Bent Out of Shape Over Picasso Sculpture at MoMA

MoMA Picasso

This was supposed to be a totally ecstatic, run-don’t-walk review of Picasso Sculpture, now at the Museum of Modern Art. I fully intended to insist that you do everything in your power to get to the show before it closes, on February 7. But then I went to see it. 

It’s certainly big, comprising more than 140 objects dispersed across 11 galleries. And it’s certainly comprehensive, covering virtually every period of Pablo Picasso’s long career. The earliest work in the show, an articulated lump of unfired clay called Seated Woman, dates from 1902; the latest, a welded-steel maquette for the monumental sculpture Picasso designed for the Richard J. Daley Center in Chicago, was made in 1964.

The Bathers
The Bathers

And, yes, the show reinforces the sense of Picasso’s endless inventiveness as an artist. As in his two-dimensional work, Picasso when sculpting never stopped playing with styles, materials and techniques, and the show illustrates both the incredible range of sources he drew upon and his own unparalleled influence on 20th-century art. Some pieces here echo or anticipate works by a vast, extremely varied array of artists—from Gauguin to Giacometti, Moore to Marisol, Duchamp to David Smith. Standing in a field of pebbles in Gallery 10, for example, a grouping of six abstract wooden figures made in the mid-1950s and collectively titled The Bathers (pictured above) evokes a similarly totemic arrangement Smith created at almost exactly the same time.

© 2015 Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Glass of Absinthe. © 2015 Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Unfortunately, the show also fortified my opinion that Picasso wasn’t nearly as talented a sculptor as he was a painter, draftsman and printmaker. That’s not to say there aren’t captivating works here, in every gallery. I was especially taken with a small, very early piece: a bronze mask called Head of a Picador With a Broken Nose (1903), in whose battered face Picasso captured a doleful handsomeness that’s specifically French (think Jean-Paul Belmondo or the prizefighter Marcel Cerdan). The series of painted bronze absinthe glasses (pictured at right) from Picasso’s cubist days—there are six variations here—are charmingly demented knickknacks. A big bronze Cock from 1932 is thrilling in its untamable avian turbulence. And I was glad, too, that a selection of ceramics Picasso designed in the 1950s was included; their bold forms and graphics shout midcentury modernism at its most exuberant.

But much in the exhibition underwhelms, and a few pieces—dare I say it?—struck me as unsuccessful, even clumsy. Chief among these is a rather well-known statue: the large bronze Man With a Lamb, from 1942. This latter-day take on the Good Shepherd theme looks great from a dead-on frontal view; seen in the round, its anatomical gracelessness and lack of balance dominate.

That one can see nearly everything in the round is one of the show’s strengths. The pieces are distributed at such roomy intervals that my view was seldom blocked—remarkable, given the density of the crowd on the morning I attended. (Do note that unless you’re a MoMA member, you’ll have to get a timed ticket.) But there are ways in which the exhibition’s design doesn’t serve the art on display. The overdramatic lighting in some galleries robbed pieces of their wit. Does Picasso’s famous belated foray into Dada—his bicycle-seat-and-handlebar Bull’s Head (1942; pictured below)—really need to be hung high and alone on a huge wall, bathed in a numinous glow? Hell, it’s a humble visual joke (albeit a clever one), not an object of religious reverence. And then there’s also the problem, hardly peculiar to this show, of MoMA’s abysmal acoustics. As elsewhere in the museum, partly muffled sounds from other parts of the building infiltrate these spaces, giving me an uncomfortable feeling and disturbing my experience of the art. (But don’t get me started on how much I loathe the MoMA building!)

MoMA - Pablo Picasso Sculpture 2015
Bull’s Head

So do go see Picasso Sculpture, if you like. But really, don’t feel too bad if you can’t. And if you do go, be sure to look at the little companion show in a stairwell space off Gallery 7. (It’s called Gallery 8, but it doesn’t have its own page in the otherwise superb booklet guide, and it’s easy to miss.) Hung on the walls are 20 or so photographs taken by Brassaï, an intimate of Picasso’s, of some of the same sculptures on view in the exhibit. Frankly, these spookily lit, richly toned photos possess a power and mystery I often found absent from the objects themselves.

Picasso Sculpture is on display at the Museum of Modern Art in New York through February 7, 2016.

Photos: Pablo Enriquez/Museum of Modern Art. Feature: Picasso’s Woman With Hat.