You Can’t Catch Picasso

Picasso and Jacqueline: The Evolution of Style an exhibition at the Pace Gallery, New York City

an exhibition at the Pace Gallery, New York City, October 31, 2014–January 10, 2015
Catalog of the exhibition by Jonathan Fineberg, Dan Leers, and Barbara Rose, with photographs by David Douglas Duncan
Pace, 255 pp., $80.00

Picasso and the Camera

an exhibition at the Gagosian Gallery, New York City, October 28, 2014–January 3, 2015
Catalog of the exhibition by John Richardson, Marvin Heiferman, Paul Hayes Tucker, Mary Ann Caws, and Victoria Combalía
Gagosian, 400 pp., $100.00 (paper)
Private Collection/Marc Domage/Gagosian Gallery/© 2014 Estate of Pablo Picasso/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Pablo Picasso: Olga Picasso, Seated, autumn 1918

No artist has ever embraced the freedom of the imagination with more fierce, hell-bent intensity than Picasso. In the generation since his death in 1973 at the age of ninety-one, modernism has given way to postmodernism and posthumanism, and through it all Picasso has somehow retained his heroic standing, still the virile Nietzschean hero with the X-ray eyes. Artists, curators, critics, and museumgoers will disagree about the quality of one or another aspect of his epochal output. But anybody who walks through the Musée Picasso in Paris, just reopened after a five-year renovation, or through the enormous exhibitions of Picasso’s work currently on view at the Gagosian and Pace galleries in New York will probably experience something like the adrenaline rush that Picasso’s earliest admirers knew in the years before World War I.

By now Picasso’s freedom may look like a glorious fluke not only of art history but of history itself, a product of the expanding democratic cosmopolitan culture of the final years of the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth century. Those seventy-odd years were a time when even the most nihilistic members of the avant-garde remained on close enough terms with the academy to see what the old verities had to offer. And the violent face-offs between high culture and popular culture that in our own day seem to immobilize the art world remained healthy disagreements, provoking creative sparks, insights, revelations. The increasingly open society in which artists and writers were living stimulated the openness of the arts, and Picasso was willing to go for broke, precipitating the radical antinaturalism of abstraction and embracing the topsy-turvy naturalism of Surrealist dreams.

Wherever Picasso turned, he brought deep insights and dazzling aplomb. He discovered in the pluralism of modern society a crazy-quilt theatricality that he could turn inward, revealing the essentially multifaceted nature of the individual. We still live in that pluralistic society, but we are no longer rising with it so much as we are overwhelmed by it, unable now to understand how Picasso could embrace so many divergent, kaleidoscopic possibilities.

To have had the good fortune to see in a single week, as I just have, Picasso’s life work on display in Paris and New York is to be reminded all over again what a genius could achieve when a cosmopolitan culture was at its zenith. The welcome news from Paris is that the Musée Picasso’s idiosyncratic magic has emerged intact after renovations that significantly expanded its size. This great collection of Picassos, given to the French state in lieu of taxes after the artist’s death, looks as splendid now as when it was originally installed in 1985 in a mansion in the Marais.

Meanwhile in New York, gallerygoers are the beneficiaries…

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