It may be hard to believe that one of the more underrated New York art exhibits of recent times is a current Picasso show at the Guggenheim, but such is the case. “Picasso Black and White” is not only one of the best Picasso exhibitions to visit New York; it is one of the better exhibitions of any artist to visit New York in the past few years.
Some may be hesitant to see yet another Picasso show, but this installation—in New York’s most distinctive museum—is unique in its own right. An unprecedented gathering of 118 black-and-white works of art reveals that there is terra incognita even in the realm of Picasso exhibitions. This is the first American exhibition solely devoted to Picasso’s black-and-white artwork, and many of the pieces have never before been exhibited in the United States.
As expected in an installation of this scale, there are works on loan from across the world. The high point may be a loan from Barcelona’s Museu Picasso, The Maids of Honor (1957), one of the 44 variations Picasso painted of Velázquez’s masterpiece, Las meninas (ca. 1656). Other highlights include more sobering works, such as his studies for Guernica (1937), his reworking of classical themes in Rape of the Sabines (1962), and the fascinating Mother with Dead Child II (1937).
Black and white was an important subset of Picasso’s body of work, and visitors will understand why his daughter Maya believes that his black-and-white works express his true spirit. The show illustrates that there is nothing milquetoast about the medium: A spare palette and simple, sparse drawings can be just as evocative as highly textured, elaborately colored works. In fact, black and white can be more interesting than color (something cinephiles have long noted).
Although the exhibition showcases only the artist’s black-and-white works, it grants visitors a panoptic view of Picasso’s diverse repertory. The variegated sampling of Picasso’s work also imparts a sense of the variety of styles that engaged him, from the classical and serene to the jarring and phantasmagoric, with the more recognizably cubist works in between. The motifs that resonate through all of his work—embracing couples, guitars, the recumbent female nude—are just as present here as in his color pieces. Other subjects that he was fond of depicting, such as his various inamoratas, can be glimpsed as well. The installation also displays works that presage both the primitive Iberian-African style of Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907) and the bleak, tragic style of Guernica.
As usual with Picasso, there are paintings which you would never guess were Picassos—this is especially the case with works from his classical phase. Only rarely do we see cubism; many of this exhibit’s paintings are from Picasso’s Blue and Rose periods, when much of his work was monochromatic. We also see the maestro riffing on contemporary artists such as Gustav Klimt and Wassily Kandinsky. Paintings of embracing couples resemble cruder forms of Klimt’s The Kiss (1908), in which the couple’s kiss is not mutual (the male is kissing, while the immobile female is unresponsive).
“Picasso Black and White” not only showcases Picasso’s versatility and impressive range, it gives us a glimpse into his ceaseless work ethic as well. In contrast to some other 20th-century greats (James Joyce comes to mind), Picasso escaped the specter of dissipation. His extraordinary vitality drove him to paint into his twilight years. Working until his death at the age of 91, he never experienced an artistic dotage. “I have less and less time and more and more to say,” he observed in his old age. His stupendous output of paintings, sculptures, and drawings amounts to a kind of visual graphomania: Picasso produced anywhere from 20,000 to 100,000 works during his lifetime, many of which have had an incalculable influence upon modern art.
Of course, Pablo Picasso isn’t sacrosanct. But this reminder of his remarkable artistic fecundity—even in overlooked genres such as black-and-white painting—suggests that Picasso exhibitions may be just as inexhaustible as the artist himself.
Daniel Goodman is a lawyer and rabbinical student in New York.