The Magazine

The Master's Voice

How American art drew on Picasso.

Mar 5, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 24 • By ROBERT MESSENGER
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Picasso and American Art

San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, February 23-May 28

Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, June 17-September 9

There has been a steady stream of scholarly museum exhibits exploring the reception and spread of Modern art in recent years. One of the most ambitious, "Modern Art and America: Alfred Stieglitz and His New York Galleries" at the National Gallery of Art in 2001, also set the standard. In room after glorious room, the exhibition traced the dozens of shows that Stieglitz organized in New York, first of the great European Modernists and then of the Americans responding. The show was an aesthetic and scholarly triumph.

I thought wistfully of that show while visiting "Picasso and American Art" when it was at the Whitney Museum. This exhibition is more than a failure; it is an insidious attack on the achievements of Modernism. It manages to muddy the fascinating story of Picasso's introduction to the United States, and to do an equally poor job of narrating how American artists reacted to his art--as react they obviously did, pushing New York to replace Paris as the capital of the art world decades before Picasso's death in 1973. Installed in the Whitney's shabby fourth-floor galleries under lighting reminiscent of a high-school biology lab, in a barely coherent order, "Picasso and American Art" was hard even to enjoy as a simple visual treat, despite the inclusion of a fair number of masterpieces. The show was a slog, and all the more recognizably so in comparison with brilliantly hung shows up at the same time at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art.

The latter, of course, is the one associated with Picasso. The Modern has always put Picasso and Matisse at the center of its mission. From its founding in 1929, MoMA exhibited and contextualized the art of the School of Paris and became a second home for the painters who would put Abstract Expressionism at the forefront of post-World War II art--though AbExers did picket the museum in 1940 in hopes of getting exhibited sooner. The story of the Whitney is far different. Despite one of the great institutional missions--the cultivation and preservation of American modern art--the museum has floundered its way through 75 years. Though the Whitney has done many fine historical shows on the New York School in recent years, it failed these artists when they were doing their best work.

The Whitney's record with contemporary art is farcical. It preferred Hopper to the early American Modernists, as it later chose Pop Art over Abstract Expressionism, and today favors an anything-is-art approach for its Biennials. The Whitney has consistently chosen to promote the least rigorous art, and it is hard to imagine any artist struggling with the mastering of craft that distinguishes the best art finding any solace in the museum's efforts at contemporaneity. The core of the Whitney Museum's collection--from Edward Hopper to Barbara Kruger--is essentially a refutation of the Modern movement, and "Picasso and American Art" is the mendacious story of Picasso's influence on American artists leading inexorably to Pop Art.

The show begins with the painter Max Weber, who returned in 1909 from a sojourn in bohemian Paris with a grouping of Rousseaus, a tile painted by Matisse, and a small oil still life by Picasso. Weber wasn't the first American to buy a Picasso, but he was the first member of the New York artistic community to do so. He'd made such art's acquaintance, like almost everyone else of his generation, in the Stein salon at 27 rue de Fleurus. There America's would-be collectors and artists discovered post-Impressionism: the Cone sisters and Albert Barnes rubbing elbows with impoverished painters like Alfred Maurer, Arthur B. Carles, Patrick Henry Bruce, Marsden Hartley, and all getting a chance to meet the French avant-garde. The Steins--Leo, Gertrude, Michael, and Sarah--were the beginning. Weber helped carry the news back to New York, but his real success was in exhorting Alfred Stieglitz to act upon it. In March 1911, Stieglitz put on the first show of Picasso's art in America at his 291 Gallery. Originally called the Little Galleries of the Photo-Secession, it quickly came to be known after its street address, 291 Fifth Avenue, a name it retained even after moving two doors down.