What was sculpture to the protean Picasso? As the current survey at the Museum of Modern Art makes clear, it was a markedly “episodic” pursuit, which resulted in over 600 sculptures and hundreds of ceramics over an eight-decade career, a body of work seemingly outweighed by some 4,500 paintings. The show’s sizable selection of 140 sculptures and ceramics allows us to consider Richard Serra’s 2006 musing that “Picasso actually seems to be more inventive in sculpture than in painting. It seems like he has it in his fingertips.”
Curated by Ann Temkin and Anne Umland (and organized in collaboration with the Musée national Picasso—Paris, which has loaned 50 works), the show begins with some conventional bronzes from the early 1900s, followed by the artist’s abortive efforts to imagine himself as analogous to an African wood-carver. He abandoned the block for wood planes in his Cubist sculpture period, between 1912 and 1915, and continued to work in wood throughout his career, usually painting and assembling rather than carving it.
The show’s second gallery enshrines modest-size Cubist experiments, mostly wooden wall reliefs encircling the central dance of all six versions of the bronze Glass of Absinthe (1914). Picasso treated each of the bronzes differently. Some are painted with multicolored stippling; one is coated in sand. The red lower half of another is as sanguine as Gauguin’s Oviri. Each one is topped with a real “readymade” perforated spoon and a faux sugar cube. Metamorphosis is embodied here, as the cast changes radically in circumnavigation. The standard frontal view can evoke a face, heavy-lidded and plastered, partly covered by a rakish hat. The opposite side is quite abstract and geometric.
Like the spoons, the 1915 wood construction Violin and Bottle on a Table is dynamically tilted. The wine bottle is largely a negative space; only its round bottom rests on the wood-scrap “table.” A turned wood dowel, industrially made, is positioned as the bottle’s neck, prefiguring such later metamorphoses as that in Bull’s Head (1942, cast 1943), in which a bicycle seat and handlebars are combined to form the title shape. The white violin floats above in the 1915 tableau, as if hung on a wall or even launching into space. One of its f-holes is painted blue and the other brown, each adjacent to a plane of the alternate color. The blue/brown chord is sounded again in the painted sheet metal of the impressive Violin wall relief from around the same time. There, a readymade pen-size box and its lid become the f-holes through context, not resemblance. Such Cubist assemblage was as seminal for later art as Cubist collage. And the range of Picasso’s assemblage materials would become staggering, as he increasingly pursued metamorphosis as a basic aspect of his sculpture.
Despite the richness of the Cubist phase, Picasso would not sculpt intensively again until 1927, when he embarked on a monument to Guillaume Apollinaire—a project that was not realized at the time, but whose proposals served to establish welding among Picasso’s expanding repertoire of sculptural techniques. In 1930, as he approached age 49, he set up his first dedicated sculpture studio, in a château he had purchased in Boisgeloup, outside Paris. This became the source of an impressive outpouring, including plaster busts and heads of women that alternate between a “return to order” classicizing and a rude phallic imaging of facial features that was consonant with Surrealism’s focus on sexuality.
The World War II years are ushered in with gray walls, suggestive of privation, though Picasso, by covertly going to the foundry at night, was able to cast in bronze despite the shortage of metals during the Nazi occupation of France. Bull’s Head was cast then, and Picasso considered it a necessary step in transforming the found-object assemblage into a sculpture. It can be considered a concise exemplar of the Surrealist double image, and thus appropriate for its place on the cover of a Surrealist journal in 1942.
The post-World War II decades were the most fecund in terms of Picasso’s sculptural production. This flowed from his chance encounter in 1946 with Vallauris pottery. A small, choice selection of his more sculptural ceramics is included, and bits of ceramic turn up amid the compositions of other pieces. The bricolage aspect increased, as did the range of materials, with Picasso roving from the traditional to the unique: milk tins, forks, nails and carved stones. Scale also became impressively varied, from tiny to over-life-size.
Picasso’s postwar assemblages—many of them ultimately cast in bronze—generally involve a particular type of metamorphosis, with inanimate shovel, cake mold or toy car transformed into part of a plant, animal or other being. The playful aspect of such works was likely encouraged by the presence of children and grandchildren. Famously, the simian face in Baboon and Young, from the early ’50s, consists of a toy car belonging to Picasso’s son Claude. Such whimsicalities have in the past been difficult to take entirely seriously. Now that we are on the other side of Jeff Koons’s Split Rocker and the like, this seems less of a challenge. At their best, they deflate the pretensions of official postwar sculpture.
The grand finale to this penultimate section of the show is Bathers (1956)—six monumental wooden figures arrayed frontally on a bounded field of small stones. This work, Picasso’s lone ensemble, is more than the sum of its parts, and calls to mind the studio installations of Brancusi, or David Smith’s contemporaneous forgings or sentinels grouped in the fields.
In the 1950s and 1960s, Picasso made paper and cardboard maquettes that he had artisans execute in sheet metal, and an assortment of the resultant sculptures likewise comprises a winning ensemble in the show, albeit one gathered by the curators. With the sheet-metal works, Picasso circled back to the planar construction of the Cubist period. In Woman with Hat (1961/63), he even reprised the blue and brown color combination of the aforementioned violins. Many others are painted white, such as the seemingly pliable, off-kilter Chair (1961).
The museum’s last Picasso sculpture survey was nearly half a century ago, in 1967. It actually had more works, some 204 sculptures and 32 ceramics. Yet the current exhibition presents quite a few in their original mediums—plaster, welded metal—that in the earlier show were represented by bronze casts. It thus offers a more diverse sense of Picasso’s omnivorous engagement with materials, and their potential for metamorphosis, which still feels vital today.