PRINT January 2011

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“Picasso: Guitars 1912–1914”

Interior of Pablo Picasso’s studio, 1912, 242, boulevard Raspail, Paris, 1912.

Picasso: Guitars 1912–1914
February 13–June 6
Curated by Anne Umland

OF ALL THE AMAZING FEATS of William Rubin’s curatorial career at MoMA—his exhibitions, his acquisitions, his global associations—the one of which he was proudest was his ability to persuade Picasso to part with Guitar, 1914, the earliest of the artist’s sheet-metal-constructed sculptures, which Picasso gave as a gift to the museum along with what was then understood to be its maquette, the cardboard Guitar from 1912. The guitars presage the revolution in sculptural practice that would take place over the course of the century, as carving, modeling, and casting were abandoned in favor of the “drawing in space” that would open onto welding and stacking.

In Picasso’s oeuvre, his emotional associations with the flamenco-tinged object gave guitars a kind of leverage within his own formal thought. The work not only figures in the first collages, thereby marking his departure from Analytic Cubism, but was also the vehicle, within the collages, for the surfacing of an abstract constellation, marking the artist’s departure from representation. A recently rediscovered component of the cardboard work—a semicircular “tabletop” that had been languishing in storage—is the lodestone, suggesting potential new readings of both objects. Notably, Picasso’s first collage, Still Life with Chair Caning, 1912, is staged as a tabletop with a carved molding encircling it, situating the work within a kind of spatial rotation from framed vertical painting to horizontal, opaque surface.

This exhibition, which promises to be magnificent, could be considered an homage not only to Picasso but to Rubin as well. In her approach to the project, MoMA curator Anne Umland follows Rubin’s own archaeological method, pursuing whatever scanty cues are available to reconstruct Picasso’s formal development. In the present case these are the extraordinary photographic traces of the evolution of collage in the installations Picasso arranged on his studio walls. Probably taken by the artist himself, the three photographs depict an inverted fan of 1912 collages surmounted by the cardboard Guitar as though it were a mother hen whose progeny—the early collages—were gathered below it like so many protected chicks.

Picasso’s dealer, Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, also arranged to have the 1912 Guitar photographed. It is Yve-Alain Bois’s brilliant 1987 essay “Kahnweiler’s Lesson” that unpacks the landmark understanding Kahnweiler brought to the constructed sculpture. Modeled on the (Ivory Coast) Grebo masks Picasso owned, the sound hole of the guitar projects outward from the instrument’s soundboard the way the conic eyes of the Grebo face project from the back of the figure’s skull to create a virtual forward plane seemingly detached in front of it. This leads Kahnweiler to see the structure of both the African mask and Picasso’s construction as a binary opposition between the relief’s ground and the front plane of the projected face, giving to the objects’ resulting features the arbitrary character that Kahnweiler was to call a “script.”

In Umland’s exhibition, among some seventy objects related to the central works, sixteen of the twenty-four collages that appear in the studio photographs will be on view, displaying a newly expanded view of the birth of Cubism’s semiotic system. Amid this astonishing richness, the only one who might be more overwhelmed than the visitor would have been Rubin himself.

Rosalind Krauss