Painting of the Day/ Museum Exhibition Review: “Picasso Black and White”

26 Dec

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Woman Ironing (La repasseuse). by Pablo Picasso (1881-1973). Oil on canvas, 1904. Currently on view at the Guggenheim Museum, NYC.

My notes + Review of “Picasso Black and White”: 

The painting above came at the end of Picasso’s Blue period, a period brought on by the suicide of a friend of Picasso. Earlier in the Blue period, Picasso painted in stronger hues of blue than in the painting above, and later in the Blue period his blue tones became more muted, reaching the point of grey as in the painting above. This is the first painting we see in the Guggenheim’s exhibition, “Picasso Black and White,” a very interesting and different sort of exhibition from those I’ve seen at other art museums this year. It sets a somber, serious tone for the rest of the exhibit, suggesting an artist who didn’t work in the business of pleasurable seascapes and cute children like other artists. Although Picasso became quite comercially successful even while alive (something unusual for artists, who often garner attention only after they’ve been dead for decades), his art doesn’t come across as that of an artist who tried to create crowd-pleasers, for it lacks color and can be so abstract, it becomes utterly mystifying. 

The style of the exhibition only adds to the mystifying quality of the black, white, and grey works on view. The paintings are arranged along the spiral ramp, with each contained in its own little alcove and plenty of space between them. One much-appreciated benefit of this is that by virtue of the space between paintings, it is much less crowded, and you almost feel as if you’re viewing everything by yourself while everyone else in the museum is relatively far away looking at other art. The space also makes it seems as if there is an unusually low number of works on view: with 118 paintings and sculptures, it only contains 27 less works than the mammoth Met exhibition “Regarding Warhol: Sixty Artists, Fifty Years,” but compared to that exhibition it feels like “Picasso Black and White” has half as many works. 

One aspect that I did not like about the exhibition design was the low amount of accompanying literature, in the form of captions, audio tour stops, and the catalogue itself. Only the most well-known Picasso works on view provide explanatory captions and an audio clip, but these captions give little information. At about four intermediary points on the viewer’s ascend up the Guggenheim building, there are two medium paragraphs of general information on the wall that give biographical background information about what was happening in Picasso’s life at the time that he completed the works to follow. While this is illuminating, I feel that it doesn’t go far enough to really explain why Picasso painted without color so often. The catalogue that accompanies the exhibition doesn’t help out that much, either, for it contains four short essays at its beginning and devotes the rest of its pages to 150 plates of the works on view in addition to other comparative works. 

Given the lack of information, at the end of the exhibition it still isn’t really clear what it means that Picasso painted in black and white all throughout his life in every style, something that can’t be said for his paintings in blue or rose. The only explanation given is in the catalogue, where art critic David Sylvester comments that “the need to isolate often governs Picasso’s use of color…[there is] an assertion of chosen color…[and] that absence of variety in the color helps to isolate qualities of form. Black-and-white, then, seems to have been used because managing a complicated composition was enough without having to organize contrasts of color as well.” 

I am particularly skeptical of this last sentence. Picasso seems to be of such technical mastery judging on his oeuvre’s sheer range; how could he really just be using a monochrome palette to make his job easier? And if he really was just trying to focus on form, why paint so often in black and white only? Why not try just green, or just purple? I feel like black and white had some sort of special significance to it, but the exhibition never tries to explore that possibility. And since it does posit that black and white was used to concentrate on form, it should have then dissected Picasso’s construction of form, which, especially in his Cubist and Surrealist works, can be very difficult to grasp, especially for the non-expert who really wants to understand it on a deeper level. It would have been nice to know how Picasso even went about constructing the non-objective black and white works on view, why he made the linear and geometric choices that he made. 

Nevertheless, this exhibition is definitely worth seeing because the paintings on view belong to museums in Europe and are rarely seen in the United States. The viewer experience is also very comfortable compared to that of other exhibitions because of the aforementioned space. And make sure, if you go, that you visit the reading room, located on the ramp at a lower level, to read the four short essays in the exhibition catalogue rather than buying it. It won’t take that long and it’ll save you $60. 

 

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