In recent years, the Museum of Modern Art has seemed to have a target splattered across its ever-expanding façade—and not the artsy sort of target depicted by Jasper Johns. From all corners of the art world, critics have shown up with their BB guns, which they mistook for bazookas, and aimed them squarely against the museum’s immaculate Miesian curtain wall. MoMA, they complain, has become old. It has become male and pale, the repository of dead things. It is the precinct of money and established power, crushing smaller buildings that get in the way of its remorseless expansion (the now-pulverized American Folk Art Museum, formerly its neighbor to the west, being a prime example).
It has become, in short, the Pentagon of the art world. All of which is true, of course, but also entirely irrelevant. If MoMA has become the locus of power and money, that is only because it is nothing more or less than the physical embodiment of the exalted, even idolatrous, status that art, and especially modern and contemporary art, now enjoys.
But occasionally MoMA pulls off an exhibition of such definitive excellence that suddenly everyone shuts up and marvels at what only it could bring to pass. Such is the case with this new exhibition devoted to Pablo Picasso’s sculptures. It is quite clear that no other museum in the world has the clout, the curatorial acumen, or the depth of its own collections to come anywhere close to this achievement. Nearly 150 of the choicest and most representative works from six decades are now gathered in one space, to occupy the entire fourth floor of the museum.
Picasso always created to please himself. He made sculptures as he made paintings, either for the sheer pleasure of it or out of a sense of inner compulsion, a need to peek just beyond the present into the next stage of art history. But in this compulsion, painting was always the serious business of his life, and sculpture, though important, was a distant second. It is estimated that, over the course of his long career, Picasso completed more than 3,000 paintings, compared with 700 sculptures. And while 700 works of sculpture, or anything else, are a Promethean achievement, they remain far less familiar to the public, and Picasso rarely chose to exhibit them in his lifetime.
Picasso was scarcely 20 when he molded the first work on view at MoMA, a vaguely symbolist Seated Woman from 1902. Only three years later, the bronze head of his Jester has clear links to the forms and themes of his Rose Period, while a carved wooden Head of 1908 shows that the young man has been looking at late Gauguin. This sculpture represents the last time when we have any sense that Picasso is not yet his own man, that he is a follower or fellow traveler rather than a trailblazer and revolutionary.
With the cubistic bronze Head of A Woman (1909) Picasso altered the course of art history. But that was only the first of several sculptural revolutions that he would unleash upon Western art. In his Still-life with Guitar from late 1913, constructed of paperboard, thread, and twine, he introduced voids into sculpture, perhaps the first time that they became part of the very materiality of sculpture.
With the exception of scaffolding sheds and the iron lattices of the Eiffel Tower, no one had ever seen anything quite like Picasso’s Project for a Monument to Guillaume Apollinaire, which is not in the present exhibition, although three contemporary and very similar works are. Picasso was never a friend of abstraction, and so, in these works, he refused to release that final fraying hold on observable reality: His Figure (1928) could represent anything from a centaur to a deconstructed unicycle, but its ball-like head at the summit and the 12 digits arrayed across four paw-like configurations suggest something very nearly human. And yet, only two years later, an entirely different, more organic and primitive mood returns to his work in Standing Woman (1930), a surrealist totem pole and stick figure that markedly pre-sages, by several years, the iconic works of Alberto Giacometti.
It is true that, in some of his later sculptures, more than in his paintings, one occasionally senses the presence of the huckster who has conjured viewers into believing that anything he touched was a work of imperishable genius. This is true of Woman in the Garden of 1930, or his plaster Head of a Woman from two years later. Indeed, some of the works, like his Head of a Dog (1943), made of torn and burnt tissue paper, feel like the paltriest of off-scourings.