Picasso’s Progeny

7 minute read
Richard Lacayo

It was Arshile Gorky who got right to the point. “If Picasso drips,” he said, “I drip.” That was in the late 1930s, a time when deciphering Picasso’s intentions, getting inside his darting, catch-me-if-you-can progress, from Cubism to Neoclassicism, from Surrealism to Guernica, was an all-important matter to that small but crucial category of American artists who had no use for the approved manner of the moment, American Scene realism. Grant Wood’s farm folk and Thomas Hart Benton’s small-town cuties were fine, if you didn’t care about what painting could be. Although Picasso never set foot on American soil, in the intense conclaves of this would-be American avant-garde, his example hung in the air like the moon, out of reach but never out of sight. And the question he always seemed to pose for them was not what to make of what he was doing, although that could be puzzling enough, but what more to make of it.

Given time, it was a question that would help a handful of American artists to the breakthroughs that produced Abstract Expressionism, the triumphs of Gorky, Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock and so on. Picasso would not be the only model they looked to. In their late-night arguments, the work of every painter from Uccello to Kandinsky was brought in for questioning and combed through for motifs and ideas, for rules and for permission to break them. But Picasso was the man, the one continually bursting through the confines of art history and coming back with discoveries worth bursting the confines for. He gave freedom a good name.

Identifying the routes through which he made his way into the awareness of American artists and the uses they made of him is the nicely executed purpose of “Picasso and American Art,” a new exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York that continues there through Jan. 28 before moving on to San Francisco and Minneapolis, Minn. It’s a show, by the way, that might just as well be called “Big Daddy.” For artists seeking a way forward, Picasso was the classic Oedipal father, the man who had to be dealt with, digested and finally overthrown.

But first they had to learn that he existed at all. That turns out to be a story that begins with the painter Max Weber, a Russian Jewish émigré to New York City. It was Weber who brought the first Picasso canvas to the U.S., in 1909, on his return from a four-year stay in Paris, where he had befriended the indispensable Gertrude Stein and her brother Leo, cocksure tastemakers and champions of Picasso. By that year Picasso and Braque were already off and running through the first stages of Cubism. Meanwhile, advanced American painting, such as it was, meant the Ashcan School realism of Robert Henri and John Sloan or the agreeable borrowings of Childe Hassam and Maurice Prendergast, who were still absorbing what they could from Postimpressionism. Even Cézanne had not entered much into American thinking, much less Cubism and its fierce extrapolations from Cézanne’s faceted space.

It was Weber who persuaded the photographer Alfred Stieglitz to mount a Picasso show in 1911 at Stieglitz’s pioneering 291 Gallery in New York City. That exhibition, Picasso’s first in the U.S., included at least some of his newest Cubist images. For budding American modernists like Arthur Dove and Marsden Hartley, it was a first glimpse of work that would transform their own. Later the inexhaustible Stuart Davis came across Picasso’s work and likewise reunderstood himself. In the 1920s Davis saw the broad, sharp-edged, irregularly shaped planes of color in some of Picasso’s later Cubist work and was inspired to break them out at larger scale and combine them with images from billboards and household products–in other words, to produce the first stirrings of Pop Art, nearly four decades before Andy Warhol made eyes at a can of Campbell’s soup.

All through the 1920s Picasso’s work found its way fitfully into the U.S., through occasional, short-lived exhibitions or dim black-and-white reproductions. But when the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) opened in Manhattan in 1929, it allowed for the first time the permanent display of a few real Picassos in the city where nearly all of the most alert American artists were gathered. That is what happened to The Studio, which Picasso completed in 1928. It was first seen briefly in the U.S. five years later. But by 1935 it had found its way into MOMA’s permanent collection. In the Whitney show’s catalog, guest curator Michael FitzGerald says that that canvas “would obsess Gorky and his friends for the remainder of the decade.”

Gorky, who would spend years appropriating the successive styles of Picasso (plus Kandinsky’s and Miro’s) until he had them fully digested, apprenticed himself with typical fierceness to The Studio, to its subtracted forms, flat surfaces and shallow space. After the Tinkertoy intricacies of Cubism, this was Picasso glancing in the direction of Mondrian, arriving at something close to the railway armatures of hard-edge abstraction. In 1936, after three years of study and effort, Gorky replied with Organization, his own breakthrough into a new understanding of how soft form could coexist with hard.

And one year after that, he learned that Picasso had gone back to dripping. To be an American follower of Picasso in the ’30s must have been a bit like being an American Communist. You never knew when the party line from abroad was going to take another unexpected twist. The difference of course was that Picasso had no interest in issuing directives. His ceaseless ventures in style and technique were more like challenges. And eventually the painters who would rise most spectacularly to the challenge would break out into realms of lyrical abstraction where even Picasso did not care to tread. Or was it, did not dare to? In the postwar era, as Picasso’s powers of invention were waning, the Americans entered the rooms to which he had given them a key but had never entered. Just look at Pink Angels, in which de Kooning deconstructed Picasso’s deconstructions of human form. In a picture like Figure, from 1927, Picasso demonstrates how human anatomy can be stretched to the breaking point. Two decades later de Kooning shows how it can be exploded. He doesn’t just pull the figure apart. He leaves behind on the canvas the tread marks of the operation.

The Whitney show proceeds as far as Jasper Johns, but younger living artists don’t turn up. Why would they? Picasso’s innovations, which were largely in the realm of space and form, hardly apply to things like installation work, conceptual art or videos, the practices that so many artists are caught up in now. But it’s also because Picasso’s great discoveries have become the universally understood possibilities of the canvas. Artists long ago stopped thinking of themselves as operating in space that Picasso made possible. So did the rest of us. It’s just space, like something God made. Picasso, who liked to see himself as the ultimate creator, would have been fine with that.

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