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Is Cubism's Revolution Behind Us?
If You Think Picasso's Work Didn't Last, Keep Looking

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.

As late as 1949, Sir Alfred Munnings, president of the Royal Academy of Arts in London, claimed that Winston Churchill had once asked him, "Alfred, if you met Picasso coming down the street would you join with me in kicking his something something something?" Munnings said he cheerfully agreed.

Fabulous Failure

Look at even the most radical works from before the "Demoiselles" -- even works from just one year before by Picasso or Georges Braque, cubism's other founder -- and there's a pretty clear sense that they give a vision of some coherent world outside. However much an earlier picture might idealize, stylize, interpret or plain distort the reality it showed, there was clearly some reality out there that it was out to capture. Even Cézanne, whose 1907 retrospective was a crucial springboard for Picasso's radicalism, never leaves behind the world beyond his canvas. With cubism, even in those first hints seen in the right side of the "Demoiselles" (its left half, finished earlier, is relatively tame), that world was so torn apart, became so nearly unreadable, that it looked as though, in this new kind of art, there simply might not be a there, there. There hasn't had to be one since.

No wonder the art world raged and laughed for decades.

And yet, the problem wasn't merely that cubism looked different than anything that came before. In fact, purely as a decorative style, cubism caught on pretty well. Within less than a decade, minor artists everywhere were working with cubes and fractured planes, and before long you could also see them in art deco furniture and the murals of luxury liners. The problem was that Picasso and the other truly serious supporters of cubism wanted this new kind of art to go far beyond just looking good. They wanted to try on the idea that cubism could actually work as a whole new way of taking in the world, and representing it.

It wasn't enough for the movement to take apart the realistic innovations of Renaissance art only to replace them with a new kind of semi-abstract decoration. It was supposed to replace Renaissance realism as a fully functional means for rendering reality. For all the incoherence of its look -- the incoherence that appeals to the New Museum's current crop of sculptors -- cubism seemed to make the radical claim that, with time, its art would hang together just as tightly in its vision of the world as any work by Leonardo. That's what really put Munnings and Churchill into a something-kicking mood. And that's also what made cubism turn out to be the grandest, most ambitious, most influential failure the art world has ever known.

The failure came in clearly not succeeding in its goal: Cubism has never and will never provide a useable vision of reality. The grandeur, ambition and neverending influence came from insisting we suspend our disbelief and act as though that goal were reached.

From the beginning, there was a whole welter of desperate justifications for the new cubist look. People argued that it showed things from all sides, as they "really are" rather than as they seem to be. (Philosophers have pointed out that that's about as meaningless as any claim can be.) Or that it reflected the new, realer reality of kooky Einsteinian physics, rather than the dull old three dimensions Newton had counted on. (It's the physicists who tend to object to that one. Einstein's theorems hold together in a way a cubist picture clearly doesn't.) You can still find such readings on wall texts in museums, but most experts haven't bought into them for years. Rather than simply seeing cubism as some new branch of realism, they prefer to talk about how radically cubism rewrote the rules for making art. But a few thinkers have gone further. They've realized that what really mattered in cubism is that it always conceived of those rewritten rules as though their goal was realism, however unlikely that conception might have been.

The influential scholar Yve-Alain Bois, of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J., has described cubism as a "semiotic system" -- meaning that it was meant to work as an entirely new language for describing how things are. It didn't just bring a new look to art, as any novel bunch of scribblings might. The elements in cubism's new look were meant to work the way that words and grammar do, serving up the world to us as a consistent package. Whether or not cubism communicated as well as a true working language does, it gave itself the structure of a language, with all the flexibility and arbitrariness that implies.

But maybe, taking Bois's ideas one step further, it's actually cubism's failure to communicate that matters most. After all, it's that failure that let cubism provoke and unsettle viewers more thoroughly than any movement that had come before.

That's the step taken by art historian T.J. Clark, Bois's colleague at the top of their profession. Clark thinks that cubism takes care to set itself up as being all about a pursuit of likeness, in an almost old-fashioned mode. Its manic brushstrokes don't abandon the world; they seem to worry away at it compulsively, as though their paint "will not let go of whatever it is it sees." Look long enough at a cubist picture, and you do start to feel it's got some kind of single take on the subject it shows, even if in the end you can't even tell what that subject might be. In fact, cubism did such a fine job counterfeiting the feel of realism that for decades it got people running around trying to figure out precisely what its take on reality might be. But all along, according to Clark, it was the sheer chutzpah of the fakery that mattered, rather than its success.

Cubism's power and influence comes from the tension between its stunning patina of realism and the inescapable fact that its pictures will always foil you in your desire to see reality in them. Cubism, that is, is a deliberate, calculated, daring bluff, but one that asks you to have the guts to go along with it. Or, more gently, maybe it's about imagining what a completely new way of representing things might look like, in some parallel universe where such a new way could be found. Down here on Earth One, no such thing exists: To the extent that some details are recognizable in cubist pictures, it's because they're based on standard realistic tricks. But that's no reason to reject the artist's imaginings. After all, would we reject an author's vision of a planet without gravity, just because such a place could never be? And doesn't such a vision get a lot of its force from the fact that it's impossible?

"The point," says Clark, "is cubism's annihilation of the world, its gaming with it, its proposal of other, outlandish orders of experience to put in the world's place."

Believing Is Seeing

Now I think we're at the real meat of things. Cubism realizes that all great art demands some generosity on the part of its viewers. Look up at the Sistine Chapel ceiling, and you know you're not really looking up at God creating Adam -- and that it's worth pretending for a minute that you are. Cubism pushes that idea about as far as it could possibly go. It asks you to forget about what pictures can really do and to try on some artist's confounding new notions of art's capacities and goals -- "to make the best of that obscurity, and finally to revel in it," as Clark says. We all know a cubist picture fails to represent the world in anything like useful or coherent ways. But there's something to be gained imagining it could.

Cubism marks art's greatest "because I say so" moment, and thereby launches the history of fully modern art. Cubism says it's going to rewrite art's rules for representing things, and demands we go along with the unlikely fictions it creates. And that frees every later artist to make a similarly daring, even arbitrary move. Marcel Duchamp, who started out as a fine cubist painter, soon decides to present a urinal, a snow shovel, an old hat rack as art. If cubism demands that we imagine that it represents the world, why shouldn't Duchamp insist that we should see a bathroom fixture as sculpture? Ditto for Jackson Pollock, and the idea that a bunch of splattered paint could represent his id. It doesn't matter whether, in fact, it does, any more than it matters if Adam had the six-pack Michelangelo gave him. What matters is the radical act of imagining -- in Pollock's case, imagining that abstract art could do something it hadn't done before.

Even some contemporary artists can offer Picasso-size imaginings. Brooklyner Spencer Finch makes absolutely tidy art out of pure light, air, space and ideas. On the surface, it's about as far from cubism's messy materiality as anything could be. And yet Finch could be billed as one of the movement's true descendants.

One recent piece, in a big Finch retrospective now at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, provides a portrait of Monument Valley at dusk. Sounds like a classic work of American realism, right? Except that Finch's "picture" comes from manipulating a bank of nine video monitors, each screening different moments in a classic John Wayne western, so that they flood a wall with radiance that replicates the real valley's fading light.

Finch's art doesn't truly evoke Monument Valley, any more than Picasso's "Ma Jolie" shows off a pretty girl. But both get just close enough, in unexpected ways, to give their simulations force -- more force than if they'd just bought into standard ways of showing things.

For centuries, Renaissance realism had worked so well that it had limited artists to making claims they could more or less back up: "Here's what Saint Sebastian might look like," or "Here's another likely way to see a mountain in the South of France." Cubism set them free to make much more unlikely claims. And then ask us to try them on for size.

By those standards, all the greatest artists of our day are cubists, through and through.

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