“Picasso Sculpture,” now at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, is by turns staggering, intimate, revelatory, radiant, witty, and leisurely paced. Spanning a 60-year period, the show features 140 works, both large and small, reed thin and exaggeratedly rotund, that were cast in bronze, welded in iron, modeled in plaster, carved in wood, folded from sheet metal, and assembled from all sorts of flotsam and jetsam. Ordinarily, museumgoers gasp over paintings executed by this protean artist during his astonishing 80-year career. This time you’re going to hear a lot of oohs and aahs in front of his inventive three-dimensional works. Only the third retrospective ever devoted to Picasso’s sculpture, it is spaciously installed in the permanent collection galleries on the fourth floor.
Every room tells a different story. The show opens in 1902, when Picasso was 21 and living in Barcelona. He’d already been to Paris and was about to return there. At art school in Madrid, he had become familiar with the touchstones of Greek statuary from plaster casts; now he was looking at contemporary masters like Auguste Rodin, Edgar Degas, Paul Gauguin, and even André Derain. By the end of this brief period, the Spanish-born artist was melding tradition and innovation, a leitmotif of his career as a sculptor. Never wavering in his commitment to recognizable imagery, he transformed his subjects and themes with different materials and techniques as well as a range of styles. At first, he was tentative; later, he went full throttle. In 1909, for example, when he modeled Head of a Woman—Fernande, his companion—as well as Apple, he merely broke up their surfaces with faceted, Cubist planes.
Step into the next gallery, where Cubism holds sway, and you’ll find works by Picasso from 1912–15 that altered the history of sculpture. With sheet metal, tin plate, iron wire, nails, and scraps of wood, he created a life-size guitar, violins, a mandolin, a clarinet, and drinking glasses that elevated the stature of still life to a subject as worthy as portrait heads and standing figures. The vivid colors with which the artist completed these Cubist reliefs and small objects are as important as the unusual materials he used.
During the spring of 1914, Picasso also cast in bronze a series of six “Glasses of Absinthe” that have been reunited for the first time since they left his studio. Except for one that was left in its raw state, he painted all the others with different patterns and pigments. As visual puns, each absinthe glass sports a pair of eyes and a wide mouth beneath a jaunty “hat” that, formed from an actual absinthe spoon topped by a bronze sugar cube, resembles the type of straw boater worn by the French entertainer Maurice Chevalier.
Unlike in his life as a painter, Picasso made sculpture sporadically. But there was a method to these episodic forays. He seems to have been inspired to work in three dimensions at the birth of distinct art movements that he had a hand in launching. He didn’t execute another extended body of three-dimensional works until 1928 when he was commissioned to make a memorial for the grave of his close friend the poet Guillaume Apollinaire, who died during the great influenza epidemic of 1918. With iron rods, he created three versions of a charioteer. Their linear character and open spaces call to mind classic, monochromatic Cubist paintings of 1911–12. If you picture Picasso making a line drawing of, say, the robe and vertical axis of the Charioteer of Delphi, you’ll see how, yet again, the classically trained artist melded tradition and innovation.
This time, Picasso remained active as a sculptor. During the heady days of Surrealism’s reign in Paris, between 1929–35, the Spanish-born painter responded by creating some of his most memorable works in three dimensions as well as a series of astonishing graphite drawings on fine-textured woven paper of imaginary standing and seated women. Readily accepted as a colleague by André Breton, the pope of Surrealism, Picasso developed aspects of his Cubist sculptures that related to the tenets of the latest art-world sensation.
Having earlier worked with unlikely materials, Picasso now realized he could make larger, more fully in-the-round heads and figures. To assist with welding colanders, other objects, and scraps of old iron into unique sculptures as convincing as statues, he enlisted Julio Gonzalez, a fellow Spaniard. Three of their masterpieces reign in their own gallery. Woman in a Garden (ca. 1930–32), one of the masterpieces of this period, indeed of Picasso’s entire corpus, could not be more fetching, an adjective not often applied to the plastic arts. With her hair blowing in the breeze and her animated pose, she seems propelled toward some sort of tryst.
The next gallery is dominated by astonishing taut, white plaster heads of women on a gargantuan scale. Yet again, Picasso looked to the past—in this instance, classical Greece—while being very much of his time. I’ve always imagined rods like those used to create the earlier charioteers to have formed the armatures of these elegant behemoths. One reason these works are so impressive is that Picasso had been thinking about how to create them for a very long time. During 1920 and 1921, he made a group of pastels and paintings with figures that had massive, pneumatic-like bodies. At this moment, he had the ability to translate this idea into three-dimensions.
As you enter the fifth space, which is dedicated to the years 1933–37, Woman with a Vase (1933), another magnificent work, metaphorically lights the way for your tour of the second half of this breathtaking retrospective. She’s a knockout who once stood in proximity to Guernica in the Spanish Loyalist Pavilion at the Paris World’s Fair of 1937. She, more than the iron-rod charioteers, looks as if she would have made a fitting memorial to Apollinaire.
Not surprisingly, during the war years Picasso’s sculptures are less adventurous. But from time to time, he rose to the occasion with works where the subject matter is emphasized to a greater degree than stylistic concerns. You’ll find the painful Death’s Head (1941) as well as the impressive Man with a Lamb (1943), which reminds us how innocent people are slaughtered as battles rage.
After the war, Picasso’s sculptures take on a childlike aspect. He seems to be making three-dimensional objects as if he were playing with toys. He’s having fun with ceramics. He celebrates pregnancy by portraying a woman with a ceramic vessel for a belly and two for breasts. He introduces a now-beloved menagerie, including the popular She-Goat (1950) and Baboon and Young (1951), which has a head formed from model cars. And there are the magisterial “Bathers” who stand in a pool of pebbles.
The show closes with a flourish. Like a magician at a kids party, Picasso folded sheet metal into heads, women with outstretched arms, and chairs. You leave the show entertained and exhilarated and wondering why you hadn’t realized how Picasso, time and again, changed the course of the history of sculpture.