Pablo Picasso (Spanish, 1881–1973), Guitar, Paris, 1924. Painted sheet metal, painted tin box, and iron wire 43 11/16 × 25 × 10 1/2 in. (111 × 63.5 × 26.6 cm). Musée national Picasso–Paris. © 2015 Estate of Pablo Picasso/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

It’s a long-established fact of art history that Pablo Picasso, trained only as a painter, revolutionized sculpture in the twentieth century. He introduced new subjects, such as still life; new materials, using sheet metal in the 1914 Guitar and everyday objects like a bicycle seat and handlebars for the 1942 Bull’s Head; new processes such as assemblage, used to make the Cubist works of the teens; new vocabularies, such as the “drawing in space,” openwork constructions of welded iron rods, in the project for a monument to the poet and critic Guillaume Apollinaire in the late 1920s.

He made space an equal partner to mass and form. And he even managed to nudge two ancient and venerable modes, the wheel-turned pot and modelled monolith, into new and unexpected directions. In the latter case, this was a hybrid form, the monolith-assemblage, that resulted when Picasso pushed his exploration of his paramour Marie-Thérèse Walter’s head so far in one of the Boisgeloup portraits of the 1930s that it devolved into four separate components.

Prior to “Picasso Sculpture,” the Museum of Modern Art’s sweeping survey, there hadn’t been a Picasso sculpture retrospective since 1966, seven years before the artist’s death.1 Until then little had been known about Picasso’s activity as a sculptor. He kept almost all of his work to himself and rarely showed it. Not until the opening of the Musée Picasso in Paris in 1985, its collections comprised of works formerly in the artist’s possession, did the full scope of Picasso’s activity as a sculptor emerge.

Yet organizing such a show is not the kind of simple matter it would be in the case of painter-sculptors like Degas, Matisse, or Giacometti. For one thing, the line between painting and sculpture in Picasso’s oeuvre is famously ambiguous. Much of Picasso’s work in two dimensions, such as the paintings and collages of Analytic Cubism, is profoundly sculptural. Conversely, most of his sculpture, from the 1914 sheet-metal Guitar to the Bathers of the 1950s, is pictorial, appealing more to the eye and mind than the hand. Even a drawing could be a kind of sculpture, as is the case with a series of sketchbook entries made in Dinard in 1928 and a later suite of drawings, “The Anatomy.” In both, abstract figures are fully realized in the round as three-dimensional illusions. “Surrogate sculptures” was the late Picasso scholar John Golding’s term for such works. Which raises the question, where do we draw the line between painting and sculpture in Picasso’s work—or are we even supposed to?

Then there is “The Sculptor’s Studio,” forty-six etchings that form part of the Vollard Suite and are contemporaneous with the sculpted Boisgeloup heads. The dramatis personae are a bearded sculptor—a Picasso surrogate—his nude female model, and the finished sculpture, most often a portrait bust in the style of the Boisgeloup heads. From time to time the artist himself seems as taken aback by what he has wrought as the model, making “The Sculptor’s Studio” a kind of window into Picasso’s thinking about what it was like to be a sculptor.

Finally, there are Brassai’s studio photographs from the 1930s and 1940s. In one, for example, the 1943 Woman in a Long Dress is shown draped in a painter’s smock, fitted out with palette and brushes and posed facing L’Aubade (1942). This and others tell us that, far from regarding them as mere objects, Picasso saw his sculptures as personages, presences, as alive to him as the tribal heads and figures which he had described as “intercessors” after seeing them in the Musée d’Ethnographie du Trocadéro in 1907.

So an exhibition capturing Picasso’s relationship to the third dimension in all its aspects is no small undertaking. Yet the curators, MOMA’s Ann Temkin and Anne Umland, and the Musée Picasso’s Virginie Perdrisot, have produced a show that opens up the subject of Picasso and sculpture as never before, and which takes its place in the long line of definitive Picasso shows in MOMA’s past. “Picasso Sculpture” is a curatorial and institutional triumph.

Pablo Picasso (Spanish, 1881–1973), Glass of Absinthe. Paris, spring 1914. Painted bronze with absinthe spoon. 8 1/2 x 6 1/2 x 3 3/8″ (21.6 x 16.4 x 8.5 cm), diameter at base 2 1/2″ (6.4 cm), The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of Louise Reinhardt Smith. © 2015 Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

The curators have chosen some 140 sculptures out of roughly 700, displaying them in the museum’s fourth floor permanent collection galleries for maximum effect. Organized chronologically, the show begins with the first work Picasso ever made in three dimensions, the small clay Seated Woman (1902), and ends with the folded sheet-metal works and outdoor Chicago commission of the 1960s. All phases, moods, and categories of effort are included, from the most deeply pondered to the most casually tossed-off, such as the paper cut-outs of skulls and animals of the 1940s. The Anatomy is here, as is a selection of six etchings from “The Sculptor’s Studio.” And while Brassai’s images are also present, regrettably the photographs are only of the individual works shot for the 1949 monograph by Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, Picasso’s long-time dealer, not the images of anthropomorphized sculptures. Highlights include all six versions of the 1914 Glass of Absinthe displayed together for the first time, and the Boisgeloup heads of Marie-Thérèse in the original plaster.

It is a rich, sometimes overwhelming bounty, from which one comes away aware as never before of the scale of Picasso’s ambition. The unceasing invention, the use of new materials, and the devising of new techniques—these aren’t ends in themselves but instruments in a larger agenda. This was nothing less than to rewrite the laws of nature by making sculpture do things its ineluctable physicality had barred it from throughout its long history: making the immaterial material (transparency in the Glass of Absinthe and other Cubist works; candlelight in the Goat Skull and Bottle of 1951–53); and the determination to make space as plastic and malleable as clay or plaster. We see this especially in the 1931 Bather, whose radical anatomical distortions—tiny head and enormous hips and legs—are an attempt to compress perceptions of distance (head) and proximity (hips and legs) into a single plane, as Picasso does to the foreshortened, running figure in the 1923 painting Three Bathers. Picasso even sought to extend sculpture’s reach to landscape. As the curators note, the configuration of the carved plaster Apple (fall 1909) bears a striking resemblance to the hill town of Horta de Ebro as photographed by Picasso during a visit that summer.

Pablo Picasso (Spanish, 1881–1973), Woman in the Garden, Paris, spring 1929–30, Welded and painted iron, 6 ft. 9 1/8 in. × 46 1/16 in. × 33 7/16 in. (206 × 117 × 85 cm), Musée national Picasso–Paris, © 2015 Estate of Pablo Picasso/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

For all the attention that has been paid to Picasso’s use of unorthodox materials, his use of traditional ones merits attention, too. Bronze, for example, was not for him. Whatever its utility in preserving fragile works for posterity, in aesthetic terms its ties to the heroic tradition of Commemorative sculpture made it a liability, setting up a collision between Picasso’s revolutionary formal language, which broke with the past, and a material and process that affirmed it. (This in contrast to Picasso’s ceramics, whose power derives from their deliberate evocation of past traditions, the swelling forms of Picasso’s animal and human bodies both mimicking and playing on those of the utilitarian vessels made by potters since antiquity.)

Picasso himself seems to have been aware of this problem, because he only agreed to have the Boisgeloup heads cast in bronze after repeated importunings by his friend and secretary Jaime Sabartés, who worried they would eventually disintegrate. Hence the importance of including the original plasters in this exhibition. For the same reason it is a pity that MOMA was unable to secure the original Bull’s Head from the Musée Picasso. The bronze cast shown here, from a private collection, muffles if not vitiates altogether the opposition between the animal image and the real-world objects that make it up, around which the sculpture turns.

The one exception to this rule is Death’s Head (ca. 1941), where Picasso borrows Constantin Brancusi’s aesthetic of the modernist object-sculpture to achieve the most unsparingly bleak and direct evocation of mortality. This battered, gouged, and pitted head seems to have the weight and density of a cannonball or bomb, and, in so conflating the image and method of death, Picasso endows this ancient material with a meaning unique to the twentieth century—that of mass killing.

This association with military ordnance invites us to read Death’s Head as a self-portrait. So do its unusually large eyes, Picasso’s powerful gaze, the famous mirada fuerte, being a hallmark of the artist’s likenesses of himself. We know Picasso was deeply afraid of death. But thanks to Lydia Csato Gasman’s essay in the catalogue to the 1999 exhibition, “Picasso and the War Years, 1937–1945,” we know he was particularly afraid of being killed by aerial bombardment—“death falling from the sky.” Thus Death’s Head stands as a morbid self-projection in time of war, anticipating by some three decades the famous crayon-on-paper self-portrait the artist executed in 1972, nine months before he died.

In 1906, inspired by Paul Gauguin’s work in the same medium and his exposure to tribal art, Picasso took up wood carving. Most of these sculptures are small, but one, a 1908 Figure, is almost three feet tall and is, tellingly, unfinished. Picasso’s quicksilver sensibility meant that there needed to be the shortest possible timespan between conceiving an idea and executing it, a fact epitomized by the 1945 Venus of Gas. This was “created” by doing nothing more than moving the burner from a kitchen stove from horizontal to vertical orientation. Barring one or two exceptions such as the Boisgeloup heads, Picasso simply didn’t have the patience for lengthy artistic campaigns, and the hacked, unfinished, and unresolved forms and surfaces of Figure betray the frustrations of someone who knows he’s gotten in too deep. Hence Picasso’s even briefer dalliance with stone-carving at around the same time. It’s significant that, when he next turned to wood, in the 1930s, the technique of choice was whittling, a far simpler and less labor-intensive technique.

In this sense, assemblage wasn’t just an artistic innovation—it was a temperamental necessity. Without it, Picasso might never have had a career in sculpture. And it offered him the chance to work in wood outside the emerging modernist tradition of “direct carving” and “truth to materials,” whose chief exponent at the time was Brancusi. The roots of Picasso’s bricolage lay not in art but in industry, in carpentry and cabinetmaking, freeing him from any perceived allegiance to an aesthetic tradition other than his own.

Picasso Sculpture. Installation view of Picasso Sculpture. The Museum of Modern Art, New York, September 14, 2015–February 7, 2016. © 2015 The Museum of Modern Art. Photo: Pablo Enriquez.

In what is otherwise an exemplary exhibition, one regrets the absence of one work, the 1906 Head of a Woman (Alice Derain), a critical way station in Picasso’s development as a sculptor.

In the standard narrative, Picasso was first influenced by Auguste Rodin and Medardo Rosso, leaving them behind when Iberian sculpture caught his eye, then moving on to Gauguin and tribal art, this last the transformative and enduring influence. This is, of course, indisputable in its broad outlines. But artistic influence isn’t necessarily tidy, nor does it always manifest itself in obvious ways. For these reasons, we need to look again at Picasso’s early formation. When we do we will see that, far from being of fleeting consequence, the influence of Rosso is powerful and long-lasting.

Rosso (1858–1928) occupies a unique position in the annals of early modern sculpture. Often described as an “Impressionist sculptor,” Rosso sought to create the illusion of his subjects’ being situated in an environment of light and air. In works such as Man in the Hospital (1889), Madame X (1896), and Ecce Puer (1906–07), Rosso achieved his effects by minimizing naturalistic details, radically simplifying volumes and modeling his surfaces in such a way that, as Margaret Scolari Barr wrote in her catalog to MOMA’s 1963 Rosso retrospective, the “protrusions and hollows in sculpture can be made to play a double game”—simultaneously defining form and conjuring the illusion of an enveloping atmosphere.

There is no documentary evidence to indicate Picasso ever saw Rosso’s work, but the circumstantial evidence is compelling. In 1904 Rosso, who was living in Paris, had a one-man show at the Salon d’Automne; the Alice Derain portrait dates from two years later. Its head is radically simplified in the manner of Rosso, lacking virtually all traces of the kind of naturalistic detail And surface articulation visible in Picadorwith a Broken Nose (1904) and The Jester (1905). (Were the order reversed, it could be interpreted as a beginner’s hesitation followed by growing mastery. As it is, the simplification in Alice Derain appears deliberate, a response to some outside stimulus, the only plausible source being Rosso.) And the surface has been modelled in a way that suggests Picasso wanted entree into Rosso’s “double game.” A similar handling of form characterizes Head of a Woman (Fernande) of the following year. Still, these works are little more than a gloss on Rosso. With Kneeling Woman Combing Her Hair of later the same year and the move into wood carving and Cubism soon after, Picasso would seem to have moved swiftly out of Rosso’s orbit.

In a literal sense he did. Yet with his magpie sensibility, Picasso seems to have taken away the insight that light could have a role to play in sculpture, becoming a kind of “found object” avant la lettre. For it becomes an important element in the work of the Cubist years.

In bronze, the 1909 Head of a Woman can be difficult to “read,” the overall reflectivity of the metal surface conflicting with the articulation of faceted forms in terms of contrasts of light and dark. Things are clearer in the plaster version at the Nasher Sculpture Center (not included in the show). Yet here the pendulum swings too far the other way, with the play of light and dark dissolving form to yield a sculpture that is Cubist in its artistic language but Impressionist in its effect. It was Kahnweiler who first noticed this, writing in his monograph that “Head of a woman takes to its extreme consequences the impressionist sculpture of Rodin and Medardo Rosso. The surface is no longer simply rough; deep hollows furrow it and protuberances project from it as if Picasso had wished to endow his bronze with created light, like that in a picture.”

The constructed sheet-metal Guitar of 1914 is in every respect worlds apart from Rosso. Yet it, too, is Rosso-esque in the way it seems to gather light and shade into itself, its form articulated as much from within as from an external light source—Kahnweiler’s “created light,” again.

Whatever reasons prompted Picasso to paint the “Absinthe” sculptures, control was surely one of them—control over bronze’s surface effects and over light effects, too. Here and in the contemporaneous wood constructions, he shifts from “created” to depicted light, with Georges Seurat’s pointillism becoming the means of creating atmosphere, as well as of indicating the presence of light on, and its passage through, form. Hence the strange vertical flange that projects from one side of the absinthe glass. Painted, it stands for the vestigial fragment of “atmosphere” in which the glass “sits.” The crosshatching around Violin (ca. 1915) and the horizontal striations accompanying Guitar (1924) can be read similarly.

Light continued to make intermittent appearances in Picasso’s work thereafter. In contrast to most modelled sculpture of the twentieth century (think Alberto Giacometti and Henry Moore) the surfaces of the plaster Boisgeloup heads are surprisingly smooth, as if Picasso were concerned to minimize the presence of shadows. As a result, one is struck by their almost preternatural whiteness, almost a glow, as if the artist’s aim with his material had been to incarnate light. (Indeed, in the catalogue—certain to be the definitive reference work on Picasso’s sculpture for some time to come—the curators use terms like “luminous” and “luminosity” in connection with these sculptures.) Could this indicate some symbolic intent? Is Picasso, in the whiteness of the plaster, telling us of the innocence of Marie-Thérèse, or the purity of his love for her?

Light turns up again in Goat Skull and Bottle (1951–53), as candlelight, represented by the halo of nails atop the Cubist bottle, and in paint, as cast light and shadow. Only in a typically Picasso-esque twist, the artist reverses the natural order of things, shading the side of the skull closest to the flame, and lighting the side farthest away. Light makes a final appearance in Woman with Outstretched Arms (1962), where the black surround symbolizes the atmospheric envelope it inhabits.

Light is more commonly the painter’s medium, but it was not the only time Picasso used purely pictorial means to achieve his sculptural ends. In Glass and Dice (1914), the single die is a parallelogram, as if seen in perspectival recession—or rather, in another typically Picasso-esque twist, reverse perspective, since it appears to get bigger not smaller as it moves back into space. Dice receive similar treatment in other relief assemblages of the time, highlighting another leitmotif in Picasso’s sculpture, the play on the idea of two versus three dimensions. We see this first in the 1907 Mask (not in the show) where the right side of the nose is broader and shallower than the left, possibly an attempt to depict in sculpture the simultaneous front and profile views that would be a hallmark of his painting. We see it again in the doll-like Figure (1938), whose head is a flat piece of wood cut and painted to give the illusion of a cube seen in foreshortening. And we see it again in The Bathers (1956), six sharply flattened wooden assemblages, whose association with two-dimensional representation is made explicit in the artist’s use of a picture frame for the arms in two of the figures.

Line, too, figures here, not just the sculptor’s in the monument to Apollinaire, but the draughtsman’s line, literally so in Violin and Bottle on a Table (1915), wherein a sinuous pencil mark defines the right contour of the bottle. Then, at the same time as the Boisgeloup heads, Picasso sculpted a series of reliefs of Marie-Thérèse of which two (not in the show) are composed of snakes of clay attached to the flat ground—drawing-as-sculpture-as-drawing. A few years later he sculpted a running Woman (also not in the show), whose face, spine, and limbs are gouged into the form. The dark lines on the white ground read both graphically and sculpturally, the former by delineating a rudimentary stick figure of the kind a child would draw, the latter because it evokes the interior armature that gives the figure its structure and support.

Yet despite the blurring of categories of painting and sculpture that so characterizes Picasso’s work, there is one bright line that separates the two, and that is in the area of allegory. His only two failures in his sculpting career were Woman with Vase (1933) and Man with a Lamb (1943), in both of which he strove for some larger metaphorical meaning. Woman with a Vase is almost comically lame, one of those works of art so bad that it prompts thoughts of wicked captions. Man with a Lamb is simply cigar-store-Indian inert.

The woman-with-lamp motif would, of course, reappear in Guernica four years later, and in this contrast we have an explanation for these failures. As Gauguin and Matisse had shown earlier, and Picasso would in Guernica, allegory had not been a casualty of the modernist revolution in painting. That tradition, from the painters of the Renaissance through Poussin and beyond, was still viable, and available as source and subject. But modern sculpture had been born in reaction against the windy high-minded statues that had for so long dominated the official Salons. So in sculpture, Picasso was going against the tide of history. And against the tide of his own work, whose strength derived from being rooted in the concrete, the personal and the everyday.

Picasso Sculpture, Pablo Picasso (Spanish, 1881–1973), Bull. Cannes, c. 1958. Plywood, tree branch, nails, and screws. 46 1/8 x 56 3/4 x 4 1/8″ (117.2 x 144.1 x 10.5 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of Jacqueline Picasso in honor of the Museum’s continuous commitment to Pablo Picasso’s art. © 2015 Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Those weak spots aside, Picasso’s use of pictorial means was no doubt prompted by the desire to Maximize the expressive range of sculpture and to create works that occupied a zone different from that of the modernist object-sculpture, one that was neither sculpture, nor painting, but a hybrid of both. Where the early Cubist collages became known as “tableaux objets,” these might be thought of the opposite way, as “objets tableaux.”

At the same time, for all his ambition to remake the art of sculpture, there’s a sense in which Picasso’s work in three dimensions is an extended musing on the idea of the paragone, the Renaissance-era debate about which was the superior art form, painting or sculpture. Nowhere is this more evident than in Bull (1958), a brilliant late work. Bull is composed primarily of superimposed sheets of blockboard, the image itself delineated with the kind of contour drawing familiar from Picasso’s Neoclassical period twenty years earlier. As such the work suggests that at heart Picasso’s ultimate loyalty was to painting, for Bull reads as a painter’s witty rebuke of the whole idea of sculpture. Its physical form is flattened almost to nothing and our entire notion of mass and volume is conveyed graphically, through outline alone. Paragone, indeed.

1 “Picasso Sculpture” opened at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, on September 14, 2015 and remains on view through February 7, 2016.

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 34 Number 4, on page 9
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