Is Cubism's Revolution Behind Us?

By Blake Gopnik
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 23, 2007

Ahundred years ago, in a classic artist's hovel in Montmartre, Pablo Picasso stood looking at his great "Demoiselles d'Avignon." The product of six months' agonizing work, the picture had completely redefined what art could be. It launched the cubist revolution.

Almost from one day to the next, art's vision of reality was transformed. For the first time, that vision could be unstable, kaleidoscopic, even illegible. In Picasso's landmark brothel scene, limbs and breasts and faces broke apart into strange planes that seemed to merge into an equally disjointed background. In the case of one of Picasso's demoiselles-for-hire, you couldn't even tell if you were seeing her from back or front. In fact, you could barely tell that you were witnessing a brothel scene at all, unless someone first told you the picture's subject. Cubism didn't just change what pictures after it looked like. It changed almost everything about the way an artist could come at the world.

And here's what makes that cubist watershed even more notable: A century later, and it's hard to find a clearly cubist touch in much of anything young artists are making. Can there truly be a watershed that doesn't water what's downstream? Compare cubism to the other crucial rupture in Western art that happened 500 years earlier, when artists in Renaissance Italy came up with the nearly photographic realism of one-point perspective. One way or another, that Renaissance innovation still colors almost every image made today. Whereas with cubism, it looks like the best that we can do is argue that its influence went underground, affecting everything but falling out of sight.

Or maybe there's one other option: Maybe cubism doesn't have clear heirs today because, in trying to rewrite every single rule for how art portrays the world, it bravely set out to do something that simply can't be done. Could cubism's true greatness lie in being the most glorious, ambitious failure art has ever known? Did it set the model for the modern artist as impossible dreamer?

Not at all, says Pepe Karmel, the NYU art historian who's an expert on Picasso and the invention of cubism. He thinks cubism -- "the greatest break in the history of art after the revolution of the Renaissance" -- is absolutely visible today, almost everywhere, but that its principles have become more important in our daily lives than in the rarefied world of high art. Just turn on your computer and watch its windows open up as one surface, on top of another, on top of another, with absolutely different content and a different vision on each one, and you've come face to face with cubism's most profound legacy. According to Karmel, all the fractures and disjunctures that we're used to in modern media were first hinted at in Picasso's Montmartre studio a century ago.

Most of today's graphic design, with all its startling adjacencies and overlapping planes, Karmel says, "is cubist in its syntax" -- proof positive that, one way or another, cubism worked as a new and influential way of making images.

If it's hard to point to obviously cubist moments in cutting-edge contemporary art, Karmel thinks that's a reaction to cubism's outstanding success. Picasso has attained Old Master status, which puts him off-limits in an art world that wants young masters who are trying something new. Artists still consider cubism beautiful and important, as a historical style, "but it doesn't have any particular relevance today," Karmel says. "We're not at a time when 'Ma Jolie' " -- one of the icons of cubism in its purest, most splintered form -- "speaks to us particularly powerfully."

The World Gone to Pieces

Or maybe cubism speaks so powerfully, even in contemporary art, that it becomes a deep grammar that we hardly need to call to conscious thought. That's the view of Laura Hoptman, a senior curator at the New Museum of contemporary art in New York. When cubism tore apart the centuries-old notion that a picture should depict the world in something like a realistic way ("the lie that is painting," as Hoptman calls it), it set the stage for all the wild demolitions that have come our way since. It has become something that artists "just know about" -- maybe without even knowing they know -- rather than something that their objects ever need to quote. At the end of the day, cubism's revolution, Hoptman says, "happened on a conceptual rather than a perceptual level." It concerned big ideas about how an artwork might come together, rather than any one particular neo-cubist look.

For "Unmonumental," the huge sculpture show that just relaunched the New Museum in grand digs on Manhattan's Lower East Side, Hoptman has included brand-new work that ranges from a cataract of dismembered chairs to crumbling ceramic sculptures not much bigger than your fist. Despite vast differences in their scale, materials, look and meanings, all the pieces have a cobbled-togetherness that Hoptman traces back to cubism. Rather than presenting a single crisp, coherent whole -- shades of Michelangelo's "David" or Leonardo's "Last Supper" -- the art in "Unmonumental" is constructed out of bits and bobs that never perfectly cohere, and aren't meant to. And that principled objection to anything like easy coherence marks the cubist break with absolutely everything that came before.

And yet it could be that the break is even more profound and disconcerting than either Hoptman or Karmel recognize. After all, the thing about the multiplying windows on our computer screens, or the disjunctions in the sculptures in the New Museum show, is that they aren't particularly hard to live with. They successfully communicate their information, ideas or aesthetics, whether in an office or an art gallery. Whereas the crucial thing about cubism is that, at first and at its most extreme, it clearly failed to communicate, at least in any normal sense of the word. And, unlike its heirs today, that failure was what it was about.

Even the artists themselves, like their dealers and patrons, couldn't agree on some pictures' subjects or on how they should be titled. Was a cubist portrait meant to show a woman or a man? Was a cubist canvas meant to be a studio still life or a lively cafe scene? All that mattered was the absolutely radical idea that you could never know.

"This can only end in suicide. One day, Picasso will be found hanging behind the 'Demoiselles,' " said fellow painter Andr¿ Derain when he first saw the Spaniard's picture. Matisse simply brayed with laughter when he encountered it. More importantly, so did Leo Stein, Gertrude's art-collector brother and the only person who just might have bought the thing. Friends, rivals, patrons -- even the most plugged-in Paris bohemians at first simply couldn't digest a picture that sliced and diced reality the way Picasso's did.

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