught as a sculptor, Picasso made three-dimensional work throughout his career, but intermittently, with lapses that sometimes lasted years.

“The restless imagination of this artist, the almost crazy sense of invention, comes through in the sculpture like nowhere else,” said Ann Temkin, MoMA’s chief curator of painting and sculpture, and co-curator of the exhibition, which runs through Feb. 7, 2016. “He’s making it up as he goes along.”

According to Diana Widmaier-Picasso, an art historian and granddaughter of the artist who is preparing a multivolume catalog raisonné of the sculpture, he made more than 2,000 three-dimensional works, a number that includes editions—multiple identical works cast or otherwise reproduced from the same mold or template—but excludes his ceramics.

Bronze, plaster, terra-cotta, cardboard, cement and wood are just some of the more than two dozen mediums and materials represented in the show—not to mention found objects ranging from upholstery fringe to bicycle parts to kitchen colanders.

The show is organized into eight chronological chapters. Opening with Picasso’s early experiments in clay, bronze and wood, it quickly progresses to early cubist sculptures, like the 1909 bronze “Head of a Woman” and a beguiling little plaster apple, before vaulting into the constructions and assemblages of the early teens.

Pablo Picasso, next to one of his sculptures. ENLARGE
Pablo Picasso, next to one of his sculptures. Photo: Bunk/ullstein bild/Getty Images

Innovations of the later 1920s and early ’30s include fanciful found-object collages and the wire sculptures that Picasso’s dealer, Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, dubbed “drawings in space.”

The postwar decades saw Picasso ensconced on the French Riviera, where everything from beach pebbles to sheet metal became raw material for his work.

“We hope that every single room in this exhibition is like discovering a different artist,” said co-curator Anne Umland, curator of painting and sculpture at MoMA.

To do justice to the approximately 140 sculptures on view, Ms. Temkin and Ms. Umland made a radical decision: Wherever possible, each free-standing sculpture would be displayed for 360-degree viewing. And no paintings—sculpture only.

Their mission, said Ms. Temkin: “To give sculpture its first-class status.”

That takes space. At about 22,000 square feet, the exhibition’s footprint is approximately twice that of last autumn’s “Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs,” which drew some 724,000 visitors. And it isn’t necessarily because the sculptures are huge—many are surprisingly modest in scale.

Conservators look over items from Pablo Picasso's ‘Bathers’ sculptures during the installation of the ‘Picasso Sculpture’ exhibition at MoMA. ENLARGE
Conservators look over items from Pablo Picasso’s ‘Bathers’ sculptures during the installation of the ‘Picasso Sculpture’ exhibition at MoMA. Photo: Kevin Hagen for The Wall Street Journal

“Picasso Sculpture” is likely to be as popular as the Matisse show, if not more so, but its generous space allotment brings a welcome bonus: no timed ticketing. However, there may be queuing and controlled entry during peak hours.

Late last month, the fourth floor was a work in progress, with custom pedestals in place and crafted-to-scale replicas—some flat and photographic, others three-dimensional—standing in for much of the art.

Although the curators had assigned the works to specific galleries, final placement within in each room has been an organic process, Ms. Temkin said. For example, “Bathers,” a group of life-size, playful sculptures from 1956, has been moved twice in pursuit of the most effective sight lines. In its final spot, it is the first thing visitors see when they enter the penultimate room.

Eleven of the works in “Picasso Sculpture” hail from MoMA’s own collection, including perennial favorites like the 1950 “She-Goat” and 1951 “Baboon and Young.”

That leaves about 130 sculptures coming from other institutions and private collections internationally—and a delivery schedule resembling a military campaign, with the last pieces arriving just a few days ahead of the exhibition previews. Many required personal couriers, a logistical challenge during late-summer vacation time, especially in France.

Pablo Picasso’s ‘She-Goat’ sculpture. ENLARGE
Pablo Picasso’s ‘She-Goat’ sculpture. Photo: Estate of Pablo Picasso/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Some 50 sculptures and eight works on paper come from the Musée national Picasso-Paris, along with 24 images of Picasso’s sculptures taken by the photographer Brassaï in the 1930s and 1940s.

Because the artist kept so many of his sculptures until he died, and left no will, the Musée, a state institution established after his death, received many of those works in lieu of estate tax, with the remainder going largely to family members. The Musée is collaborating with MoMA on the exhibition.

In the galleries, the willingness to give each work its elbow room was apparent. In the second room, for instance, the 1914 “Glass of Absinthe”—an edition of six bronzes, each distinctively hand-painted—is dramatically showcased, each of the works on its own pedestal with several feet of viewing space between them.

A few galleries farther on, a flat maquette, or replica, of the 1942 bronze “Bull’s Head” claimed an entire wall. Despite the work’s modest dimensions, the curators had no fear of the real thing being dwarfed by its backdrop. “It’s that imposing,” said Ms. Temkin.

Ms. Umland concurred: “It has a force field.”



Picasso’s great ingenuity as a sculptor revealed by MoMA

Pablo Picasso Near his Sculpture Goat With Bottle May 7, 1953 © AGIP / Bridgeman Images

Pablo Picasso Near his Sculpture Goat With Bottle May 7, 1953 © AGIP / Bridgeman Images

The “Great Man” theory of history is out of fashion these days; we no longer believe that an individual act of heroism can be the chief engine of development. But how else can we make sense of Pablo Picasso, who seems to have invented everything? The Spanish painter had help (Henri Matisse, Georges Braque), but his stature remains singular.

Yet Picasso the sculptor is a relative unknown, especially in the US, where the last show of his sculptural work was held in 1967 at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York. It included 204 pieces, around 90% of which came from the artist’s own collection.

Now, the museum returns to Picasso’s sculpture with a show of around 150 works made over the course of his career. The curatorial logic behind the show is simple, says the co-curator, Ann Temkin, “to show that sculpture is a core part of Picasso’s career and that it hasn’t thoroughly been looked at in an exhibition in the United States in 50 years.”

Sculpture “says so much about him as an artist”, she says. “A view of Picasso as a painter or a maker of works on paper is really an incomplete view.”
Picasso’s ingenuity is evident everywhere in his sculpture. “It’s almost as if you’re looking at work by different artists each time,” says the exhibition’s co-curator Anne Umland. “He is always setting up and solving new sculptural challenges. His engagement with sculpture happened periodically and in very clear chapters.”

The show will take over the museum’s entire fourth floor, giving each piece sufficient space so that it can be appreciated in-the-round. Around 50 of the works come from the Musée national Picasso in Paris and additional loans are due from the Centre Pompidou, Tate Modern and the Art Institute of Chicago, among other institutions.

“Standard art history texts put so much emphasis on the breakthrough decade and the rest is treated as later work,” Temkin says. (Picasso’s most inventive period is generally considered to have been between 1907 and 1914.) “But with Picasso’s sculpture, it revs up and becomes a larger and larger part of his work.” Umland says she was particularly surprised by his work of the 1950s. “There is a wide range of materials and subjects from those years, from tiny pebbles to large-scale assemblages held together by plaster and wood, to his deep engagement with pottery and ceramics,” she says. “He had a way of looking at the world in terms of its sculptural development.”

The exhibition will be accompanied by a catalogue written by Temkin, Umland, Virginie Perdrisot (the sculpture and ceramics curator at Musée Picasso) and Luise Mahler (an assistant curator at MoMA). In addition, a children’s book written by the museum’s curatorial assistant Nancy Lim and illustrated by Beatrice Alemagna will be published.

The show is sponsored chiefly by Hyundai Card, Monique M. Schoen Warshaw, Marie-Josée and Henry Kravis, Robert Menschel and Janet Wallach and Sue and Edgar Wachenheim III. MoMA is the sole venue.

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

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