Prolific and adventurous; larger than life; celebrated 20th century “genius”—all are apt descriptions of Pablo Picasso.
For an artist with as massive a presence as Picasso, it isn’t surprising that his work and persona continue to create ripples in the artistic community, both during and after his lifetime.
Artists of Picasso’s generation were deeply influenced first by his cubist vernacular, and then by his ever-changing style—often marked by the flattening of the picture plane and his capacity to re-arrange his subjects’ physical features and blend multiple perspectives. Later generations of artists borrowed, quoted or appropriated his work(s) to create original pieces of their own. Still others mined his fame and the power of his persona, commenting on and documenting the nature of his character.
This wide span of work provides material and content for the current exhibition at the Wexner Center for the Arts, After Picasso: 80 Contemporary Artists, on view now through Dec. 27th. Walking through the labyrinth of galleries to view nearly 150 works, however, was a bit like a scavenger hunt in which I searched for bits and pieces of what I knew about Picasso, by a range of artists who are presumably his artistic progeny to greater or lesser degrees. For someone who has seen his share of Picasso, but is not an art scholar, discovering those links to the master on my first two-hour visit was, for the most part, a decided challenge. Without didactic labels—only the artists’ names and the titles of their works with dates—I felt at times like I was floating in a vast undifferentiated sea of Picasso-esque pictures.
In part, the problem of finding an artist’s exact relationship to Picasso was ably addressed through the use of an I-pad, available at stations throughout the gallery and equipped with an app that contains photos, videos and commentary, allowing viewers to dive deeper into each piece.
For example, I initially I found The Illusionist, a fabric piece by the German artist Sigmar Polke, visually arresting but elusive. But on my second visit it became one of my favorites when I discovered, thanks to the I-pad app, that it referred to a Picasso design for a stage curtain. Inspired by Picasso’s design, Polke fashioned a two-layer piece in which the top, transparent, layer of fabric, with scenes and figures associated with fantasy and magic, forms a scrim overlaying another fabric sheet with a scene of dueling swordfighters.
While the app was available only for a minority of works, the catalogue published by the Deichtorhallen in Hamburg, Germany, where the show originated, assists greatly in uncovering exactly how each work is tied to Picasso.
But this weakness aside—the assumption that Picasso’s influence is everywhere, so to speak, and that it needs no explanation—the exhibition conveys the vast panorama of Picasso’s legacy with delight and surprise.
Numerous photographs of Picasso hone in on the artist, revealing aspects of his public persona and touching his soul. In the American fashion photographer Irving Penn’s photo of Picasso dressed in a bullfighter’s costume, the artist confronts us almost as an adversary, staring directly at the viewer. In contrast, Picasso is disarmingly and hilariously at ease with us in French photographer Robert Doisneau’s playful photo of him at the dinner table, bread rolls substituting for the artist’s hands.
An intriguing aspect of the exhibition—though not its main thrust—are works by artists of Picasso’s own generation who were certainly influenced, or at least, affected, by his prodigious output. These include three black and white woodcuts by the German artist Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, with their pancake-like perspective and anatomical distortion. At the same time, Kirchner was never imitative: his sense of story-telling and balanced composition is all his own.
While Kirchner experienced Picasso in the context of his time, artists of a younger generation had a different perspective, yet were still as eager to understand and learn from this “giant.” Jasper Johns put his personal stamp on Picasso’s Nu Couché (1938), a reproduction of which he saw in an art magazine, but then reconfigured the seductive figure into a disjointed, repulsive one. (Ironically, it was revulsion against reproductions—which were getting more public exposure at the point Nu Couché was painted—that caused Johns to produce his own interpretation of a Picasso piece.)
Although Picasso radically rearranged how we see human anatomy or the architecture of interior spaces, he was in fact a devoted figurative painter, which at the Wexner places Gary Hume’s geometrically conceived abstract painting, based on Guernica, in a universe Picasso never embraced. In Hume’s work, My Guernica, four intersecting panels present segments, each with a distinct tone and flavor, that hint at interactions palpable in Picasso’s own legendary Guernica, yet here, they are transmitted via a mysterious code.
One of the overall gifts of this show is a renewed appreciation of Picasso’s creative powers, passed down or subsumed, as it were, through generations. An example is a photo by Gjon Mili, an Albanian-born artist who in the 1920s and 1930s developed a process in which the camera captures the trail of light made by a flashlight. In one photo at the Wexner, Picasso stands behind a sketch of a bull, the final flourishes of which he has just finished, its lines blazoned in white light. The photograph illustrates Picasso’s raw, unrehearsed power to draw, which underpinned much of his work.
Sometimes a piece only gradually announces its “Picasso-esque-ness.” It required a longer gaze for me to recognize in the gentle modeling German artist Thomas Shütte used in his sculpture Glaskopf (Glass Head), the wavy contours that circumscribe so many of Picasso’s figures.
Because of his association with success and celebrity, Picasso’s name and image has become a vehicle for making statements and venting opinions on art-related issues. In July 2013, for example, the rapper and music producer Jay Z staged a six-hour event at Pace Gallery in New York in which he interacted with a select crowd of art world celebrities, all the while rapping. In an 11-minute video shot at the event and now on view at the Wexner, Jay Z represents himself as an insatiable art dealer, chanting continuously “Picasso baby,” presumably to draw attention to how art has become a consumer good. Some bloggers viewed the event as contrived and self-serving, saying that it deviated from the spirit and power of true performance art.
For Congolese artist Chéri Samba, Picasso becomes a symbol of recognition in the art world that he argues, through a three-painting set, is lacking for African artists in the same way as it is for Western artists. In picturing himself alongside Picasso, each carrying their paintings as they enter the Musée D’Art Moderne in Paris, which is shown as closed, he raises the question plainly and boldly: Why is it so hard for African artists to have their art shown in major museums and sold into collections?
Picasso’s legacy is now well more than a century old and it keeps building, but in the greater arc of art history, he is a youngster. In another two or three centuries, how brightly will his light shine? How much of the center will he occupy?
British artist Richard Hamilton answered that question by suggesting Picasso is a worthy successor of the master Baroque painter Diego Velásquez. Hamilton’s 1973 version of the Velasquez masterpiece Las Meninas–which pictures the daughter of Philip IV of Spain and her entourage—quotes several of Picasso’s stylistic periods, while retaining the major compositional elements of the Velásquez. Hamilton’s transposition of 20th century and 17th century works bridges a seemingly immense artistic gap—presenting a unifying idea that upsets our tendency to see art as fragmented from époque to époque.
German artist Alexander Wolff brings home the idea that Picasso’s influence is on-going in his giant “wallpaper” collage, produced specially for the display at the Wexner that fills the three-story wall at the rear of the gallery. In cubist style, Wolff applied fabric and paint in variegated shapes, some made of cut-up photos of the gallery itself, thus suggesting a redesign of the gallery’s end wall.
This show in and of itself is evidence of the breadth of Picasso’s influence – of the variety of ways that artists for more than a century have quoted his works, borrowed from his vernacular, imitated his style, or pondered his place in the art world.
Yet Sean Landers in his painting Genius (2001), a cartoon-like rendition of Guernica, suggests that Picasso’s genius status is subjective. Landers accompanied his work with a fictional letter to Picasso in which he suggests himself as the Picasso of the next generation—the man to elevate humankind from mundaneness. The ironic tone brings Picasso down from his majestic place. The mantle placed on Picasso’s shoulders, Landers suggests, is a bit too weighty, the veneration paid him outsized.
The substance of Picasso’s art has long ago been submerged under the weight of his image as the artistic genius of the 20th century, and with this show we have the opportunity to reevaluate who Picasso was and what he has left of lasting value for generations to come.
After Picasso: 80 Contemporary Artists is on view through December 27, 2015. For more information, visit wexarts.org.
Editor’s Note: We are saddened to learn that a suicide by shooting occurred at the Wexner Center on Sunday, November 29th, 2015. The Columbus Dispatch reported that the shooter apparently caused damage to artwork on view as part of the exhibition After Picasso: 80 Contemporary Artists. The exhibition will remain closed for the balance of its scheduled run.