New York

Pablo Picasso, Couple, 1970, oil on canvas, 763⁄4 x 511⁄4".

Pablo Picasso, Couple, 1970, oil on canvas, 763⁄4 x 511⁄4".

Pablo Picasso

Gagosian Gallery

Pablo Picasso, Couple, 1970, oil on canvas, 763⁄4 x 511⁄4".

PABLO PICASSO CAN BE EXHAUSTING to think about. He seems to occupy a slightly unnatural amount of space in the scheme of things. When he died in 1973, he had been the most famous artist in the world for well over half a century, but virtually no one was thinking seriously about what he’d been doing lately. Despite the almost eerie diversity of his output, Picasso’s part in the development of Cubism remained, for many, his most significant contribution (one that he spent the remainder of his life attempting both to own exclusively and to destroy). Many of his midlife innovations and stylistic syntheses defined the look of “the modern” for successive generations of artists and serious viewers and then became a generic touchstone for an increasingly vast and unspecialized viewing public for whom Picasso’s celebrity and high prices were certainly more important than his advanced pictorial research. It is ironic but not totally surprising that at the dark heart of the present economic meltdown, late-period Picassos are among the most desirable lots on the auction block. As Guy Bennett, formerly of Christie’s, recently commented to the New York Times in reference to a “musketeer” painting about to be sold in London: “Picasso is still a cornerstone of the marketplace, and these later paintings are much sought after because they are both powerful and far more affordable than his early canvases.” If there is an afterlife, the thoroughly fatalistic artist must be very amused.

In his last years, Picasso worked exhaustively with the subject of musketeers, or “Mosqueteros,” the title of the exhibition recently curated by his friend and biographer John Richardson at Gagosian Gallery in New York. This enormous show revealed a peanut gallery (with all due respect to Gagosian’s hangarlike Chelsea digs) of owlishly unhinged swashbucklers and their women, the final iteration of the exotic procession of dead artists, noblemen, itinerant knights, bullfighters, pirates, classical youths, harlequins, and minotaurs who had long moved in and out of Picasso’s work, functioning as bait-and-switch alter egos for the artist himself. In his final canvases, the peculiar blend of slapstick idiocy and gallantry associated with the musketeer subject merged with his uncanny ability to extract elements from “reality” and transmute them into distorted and disturbed painterly facts that ultimately feel more real than their source.

Couple, 1970, a largish painting facing the entrance to the show, immediately declared that chivalry was not dead for the elderly master, although perhaps it was a bit roughed up. This primarily blue painting depicts a debonair grandee meeting or escorting a lady and a bird in a collision of exquisite courtliness and scrambled painterly insanity. The closely observed (if that is the proper term for aspects of experience so thoroughly internalized) body language and implied tenderness and gentility are called into question by the depravity of the characters’ depiction. This mixture of heightened yet oddly protective insight and unsparing caricature, almost a form of visual sarcasm, was typical of the work in the show and represents the culmination of tendencies Picasso displayed in shifting ratios throughout his career. There is a sense in “latest” Picasso of a knowingness that sees through all sentiment so thoroughly that even lack of sentiment falls away. It is amazing that someone whose early sensibility was so rooted in sentimentality and symbolist portentousness eventually worked his way to this.

Most of the musketeers appear in portrait format, but any sense of repetitiveness is obliterated by the diversity of facture and its psychological corollaries. The pictures range from a work like Mousquetaire assis (Seated Musketeer), 1972, whose dissonant forms recall an out-of-register lithograph and convey a sense of barely maintained dignity in the face of overpowering entropic forces, to the surprisingly unsettling Buste d’homme, 1971. Here the subject is not really a musketeer (a retarded and impotent Apollo? A hermit raised by wolves? A former child soldier facing a return to mainstream society?) and is rendered in a polychrome frenzy that feels chaotic at close range but from across the room crystallizes into a subtly rendered likeness bathed in the light of a full moon, or perhaps that of a distant battle. Many of the canvases are painted thinly and with apparent haste. Figure, 1971, an extreme example of this approach, manages to convey a rabbit-in-the-headlights confusion and sense of interior hollowness that is like cartooning but far odder for its superficial lack of structure and minimal palette. At the opposite end of the procedural spectrum are works like Tête de matador and Buste, both 1970, which would probably be unrecognizable as Picassos to all but the most informed observer. Their clotted surfaces, brushy fields, and abrupt shifts of tone, such as the keyhole-shaped orange “eye patch” in the latter painting, are unfamiliar in the artist’s work.

When women appear, either as the subject of portraits or in situations of intimacy with their dashing male companions, they are kind of a mess. Even knowing Picasso’s tendency to use his current lover as a point of departure for disconcerting flights of pictorial destruction and reconstruction, we can have a hard time seeing these figures as inhabitants of any world other than that of the artist’s paintings. Nu assis (Seated Nude), 1967, simultaneously projects a slutty cluelessness and an archetypal erotic power but feels distanced from the carnal knowledge of the artist’s earlier decades, and Femme nue, 1971, embeds the mother of all beaver shots within an Egypto-Cubist hieratic construction that also has more to do with memories of physical closeness than with immediate actuality. In Femme, 1972, the clubfooted nude Neanderthal contemplating her own transparent flipper seems to embody the genetic memory of a desexualized prehistoric matriarchy. Couples appear as unsolvable puzzles of organs and limbs, unable to remember what to do with each other. They are quite literally, as in the case of Étreinte (Embrace), 1972, “at sea.” In one of the most weirdly tender pictures, Femme nue couchée, jouant avec un chat (Reclining Nude Playing with a Cat), 1964, the woman is a scratchy pile of contorted body parts in a storm of brushstrokes unmoored from any representational function, almost more drawing than painting. She is lost in idle and vacant reverie, while the cat with which she is playing is the painting’s center of intelligence and intention, a veritable Rorschach test of spatial orientation and potential movement embodied as painterly analogue rather than mimetic fact.

This last canvas was signed, but most in the exhibition were not. Picasso kept things around for a long time and rarely signed them until they went somewhere, so the fact that these paintings were in his studio until his death only adds to the feeling of flux, improvisation, and discovery. This is what he was living with, what he was doing, and then he died. The exhibition offered new insight into his sense of himself in old age and into his interior conversation, which by this time had become almost a town meeting in the mind with the earlier masters he had engaged in an extended Oedipal struggle. The show also raised mystifying and probably unanswerable questions about the “quality” of Picasso’s supernaturally plentiful late output, a subject on which he had perhaps the last word, as quoted from memory by Françoise Gilot some years before the period covered by this exhibition: “I paint the way some people write their autobiography. . . . The future will choose the pages it prefers. It’s not up to me to make the choice. . . . I’m like a river that rolls on, dragging with it the trees that grow too close to its banks or dead calves one might have thrown into it or any kind of microbes that develop in it. . . . I have less and less time, and yet I have more and more to say, and what I have to say is, increasingly, something about what goes on in the movement of my thought.”

Previous late-Picasso projects have not focused directly on the dominance of the musketeer subject, whose ascendancy was reciprocal with an attitude about the making of paintings that synthesized many of his (and others’) earlier discoveries but pushed even further toward an offhandedness verging on the contemptuous—whether contempt for painting, for himself, his subjects, his audience, for the history he was so energetically attempting to both extend and overthrow, or for all of the above. In the clearest paintings there remains a complex residue of pathos, amusement, and rage and a rawness of both touch and feeling that achieves new heights (or is it depths?), even for him. (Lest one suspect that this sensibility was a kind of default mode caused by the effect of age on his draftsmanly facility, there were many etchings in the show that, while more familiar than the paintings and a bit overwhelming to assimilate, were welcome if for no other reason than to testify to the artist’s undiminished surgical precision when it fit his expressive needs.)

As the saying goes, old age isn’t for sissies, and Picasso was no sissy, but he was lucky, working like a demon and apparently having a pretty good time until virtually the end of his life. The megalomaniacal fantasies and narcissistic ideation that stalk the perimeter of many artists’ psyches must have seemed like reality to him. He lived to be ninety-one. He no longer had a peer group, which may be why he turned his attention with more intensity toward the future, in the sense of both his legacy and his imagined dialogue with subsequent generations of painters. He was kept aware by his immediate circle and by studio visitors of developments in America and among younger European artists, and he must have recognized in the work of the New York School, the postwar School of Paris, and the Cobra group aspects of his own influence taken in unforeseen and perhaps unwelcome directions. He was very clear about his mistrust of abstraction. He said repeatedly that painting needs a foil, a kind of limiting condition, which for him took the form of subject matter (as opposed to visible reality, which interested him much less), in order to subvert expectations and to facilitate the magic exposure of deeper truths. In different ways, the paintings of de Kooning, Dubuffet, and Asger Jorn all engage this tension, but without the cutting observation and virtually infinite reservoir of technique available to Picasso. One can imagine them eliciting in him a critical and somewhat condescending competitiveness that might have generated part of the force behind his last work.

Richardson writes in the exhibition catalogue of a “Great Late Phase,” and one is tempted to agree. Picasso had no strategy, but he was a master of tactics, and he executed his endgame flawlessly, providing in his last work a self-referential construct wherein every term substitutes for something else and there is endless encouragement for earlier work to be reinterpreted and reevaluated in light of the last. His version of “late” is quite different from other recent examples near and dear to many. There is none of the implicit dissatisfaction with his own earlier work that one gets from late Guston, or the quality of Zen dementia one senses in de Kooning’s last efforts. Picasso wasn’t apologizing for anything, and his thinking only grew cagier and more subtle with age. The disillusionment with the idea of “progress,” the stylistic promiscuity, and the correlative critique of “sincerity” that we associate with postmodern attitudes were up and running in him far in advance of the zeitgeist. Perhaps now enough time has passed that the previous century’s impatience with his dominion has waned in favor of a waxing desire to ask different questions of this annoying, unavoidable prophet.

Carroll Dunham is a New York-based artist.