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Whatever you may think of Picasso (1881–1973), his role in transforming Western art is unassailable, if poorly understood. Whenever most people consider his accomplishments, they usually think of his paintings, which is only natural since he studied as a painter. But as this magisterial survey at MoMA makes clear, he was as just as innovative in another medium, one in which he received no formal training: sculpture. Moreover, he revolutionized the field not in spite of this lack but because of it.
Picasso learned how to work in three dimensions by doing, modeling clay or carving wood as time allowed. The gallery devoted to his budding interest is filled with such efforts, beginning with a small lumpy depiction of a seated woman made in 1902 and ending with what is his arguably his first mature sculpture, the cubistic Head of a Woman (Fernande) (1909). In between are a couple of marvelous wooden totems inspired by the same trips to see African and Oceanic art at the Musée d'Ethnographie du Trocadéro that sparked his 1907 masterpiece, Les Demoiselles d'Avignon.
All of these early forays bear the telltale restlessness of the self-taught. Like many autodidacts, Picasso could connect dots that were otherwise constrained by the shibboleths of education. He didn’t have to unlearn anything to leap forward, and within five years of Les Demoiselles, he fashioned Guitar (1912), a piece equaling, if not surpassing, the radical achievement of that painting.
Protected here within a Plexiglas case, Guitar is a funky, fragile bit of business: A life-size maquette made of cardboard, twine and wire, pasted and strung together as a series of flat shapes that depict its subject whole yet coming apart at the seams. A translation of Cubist collage into physical space, Guitar isn’t wrested from a solid mass of material; it’s put together like a building, a shift in technique that paved the way for much of the sculpture of the 20th century and beyond. (It inspired the Russian Constructivist movement, for example, thanks to a 1913 visit that its founder, Vladimir Tatlin, paid to Picasso’s studio, where he saw Guitar and absorbed its lessons). Interestingly, Picasso himself didn’t think of Guitar as a sculpture but rather a liminal expression that would liberate artists from the “imbecilic tyranny” of genres.
For the next several years, he followed up with pieces similar to Guitar, including a version of made of snipped tin. The same period also saw the creation of Glass of Absinthe (1914). Essentially a pair of truncated cones stacked nose-to-nose with shapes and voids swirling up the sides, the piece, painted bronze, might have represented a step backward were it not for Picasso’s inclusion of an actual absinthe spoon—the flat, slotted utensil that proper imbibers of the drink used to pour the liquor over a lump of sugar. Sweetening the piece like the cherry atop a sundae, the spoon was another extension of collage, but like Duchamp’s Bicycle Wheel of the previous year, it opened up whole new category of found-object assemblage. Duchamp’s ironic intention in bolting a bicycle wheel to a stool—to render functional items useless—was admittedly a universe away from the representational function Picasso assigned his spoon. Still, the latter was just as crucial to narrowing the gap between art and life as Duchamp’s insouciant gesture.
Stopping at Guitar would have been enough to secure Picasso place in the annals of sculpture, but since this show spreads across nine rooms altogether, he obviously did not. One section spanning 1927 to 1931 focuses on his attempts to design a memorial to his good friend and supporter, the poet Guillaume Apollinaire (1880–1918), who perished in the influenza pandemic that struck after the end of World War I. For the 10th anniversary of Apollinaire’s death, the Paris City Council enlisted Picasso to create a monument to his memory. A series a of spindly line drawings inspired by astronomical charts followed, studies that were subsequently made into steel-rod models with the help of Picasso’s compatriot, Julio González, who’d introduced welding into sculpture. Ultimately, Picasso’s proposal was rejected for being too abstract, though his collaboration with González pointed the way to other pieces such as Woman in the Garden (1929–30), a frenetic assembly of parts that belies its bucolic title.
The inventive rush of the first half of Picasso’s sculptural career mellowed somewhat in the second, as he returned to casting in plaster and figurative modes marked by neoclassical touches. In the 1930s, he purchased a chateau outside of Paris in Boisgeloup, turning its former stables into a studio. The generously proportioned space permitted an equally expansive phase in his work, which, among other things, resulted in his iconic, big-nosed Head of a Woman (1932), as well as the strangely comic Head of a Warrior (1933), which shares an outsize proboscis with Woman. Warrior’s eyes, seemingly able to swerve in their sockets like a chameleon’s, were cast from tennis balls, representing one instance of Picasso mixing found objects and materials into his process. This approach would later yield Picasso’s proto-Pop Baboon and Young (1951), in which he used the front end of a toy car to depict the creature’s face. Baboon came out of Picasso’s early-’50s sojourn in Vallauris in the south of France, where he also began to make the ebullient ceramics that enlivened his late output.
All of this confirms Picasso’s well-earned reputation as an unstoppable force of nature. Not even his decision to remain in Nazi-occupied Paris during the war dented his ambition. Though, as a dimly lit gallery painted gray demonstrates, the Germans managed to cramp his style. Still, he turned his bathroom into a sculpture studio and even cast in bronze, which wasn’t permitted because of wartime metal shortages. The gloominess of that time is reflected in works like Skull, hard and sepulchral as a meteorite from hell, and a compact relief head of a bull made of a bicycle’s seat and handlebars.
Eventually, Paris was liberated, and so was Picasso. What followed was the stay in Vallauris and another move to Cannes in 1958, where he had a villa, one of several he owned in the south of France. By then he’d become synonymous with modern art and could have coasted. A case could be made that he did, although works like the freestanding plywood cutout Bull (c. 1958), suggests otherwise, as does the room covering the last years of life. It contains maquettes made of painted sheet metal, two of which, Bust of Sylvette (1967) and an untitled birdlike head (1965), became monumental sculptures for New York and Chicago, respectively. More intriguingly, these works suggest Picasso coming full circle back to Guitar.
The prodigious nature of Picasso’s oeuvre—its sheer volume and ceaseless creativity—makes it hard to completely grasp, and that’s true of his sculpture as well. The fact that he created it alongside his similarly huge production of paintings, drawings and prints makes the accomplishment in this show all the more astounding. Still, more than his other work, perhaps, Picasso’s sculptures provide palpable evidence of a man bending history to his will.