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The Arts Voyager, 2-16: Rhapsody in cardboard, sheet metal, newspaper, paint....
"Picasso's Guitars 1912 - 1914" at MOMA

Pablo Picasso (Spanish, 1881-1973), Photographic composition with Construction with Guitar Player and Violin. Paris, on or after January 25 and before March 10, 1913. Gelatin silver print, 4 5/8 x 3 7/16" (11.8 x 8.7 cm). Private collection. ©Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2011 Paul Ben-Itzak

NEW YORK -- The French art critic and compagnon de route of French artists such as Rousseau, Picasso, and Laurencin Andre Salmon recounts how a visitor to Picasso's Paris studio, seeing his "Guitar," made from cardboard, paper, wire, glue, and string in 1912, is said to have asked: "What is it? Does it rest on a pedestal? Does it hang on a wall? What is it, a painting or a sculpture?," to which Picasso replied, "It's nothing, it's a guitar." Making the rounds in Chelsea on a recent Thursday night, I stumbled upon an exhibition entitled, "Bacon's not the only thing that is cured by hanging from a string," featuring a roomfull of collages of a sort made from illuminated colored light-bulbs, hang-man's posts, and, in just about every case, photographs of people. 100 years after Picasso made collage legitimate, collage as an art form, at least when practiced by some professional artists, has become perverted and corrupted by concept.

Pablo Picasso (Spanish, 1881-1973), Guitar, Gas Jet, and Bottle. Paris, early 1913. Oil, charcoal, tinted varnish, and grit on canvas,. 27 11/16 x 21 3/4" (70.4 x 55.3 cm). Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh. Purchased 1982. ©2011 Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

When Picasso made his cardboard guitar collage and placed it on a cardboard table -- and, two years later, a sheet metal version, both of which are on display through June 6 at the Museum of Modern Art, along with 63 related works from the same period, most of them tableaux -- he wasn't trying to communicate a clever concept. He was simply exploring a new means of communicating in a new medium the way he was seeing a simple object, just as Cubism for him had become a way to deconstruct and then reconstruct simple subjects. So when you see Picasso's Guitars you don't cringe or chuckle at some kind of conceptual wit, you see a simple object in a new way -- the re-arranging or re-contextualizing of its values helping you to see them more clearly -- and you also get insight into an artist's way of seeing the simple world around him. Even where the object is just a canvas for exploring new artistic techniques or matter, it's at least driven by creative / artistic impulse and not any desire to be clever.

Pablo Picasso (Spanish, 1881-1973), "Glass, Guitar, and Bottle," Paris, early 1913, made from oil, cut-and-pasted newspaper, gesso, charcoal, and pencil on canvas, 25 3/4 x 21 1/8" (65.4 x 53.6 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York, the Sidney and Harriet Janis Collection, 1967. ©2011 Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

While MOMA chief Glenn Lowry notes that the Picasso exhibition is consistent with recent efforts by the museum to pose the question, "What can we learn from our own collection?," in fact "Picasso: Guitars 1912 - 14" also provides an excuse to showcase related art by Picasso from 35 museums and private collections around the world, some for the first time in the United States.

Pablo Picasso (Spanish, 1881-1973), Violin Hanging on the Wall. Possibly begun Sorgues, summer 1912, completed Paris, early 1913. Oil, spackle with sand, enamel, and charcoal on canvas, 25 9/16 x 18 1/8" (65 x 46 cm). Kunstmuseum Bern. Hermann and Margrit Rupf Foundation. ©2011 Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

If the exhibition has a weak spot, it's that it doesn't include any of the contemporaneous art -- specifically, by Picasso's Bateau Lavoir mate Georges Braque -- that might have demonstrated more visibly that Picasso did not develope either this mixed-medium idea nor the subjects of the guitar and violin in a vacuum and is not the sole proprietor of either method or subject. A perfunctory quote on the hallway leading to the exhibition space from a letter Picasso wrote to Braque on October 9, 1912 in which he acknowledges, "I am using your latest paper and powders procedures" is a start, but given the recent vogue by museums for comparative exhibitions, where different artists' work on similar subjects is juxtaposed in the same exhibition, it's hard to understand why MOMA didn't search out at least one example by Braque, even a painting. "He owed a lot to Braque," acknowledges Anne Umland, MOMA's curator for painting and sculpture and for this exhibition. Apollinaire may have told Picasso in 1913, as another quote on the wall notes, "You can paint with whatever you like," but Picasso wasn't the only one to give it a try.

Pablo Picasso (Spanish, 1881-1973). Guitar. Ceret, March 31, 1913, or later. Cut-and-pasted newspaper, wallpaper, paper, ink, chalk, charcoal, and pencil on colored paper. 26 1/8 x 19 1/2" (66.4 x 49.6 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Nelson A. Rockefeller Bequest. ©2011 Estate of Pablo Picasso/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Pablo Picasso (Spanish, 1881-1973), Bottle, Guitar, and Pipe. Paris, autumn 1912. Oil, enamel, sand, and charcoal on canvas, 23 5/8 x 28 3/4" (60 x 73 cm). Museum Folkwang, Essen. Acquired in 1964 with the support of the State of North-Rhine Westphalia and Eugen - und - Agnes - Waldthausen - Platzhoff - Museums - Stiftung. ©2011 Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

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