Gagosian Gallery, 320 pp., $100.00 (distributed by Rizzoli)
The popular mythology of creative genius depends on beloved stereotypes of the artist in youth and old age: the misunderstood upstart who forces us to see the world afresh; and the revered sage who shows us depths of insight attainable only through a lifetime of hard-won experience. Thrilling though it is to watch a young contender take the world by storm, nothing heartens cognoscenti of a certain age more than an established artist whose last works—exemplified by Beethoven’s transcendent Late Quartets, Rembrandt’s soul-baring self-portraits, and Matisse’s supernal gouaches découpés—convey what Edward Said, in his posthumously published meditation On Late Style: Music and Literature Against the Grain, described as “an unearthly serenity.”
But one man’s serenity is another’s senility. It is widely held that Titian underwent a late-life transformation. But a 1990 traveling retrospective on the Venetian master who painted till he dropped from the plague in his late eighties prompted Francis Haskell to wonder, in these pages, if the late Titians hailed by some as audaciously simplified had in fact been unfinished. Among artists of our own time, no body of work has polarized opinion more than the pictures churned out by Willem de Kooning after he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and until he could no longer hold a brush. Painted with pigments chosen by assistants, de Kooning’s increasingly vacant agglomerations of unresolved squiggles were touted by opportunistic dealers and complicit curators with euphemisms close to what the literary critic Barbara Hernnstein Smith has called “the senile sublime,” though perhaps “the dross of dementia” is nearer the mark.
Just as the career tangents of even the greatest artists follow no uniform pattern, not all final masterworks conform to popular notions of geriatric nirvana. For example, Rossini’s Péchés de vieillesse (“sins of old age”) of 1857–1868—the fourteen-volume cycle of scintillating bagatelles through which the leisure-loving rentier returned to composition and revisited every aspect of his long-idle virtuosity—may offer no glimpses into eternity, but prove that there are several ways to go out in one final burst of creative glory.
From the outset, the reception of the late work of Pablo Picasso—who died in 1973 at the age of ninety-one—was far from enthusiastic, and ranged from faint praise for his undeniable industriousness to mutterings that the old man had lost it. Those doubts were fed by a trio of shows held in Avignon’s Palais des Papes in 1970, 1971, and 1973. Each omnium gatherum exposed hundreds of new pieces in indigestible overload exacerbated by too-close …