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The Master Cubist, Cubed
Picasso and Progeny Get Canvassed at the Whitney

By Blake Gopnik
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 16, 2006

NEW YORK

When philistines say that Jackson Pollock's paintings are scribbles, they're right. His pictures are busy scribbling out the most important art that came before. For Pollock, as for almost every other American artist of the first half of the 20th century, that art was by Pablo Picasso.

A particularly telling moment in "Picasso and American Art," a major new exhibition at the Whitney Museum, shows Pollock trying to cover up the Spaniard's influence -- figuratively, like all his fellow artists in New York, but also literally. Research by scholar Pepe Karmel, presented at the Whitney, shows how Pollock began a famous 1950 "drip" painting with a series of Picassoid figures. He then obliterated them under his trademark skeins of paint.

"That [bleeping] Picasso . . . he's done everything," Pollock said, even as he did his best to make him disappear. He seems to have expressed the general feeling in this country. For at least 50 years, Picasso was the one to watch. If you had the guts that Pollock had, he was also the one to beat.

The Whitney's exhibition -- one of its most ambitious efforts yet -- shows how the entire history of 20th-century American art would have been different if Picasso's art had never crossed the Atlantic. (The man himself never made the trip.) Its 149 works, including 36 Picassos, let us watch one American artist after another first discovering the foreign genius, then coming to grips with what his peculiar art could mean and finally struggling to crawl out from under its shadow.

"Shadows" might be more accurate. Each generation of American artist seems to have had a different Picasso to contend with. Picasso may have been the most important artist of the 20th century, but that didn't make his art a fixed quantity. It made what his art meant, and how others reacted to it, even less stable than usual. This show proves a crucial principle of contemporary art history: that the meaning of even the greatest work can depend as much on how it's used as on what it looks like -- that a work becomes the kind of thing it is because of the social frameworks it fits into, as much as because of its aesthetics.

What Picasso meant to American artists, and what they took from him, depended on how big a deal he was at any given time, and what the big deal about him was supposed to be. He could be one innovator among many, or the ruler of the entire scene, or a friendly, funny icon surviving from the salad days of modern art.

Picasso the Innovator

Picasso's art first came to this country in dribs and drabs. Max Weber, a Russian-born American artist who had hung out for a few years among the Parisian avant-garde, brought the country's first, tiny, tame Picasso home from France in his luggage in 1909, along with a single tile painted by Matisse and some reproductions of Cézanne. (Agnes Meyer, wife of the modern founder of this newspaper, brought a much better Picasso back with her from Paris in 1914. The little "Still Life With a Bunch of Grapes," now owned by a Berlin museum, is one of this show's least familiar gems.) In 1911, Weber's influence led to a show of Picasso drawings and watercolors at Alfred Stieglitz's 291 Gallery in New York, the first home of European modernism this side of the Atlantic. The modest little exhibition was "the wildest thing you ever saw laid out for fair," according to photographer Edward Steichen. When Stieglitz tried to coax a purchase from the Metropolitan Museum, its curator said that "such mad pictures would never mean anything to America."

At that point Picasso's star was rising fast, but it still wasn't the only one in the heavens. An art lover touring Paris in 1910 still could refer to the promising work of "a Spaniard whose name I don't recall." Picasso's art was even less well known in the United States -- Cézanne and van Gogh were still largely undiscovered here -- but such as it was, it stood for all the radical experiments of European modernism. Rather than strictly defining what kind of novel art to make, it gave artists a general permission to innovate.

Under the loose rubric of "cubism," Americans such as Weber, Marsden Hartley, Arthur Dove and the young painter Man Ray -- later a key member of the dada and surrealist movements and best known for his photography -- made pictures that depended on Picasso but weren't slavish imitations of him. The Whitney exhibition shows Weber and Man Ray starting from Picasso's great "Demoiselles d'Avignon" -- which they knew from an influential 1910 magazine feature called "The Wild Men of Paris" -- but taking it somewhere surprisingly un-Picassoid. Weber turned Picasso's hard-to-read brothel scene into a more straightforwardly sensual image, and Man Ray gave it a colorful Machine Age look.

These earlier American modernists had such limited exposure to Picasso's work that at first they couldn't really get what he was all about. They had a vague sense that cubism set out to pull the world apart, but no clear idea of how Picasso chose to do the pulling -- or that his way was supposed to be the way to do it, as would have been the growing sense in Paris at the time. That gave them room to interpret trends in European modern art in any number of peculiar ways. They knew that they should "make it new" and that hard edges, wild angles and unnatural colors should be in the mix. Beyond that, they were mostly on their own to interpret, or even misinterpret, Picasso's long-distance example.

Stuart Davis, possibly the best American artist of that generation, took one absolutely atypical facet of Picasso's work and built a whole style around it. In the very early 1920s, Davis had been making more-or-less cubist paintings that were not too far from Picasso's recent work, if a touch more colorful and playful and clean. In 1923, however, he would have seen a Picasso show at the Whitney Studio Club -- predecessor of today's museum -- that included little stenciled images on paper that were so simply colored and so crisply designed that they could almost have passed as art deco advertising imagery. (They were also inexpensive enough for impoverished junior artists to buy them.) Now this was a Picasso Davis could really work with. He did, for the remaining 41 years of his career. In 1925 he painted the bold, brightly colored, pop-artish painting "Super Table," which is already Davis working in his trademark mode. He came up with it by genuflecting to Picasso at his least Picasso-like. As art historian Meyer Shapiro later recalled, "To be a disciple of Picasso in New York in the 1920s and early '30s was an act of originality." It didn't matter what form your discipleship took.

Picasso the King

By the later 1930s, and certainly by the 1940s and '50s, Picasso's most important work was behind him. His later pictures didn't redirect the whole of art the way his work had done just before and after World War I. But that didn't stop him being crowned the undisputed Monarch of Modern Art.

In the years to either side of World War II, when American greats such as Arshile Gorky, Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock were hitting their stride, Picasso loomed so large that almost the best that anyone could do was copy him. That's what all three did.

The Whitney show documents how closely several Gorkys from the later 1930s riff on individual Picassos he had seen -- often quite early or late Picassos we might not think much of, but Picassos nonetheless, which made them more than good enough. Gorky was willing to buy into good and bad Picassos, in such a range of styles, either because greatness mattered less than sheer Picassohood, or because the two terms simply counted as synonymous. Gorky copied from Picasso because he was, by definition, worth copying.

There are also early paintings by de Kooning, Pollock and Lee Krasner that are only slightly less derivative. Picasso loomed so large in 1940s New York that if you made any change at all to what he did -- Pollock's and Krasner's coarser surfaces; de Kooning's smeared and acid-colored paints -- it must have felt like taking a major step.

Toward the end of the decade, when these American artists really pushed beyond the master's example, it must have seemed a leap into the void. Grace Hartigan, a painter still active today in Baltimore, recalled her friend Pollock saying he was out to kill Picasso; in 1950 she celebrated his success with an abstract painting called "The King Is Dead" (it's not at the Whitney). But this exhibition doesn't really ask us to think of these artists as having finally done away with Picasso. It begs us to think of them as taking him to places he'd have gone if he'd still been the talent he was in 1910. It lets us imagine these artists as the cast of Picasso: The Next Generation.

If the Whitney show has a significant flaw, it's that it focuses only on how a few great innovators in postwar New York took off from Picasso's work. It doesn't recognize the horde of Picasso clones and drones who surrounded them. Had curators dedicated even a single gallery to the utterly imitative paintings of once-prominent but now unknown American artists, that would have given a better sense of just how much air Picasso could suck out of a room. By showing how completely Picasso dominated the early careers of those American artists who went on to matter to posterity, the exhibition actually manages to underplay his influence.

Picasso the Icon

By the 1960s, Picasso had become so famous, such a symbol of what great art was supposed to be, that he'd almost risen above the fray. He'd become more of a figurehead than a figure to reckon with. He was a star, the Marilyn or Elvis of modern painting. And that made him a perfect subject for pop art.

Roy Lichtenstein frequently used his trademark comic book colors and Benday dots to rework the Parisian artist's work. In 1964, he painted his dotty version of a Picasso still life onto the back of plexiglass; the finished painting's shiny front pulls Picasso into the world of signage and postcard reproduction. As with most pop work, there's genuine affection here for the popular icon. There's also a kind of gentle mockery Picasso had never known before.

Pop artists gave Picasso the same treatment they gave to comics and Mickey Mouse and Campbell's soup -- which gives some idea of how far he'd moved into mainstream culture, and how fine art had moved on from him.

In 1969, pop artist Claes Oldenburg took the maquette for a huge late-Picasso sculpture that the "establishment" artist had recently given to the city of Chicago and remade it out of cloth. Where Picasso's steel original had stood strong and proud, Oldenburg's flops.

Oldenburg's soft sculpture, on loan to the Whitney from the Centre Pompidou in Paris, is as much as anything a portrait of Picasso at the end of days: a presence, still, but fading and, after the longest of long runs, at last detumescent.

Picasso and American Art runs through Jan. 28 at the Whitney Museum of American Art, 945 Madison Ave., New York. Call 800-944-8639 or visit http://www.whitney.org/ .

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