New York

Pablo Picasso, Figure, 1927, oil on plywood, 50 3/4 x 37 1/2". © Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Pablo Picasso, Figure, 1927, oil on plywood, 50 3/4 x 37 1/2". © Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

“Picasso and American Art”

“PICASSO AND AMERICAN ART” is an opportunity (not to be) missed. There is no better story in modern art than the struggle of American artists to go through or around Picasso. Jackson Pollock said he wanted to get rid of Picasso and (another time, just to be clear) kill him. Picasso said he wanted to make paintings with “razor blades on all surfaces so no one could touch them without cutting his hands.” Great stuff. And the current exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art manages to drain all the blood out of it.

Perhaps playing up the oedipal drama would have been too easy. Guest curator Michael FitzGerald, working in association with the Whitney’s Dana Miller, believes the bigger story is one of studious reworking. The nine artists he highlights—Max Weber, Stuart Davis, Arshile Gorky, John Graham, Willem de Kooning, Pollock, David Smith (barely present), Roy Lichtenstein, and Jasper Johns—all went through periods of imitation or quotation. Another show might have included artists whose relation to Picasso was more oblique: Charles Sheeler, Robert Motherwell, or Ellsworth Kelly. But let’s take the exhibition on its own terms.

FitzGerald’s bias allows him to do what he does beautifully, which is research. He begins with, “as far as we can determine,” the first Picasso painting to come to America (in Weber’s luggage in 1909), a modest 1908 still life, and pairs it with a still life by Weber of 1910. He ends with Jasper Johns’s 2003 “Pyre” paintings, inspired by Picasso’s 1915 Harlequin. But FitzGerald is not content with visual matching. What makes the project remarkable is the effort that he and Julia May Boddewyn (author of an accompanying chronology) put into discovering which works by Picasso could be seen in the US from 1910 on in exhibition, at auction, and even in magazines.

The resulting book, far more than a catalogue, is a veritable history of Picasso’s fortunes in America at the hands of collectors, dealers, and museums. When it comes to the magazines, FitzGerald looks carefully at how the quality of Picasso reproductions affected the American paintings that were made from them, a crucial issue neglected by slide-based art history. Of course, trying to map the available universe of Picasso images is a futile task, but don’t tell FitzGerald that. In his catalogue essay, he seems almost offended to discover that an untitled 1932 lithograph by Gorky includes a sketch of a Picasso papier collé that was “rarely reproduced and nearly twenty years old.” But FitzGerald pushes on, finding the collage reproduced in a 1928 manifesto by André Breton and concluding reluctantly that Gorky was interested in Surrealism as well as Cubism.

These are the very paths—prewar Cubism and Surrealism—that the exhibition is loath to go down. Analytic Cubist paintings are shortchanged by FitzGerald’s method, since few Americans made close copies of them, but their influence was great. Pollock and de Kooning imbibed their space and structure, but FitzGerald goes instead for the more obvious connection between de Kooning’s 1950s “Women” and Picasso’s Demoiselles d’Avignon, 1907, on the one hand, and between Pollock’s poured paintings and their recently discovered Guernica-like first layers on the other.

More glaring is the absence of any discussion of the way Cubism incorporated linguistic bits of the world, from sheet music to signage to advertising, and what that might have meant for the country that invented mass culture. After reassembling the works shown at a 1923 Picasso exhibition at the Whitney Studio Club, FitzGerald makes no comment on the little-known Bowl of Fruit, 1912, a painting chock-full of letters, words, local color, and trompe-l’oeil textures. That painting, or one like it, begs to be included in the huge Johns section at the end of the show, but instead it is segregated in the period room, and no mention is made of what Johns got from Picasso’s momentous wordplay.

Another problem with FitzGerald on Cubism is his refusal to look at least once in a while past Picasso. Take the key painting of the first few rooms, Weber’s Chinese Restaurant, 1915, a brilliantly patterned work with obvious debts to Jean Metzinger and Juan Gris. FitzGerald gets so excited by the question of whether Weber could have seen the Synthetic Cubist Picassos that were being shown in New York in 1915 that he forgets how much easier it was then to see works of the lesser Cubists. Likewise, FitzGerald overlooks the dependence of Weber’s 1913 Bather on the superficial Cubism of Le Fauconnier’s L’Abondance, 1910–11. These sources explain a lot about what Weber was missing.

The exhibition has some great juxtapositions, like Gorky’s Organization, 1933–36, with Picasso’s Studio, 1927–28, and some strange ones, like de Kooning’s Pink Angels, circa 1945, with Picasso’s Figure, 1927. Each of the latter canvases shows a female figure stretched almost beyond recognition, but the Picasso is all whitewashed tones and calm, monumental geometry, while de Kooning’s pink-and-yellow shredding of the female body has far more to do with Picasso’s Nude in an Armchair, 1929, with its screaming pink figure writhing next to a yellow rectangle. That work is not even reproduced in the catalogue, and in general the violent side of Picasso’s Surrealism is missing. Perhaps the screams would have violated the studious atmosphere of the exhibition.

The problem with “Picasso and American Art” is not too much scholarship but too little of what animates it: the urge to find pattern and meaning. Someone had the inspired idea to make Lichtenstein’s Picasso mash-ups the iconic images of the show: Girl with Beach Ball III, 1977, is on the catalogue cover, and Girl with Tear I, 1977, is on the entrance wall. Even without such placement, they would cry out for interpretation. Are they Lichtenstein’s “Don’t cry for me, Picasso,” his bittersweet farewell to the master? Or are they an attack on Picasso, crossing his beach babes with his crying women so they cancel each other out? The exhibition hazards no guess. Instead, the fall of blond hair and the plump tear of Girl with Tear I together read as a big question mark—an ironic emblem for a show that answers lots of little questions but asks no big ones.

“Picasso and American Art” remains on view at the Whitney Museum of American Art through Jan. 28, 2007. The exhibition travels to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Feb. 25–May 28, and the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, June 17–Aug. 9.

Harry Cooper is curator of modern art at the Fogg Art Museum at Harvard University.