PRINT December 2015

Hal Foster

View of “Picasso Sculpture,” 2015–16, Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2015. The Bathers, 1956. Photo: Chandra Glick. All works by Pablo Picasso © Estate of Pablo Picasso/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

“PICASSO SCULPTURE” is both amazing and appalling. With 141 objects in eleven galleries, the presentation is lucid, stately, almost grand, and the work is inventive in the extreme. Yet there are times when all this creativity betrays a manic energy—I can’t help myself!—as well as an aggressive defiance: I can trump anyone! What else, you say, is new about Picasso?

The master made circa seven hundred objects, which is a lot, but not when compared with roughly forty-five hundred paintings. As the curators Ann Temkin and Anne Umland demonstrate, his engagement with sculpture was episodic: He worked intensely in the medium, then put it aside, and when he came back to it, he often featured a new set of materials, forms, and structures. For a long time, Picasso was reluctant to show his sculpture, and he liked to keep it close by. Why? Was it especially important to him, somehow intimate, even “talismanic” (as the curators suggest), or was he uncertain about its status (which can be improvisatory), or did he feel both things at once?1 Throughout the exhibition, it is difficult to distinguish clearly between research and resolution, minor and major (sometimes a tentative experiment in a new material appears later as a confident statement). Picasso, like Matisse, frequently turned to sculpture to address a problem in painting or to elaborate on an idea, a device, or just a whimsy first developed in two dimensions.

Like his first paintings, his first sculptures in bronze are emulative, sub-Rodin and Rosso, and this is also true of the rough figurines in wood he produced after the Gauguin retrospective in Paris in 1906. Picasso acquired a few Iberian sculptures in early 1907, and his fabled encounter with African and Oceanic art in the Musée d’Ethnographie du Trocadéro, which prompted him to revise Les demoiselles d’Avignon dramatically, occurred in May or June of that year; this interest in the archaic and the primitive is manifest in his sculpture no less than in his painting. His earliest Cubist objects, such as the influential Head of a Woman, 1909, also follow his pictures in that idiom. Not until the revolutionary period of the collages, papiers collés, and constructions, which extends from the middle of 1912 until the outbreak of World War I, is there an equal conversation between objects and pictures, in terms both of everyday means—during this time, the curators inform us, Picasso introduced “string, wire, pieces of paper and cardboard, wood scraps, and tin cans”—and of semiotic play, which is as spirited in the Guitar of 1912 and Glass of Absinthe of 1914 as in any flat work. (All six of the bronze absinthe glasses, each different in painterly treatment, are on view at MoMA.)

This innovative convergence of material, technique, and concept occurs only twice again (though that “twice” sounds parsimonious on my part). The first time comes in the late 1920s and early ’30s, when, initiated into the constructive possibilities of welded metal by Julio González and provoked by the psychosexual theater of the Surrealists (who appointed him the godfather of the movement), Picasso produced more than ninety sculptures out of iron, wood, plaster, and found objects, mostly at his château in Boisgeloup, forty miles north of Paris. The second episode, more modest in scope, occurs from the early ’40s through the early ’50s, when, affected by the devastation of the war, on the one hand, and the vitality of a new family (with Françoise Gilot), on the other, he made objects redolent of both brutal experience and childhood innocence. The Venus of Gas, 1945, turns a rusty stovepipe and burner into a little fertility goddess, and Head of a Dog, Death’s Head, and Goat, all 1943, made of everyday paper simply scratched, torn, or burned, are both harrowing and Halloweenish.

Picasso had few ideas about sculpture, but he made brilliant use of them. One such notion—no surprise here—is the transitivity between pictures and objects.2 Although Guitar and Glass of Absinthe are exemplary, two sets of reliefs, the medium par excellence of this pictorial-sculptural relay, are also extraordinary, and neither is well known: In 1914 in Paris, Picasso made several tiny still lifes in his Synthetic Cubist style—a split wineglass, a newspaper fragment, a die—and set them in shallow boxes or on shelves hung on the wall. The play between actual and illusive, horizontal and vertical, rectilinear and oblique, is wonderful (the distorted die projects its own weird perspective). Then, in 1930, at Juan-les-Pins in the south, he produced a few strange tableaux with little figures juxtaposed with found objects like a glove or a plant, coated lightly with sand and paint, and staged on the backs of old canvases; the scalar skewing recalls the Surrealist scenes of Max Ernst, but Picasso also evokes an archaeological remain—a small street theater in Pompeii, say, suddenly uncovered on the Riviera. However, there is also weak work in this pictorial mode. Some of the flimsy planar pieces Picasso executed in wood in the ’50s are gimcrack, and of most of the large public sculptures, fabricated by others in concrete and Cor-Ten steel from 1958 through 1973 (the year of his death), the less said the better. Sometimes these monumental female busts, conceived in a final reprise (or reification) of the Cubist idiom, border on modernist kitsch—plop art for corporate institutions like universities and city halls—and were soon lampooned as such by Oldenburg and others.

Picasso also liked to assimilate—to sublimate—ordinary objects into sculptural figures, as in his deft metamorphosis of a bicycle seat and handlebars into the bronze Bull’s Head of 1942. Built up from ceramic vessels and pottery jars plastered over a wood and metal armature, Pregnant Woman, 1950, another contemporary Venus of Willendorf, is also a superb enactment of this idea. At times, Picasso was able to make these transformed objects resonate profoundly with his historical moment. Head of a Warrior, 1933, which could be a forebear of the French comic-book hero Astérix, is a ridiculous dickhead made of wobbly plaster, metal, and wood that sends up the armored egos of all the fascists then on the march. (The Gaul Astérix also rebels, as Picasso implicitly does here, against the imperial Romans.) Yet this sculptural concept had its ambiguous outcomes, too. Like many people, I was long charmed by Baboon and Young, 1950–51, a modern version of mother (or is it father?) and child in bronze—Picasso fashioned the head of the parent from two toy car parts picked up from his young son Claude—but the sculpture now looks to me like an early example of the aestheticization of the readymade (which Jasper Johns would perfect several years later). It could almost be taken to anticipate, with malicious delight, the consumerist regression of our species in the age to come: the family as Toys“R”Us.

Picasso the inventor was also Picasso the instigator: He prompted other artists but often stopped short of the implications of his own work—and sometimes even defended against them. As the curators note, the opening of volume in the Cubist Head of a Woman inspired Boccioni, but Naum Gabo and Antoine Pevsner took this transparency further. And though Picasso preceded Duchamp in his use of ready-made material in Still Life with Chair Caning, 1912, Duchamp was far more programmatic with his bicycle wheel a year later. (Glass of Absinthe, a year later still, uses a found spoon, but it is incorporated formally into the bronze confection of the sculpture in a way that qualifies its ready-made quality.) Picasso also inspired Tatlin (when the Russian visited his studio in early 1914) to launch his great reliefs, yet wanted nothing to do with the Constructivist reading of his Guitars: Material as such, structure as such, was not for him, any more than a full plunge into nonobjectivity or an actual involvement with architecture was.

How can an artist be so transformative and so compromised? Of course, an artist can’t be blamed if he doesn’t want to go where others take him (no doubt Picasso felt Mondrian got Cubism wrong when he pushed it into abstraction), but he can be questioned if he trivializes what these others do. Picasso got from Giacometti as much as he gave; the disarticulated 1933 Anatomy drawings of the former follow the “objets mobiles et muets” proposal of the latter by a couple of years. So why did he need to travesty the best Surrealist objects by the Swiss artist, possessed as they are of that “genuine fetishism,” as Michel Leiris once put it, “that affective ambivalence, that tender sphinx we nourish, more or less secretly, at our core”? Some of the Surrealist sculptures produced at Boisgeloup are fantastic—almost Ovidian metamorphoses of his mistress Marie-Thérèse Walter—but the penis-as-nose or breast-as-head operation is not a feat of transgression so much as “a game of transposition” (the phrase Bataille used to critique sublimatory moves in Surrealist art); repeated too often, it becomes a heavy-handed joke. Fine, Picasso is no Bellmer—would we want him to be? Still, these sculptures sometimes seem like semisadistic stunts.

The recent literature on Picasso offers two ways to understand his resistance to the radical force of his own invention. The first model, proposed by Rosalind Krauss, is “reaction-formation,” whereby Picasso took into his art the very anti-aesthetic forces that he wished to defend against; for Krauss, this means the nontransformative aspects of the photograph and the readymade above all.3 The other model, put forward by T. J. Clark, is “retrogression,” whereby Picasso retreated into a pictorial “room-space” that he nonetheless revealed to be “more and more populated by monsters.”4 Both critics are concerned with the flat work, however, and neither model, the outright critique of reaction-formation nor the dialectical affirmation of retrogression, quite captures what Picasso does in the sculpture, which is often to prompt and to preempt, to trump and to travesty critical alternatives to traditional sculpture such as the fetish and the trouvaille, the readymade and the construction.

“Throughout his life,” the curators acknowledge, “Picasso approached sculpture less as a sculptor than as an artist.” So why did they title the show “Picasso Sculpture” and not “Objects” or “Things”?5 In the end, though, it was the right call, for Picasso didn’t break with sculpture so much as he returned those other models of object-making to the medium: He redeemed them for art. Picasso might have sculpted with his left hand, but that one hand was more than enough; faced with an alien world of machines and commodities, he became a magical re-skiller. (That is one reason why he loved tribal art so much—it retained a shamanistic power he hoped to tap.) Picasso transformed everything he touched, yet, as Midas discovered, that can be a problem. He couldn’t leave things alone, as they are, when matter-of-factness, whether à la Tatlin or à la Duchamp, might have served him better: His artistic egotism just wouldn’t allow it. As a result, the world became a symbol machine—art for Picasso is like truth according to Nietzsche, “a mobile army of metaphors, metonymies, anthropomorphisms”—and in all this creativity there is more than a little nihilism. Picasso drank his own alchemical Kool-Aid, and most of us sip from that pitcher still.

“Picasso Sculpture” is on view through Feb. 7, 2016, at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, where it was organized by Ann Temkin and Anne Umland with Virginie Perdrisot, in collaboration with the Musée National Picasso–Paris.

Hal Foster teaches at Princeton. His Bad New Days: Art, Criticism, Emergency was published by Verso this past fall.


1. The curators show plasters and clays over bronze casts when they can—“a curatorial aesthetic shaped by the art of the intervening decades,” by which they mean the preponderance of recent sculpture that is informal in makeup. Picasso, they speculate, oscillated between “two poles,” viewing “the originals as maquettes” and preferring them “as finished works.” See Ann Temkin and Anne Umland, Picasso Sculpture, exh. cat. (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2015), 26.

2. This aspect of the work was explored in “Picasso: Sculptor/Painter,” curated by Elizabeth Cowling and John Golding at the Tate Gallery, London, in 1994.

3. See Rosalind E. Krauss, The Picasso Papers (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998).

4. See T. J. Clark, Picasso and Truth: From Cubism to Guernica (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2013), 21. “Better a private dreamworld,” Clark insists, “than a glib facsimile of the common good. Better Chagall’s Vitebsk than Rodchenko’s White Sea Canal—better Miró than Léger, or Matisse than Piscator, or Kahlo than Rivera, or De Chirico than De Stijl” (19). In order to validate Picassoid retrogression, Clark mixes and mocks different visions of modernist progress here; in effect, he uses Manfredo Tafuri to argue against Benjamin H. D. Buchloh. (The Clark-Buchloh dispute about the relative merits of Picasso and Duchamp is the best celebrity death match in modernist studies since William Rubin and Leo Steinberg debated Les demoiselles d’Avignon more than thirty-five years ago in Art in America.)

5. This question crops up often in the galleries, but nowhere more so than in regard to two little pieces titled Relief and Crumpled Paper, both 1934, which Picasso made by pressing an object into sand and pouring plaster into the mold. Relief calls up, equally, an archaeological fragment and a whimsical cast by Bruce Nauman; Crumpled Paper could be either an ancient rosette or a discarded nothing retrieved by Gabriel Orozco. Picasso valued these sand casts, perhaps in part because they spoke, sotto voce, for that side of him that resisted “Sculpture.”