View of “Picasso Black and White,” 2012–13. Left: Le Baiser (The Kiss), 1969. Right: Le Baiser (The Kiss), 1969. Photo: David Heald.

View of “Picasso Black and White,” 2012–13. Left: Le Baiser (The Kiss), 1969. Right: Le Baiser (The Kiss), 1969. Photo: David Heald.

“Picasso Black and White”

View of “Picasso Black and White,” 2012–13. Left: Le Baiser (The Kiss), 1969. Right: Le Baiser (The Kiss), 1969. Photo: David Heald.

“PICASSO BLACK AND WHITE” is formalist with a vengeance. Curated by Carmen Giménez, the show is not thesis-driven; rather, it distills Picasso’s art to its essentials, skillfully enlisting the museum’s architecture to aid in this process. Indeed, few curators have matched Giménez’s ability to tailor exhibitions to Frank Lloyd Wright’s rotunda. As she did twenty years ago with “Picasso and the Age of Iron”—also at the Guggenheim and similarly premised on a single formal idea from start to finish—the curator uses the idiosyncratic spaces between the ramps and along the spiral as blank canvas, acting with Picasso and like Picasso.

Breezing through the artist’s Cubist works, which tended toward the monochrome rather than the truly black-and-white, the exhibition lingers on his production from the 1920s to the early ’70s, retracing, with unexpected freshness, the paintings he made in this circumscribed palette. While Picasso was at times a daring colorist, black and white—and many shades of gray—comprised, as this exhibition attests, his lifelong operational theater. Many of the works shown have rarely or never been exhibited; a number are on loan from Picasso heirs including those in charge of the Fondación Almine y Bernard Ruiz-Picasso para el Arte in Madrid. By focusing almost exclusively on large paintings, Giménez reveals her roots in the stately enfilades of the Museo Nacional del Prado, where visitors view room after room dedicated to individual painters, from El Greco and Velázquez to Goya. And yet her installation is also strikingly minimalist: Some of the sparsest canvases in “Picasso Black and White”—a pair of early-’20s line portraits of Olga Khokhlova wearing a bodice and a fur collar, and the amphibious silhouettes of a squidlike Marie-Thérèse Walter, for instance—are positioned to fill entire curvaceous bays of the Guggenheim.

Toward the end, the pace of the exhibition quickens and the size of the paintings ratchets up to a majestic scale. On a witty note, the last four bays present a group of heavy female nudes, reclining like drunken river goddesses, the last one dangling a black cat in the air like a bunch of grapes. They are gathered, one may imagine, to fete a living legend, whose terminal erotic throes and pictorial excesses lent the artist’s final years an air of Felliniesque saturnalia.

Absent from this almost incantatory exhibition, one belatedly realizes, is any trace of the maelstrom of paper and bric-a-brac, most of it black-and-white—newspaper clippings, postcards, photographs, poetry books with calligrams, and so on—with which Picasso surrounded himself. By including only one of his 1912 papiers collés—and a rather weak example at that—the exhibition misses an opportunity to show how Picasso used black and white to cut transmedially through mass culture.

Most compelling in this respect is the connection Picasso made between black and white and politics at key moments of his career. Thus while the sculptures and drawings selected for display in the alcove on the museum’s first ramp were intended to flesh out Picasso’s investment in the Renaissance concept of “paragon,” these works’ most daunting aspect is their allusion, roughly one decade after the Armistice, to the horrific consequences of World War I. In the middle of the unblemished, almost bland, face of his very young lover Marie-Thérèse, he has modeled a strange protuberant nose, a lump of flesh like the ones plastic surgeons carved out of the mangled faces of the thousands of gueules cassées who survived the trenches, their tragic disfigurement documented in countless black-and-white photographs published after the war. Picasso’s uncanny ability to evoke the human costs of contemporary political events, and to do so at least in part by echoing photography—matching physical violence with indexical inscription—is a recurring if unacknowledged theme of the show.

Unfortunately, Guernica—the work that stands as perhaps the most compelling instance of the convergence between the transmedial and political significance of black and white for Picasso—is absent as well. Though it is the first work that Giménez mentions in the catalogue, visitors see only two preparatory sketches and one ex post facto painting lent by the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, where the original hangs unmovable and under constant guard. Significantly, Guernica was originally intended to be displayed not among paintings in a museum but amid the agitprop-photomurals of Josep Renau, Spain’s foremost photomonteur, at the 1937 World’s Fair in Paris. The homology between Guernica and Renau’s photomurals is unmistakable: They reached from floor to ceiling and were of equal width; they featured the same black-and-white tonal range; and they were all conceived in the structural form of montage. Because the Spanish Republic’s pavilion opened seven weeks late due to the Civil War, Picasso had been able to visit the fair while still working on Guernica and to see that photomurals also dominated the pavilions of the Republic’s fellow travelers, the French Popular Front. In producing a unique, iconic painting in black and white that looked like a photomural and functioned like agitprop, Picasso joined hands in solidarity with his compatriots even as he probed—and perhaps transgressed—the limits of his own painterly medium to create a uniquely powerful picture.

“Picasso Black and White” is on view through January 23; travels to the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Feb. 24–May 27.

Romy Golan is a professor of art history at The Graduate Center and Lehman College, City University of New York.