Awesome and Awful: The Art of Pablo Picasso

Pablo Picasso, La femme-fleur (Françoise Gilot) (1946), oil on canvas, 68-1/2″ x 26″; courtesy Gagosian Gallery

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This article originally appeared in the April 28, 2003 edition of The New York Observer and is posted here on the occasion of Picasso and Françoise Gilot: Paris-Vallauris 1943-1953 at Gagosian Gallery (until June 30).

The work of a great artist demands something of us–a relinquishing of self, an affirmation that there are things we don’t know or, at least, don’t fully comprehend. Pablo Picasso was a great artist who asked us something no less difficult: to indulge his genius. This assertion doesn’t apply uniformly–certainly not to his great Cubist phase, when his friend Georges Braques helped whip him into shape–but it does apply to much of the rest of Picasso’s oeuvre . Fans of the artist know what I mean: Who, at one point or another, hasn’t had it up to here with his bullying caprices? Of course, few artists have employed their genius, flaws and all, with such awesome and awful power.

In The Sculptures of Pablo Picasso, an exhibition at the uptown branch of Gagosian Gallery, the sublime and the ridiculous don’t just co-exist; they feed off each other in ways that confirm Picasso’s Gibraltar-like stature. In the front gallery, a sculpture of a woman from 1930, primitivist in style and classical in its prudery, is placed next to Young Man (1958), a stick-figure effigy whose penis has, as they say, a mind of its own. The difference between the two can be chalked up to the way erotic fervor manifests itself at different points in a man’s life. The younger Picasso creates a work of sinuous malleability; the older Picasso makes a crass and lifeless joke. One is fueled by the heat of experience; the other by bitter reminiscence.

The passage of time wasn’t the sole cause of Picasso’s inconsistency–as the Gagosian show makes plain, he always was a roller coaster. So don’t head up to Madison and 76th hoping to see Picasso the sculptural pioneer, though he is in evidence. Expect, instead, to see a genius whose cup runneth gallingly over.

© 2003 Mario Naves

Additional thoughts on the art and influence of Pablo Picasso can be found here and here.

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