Published: March 20, 2007
Pablo Picasso (1881‱973), the towering figure in Twentieth Century art, influenced artists everywhere, particularly in this country. From his contemporaries to today’s practitioners, the Spaniard’s trailblazing styles made him a pivotal figure that other artists related to †or rejected.
Among those most influenced by the prolific Spaniard were such leading American artists of the modern era as John Graham, Max Weber, Stuart Davis, Willem de Kooning, Arshile Gorky, David Smith, Jackson Pollock, Roy Lichtenstein and Jasper Johns. In interpreting Picasso’s styles, appropriating his palette and using his images as points of departure, they had an impact on the next generation of American artists.
The extent of this modern master’s pervasive influence is documented in a wonderfully conceived exhibition, “Picasso and American Art.” Already seen at the Whitney Museum of American Art, it is on view at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art through May 28.
The show was organized by the Whitney and is guest curated by Michael FitzGerald, professor in the fine arts department of Connecticut’s Trinity College. Comprising more than 100 pieces by the foregoing American artists and others, alongside about 40 Picasso works that inspired them, the show offers unique insights into the Spaniard’s profound effect on the course of art in a country he never visited.
“Before the mid-Twentieth Century, American art was considered by most to be a backwater,” curator FitzGerald observed recently, “In the second half of the century, American art was a player. The basis of that transformation was American artists’ response to Picasso’s art.” He effectively backs up those judgments in this exhibition.
In the catalog, FitzGerald notes that “American artists responded primarily to Picasso’s actual paintings, sculptures and drawings rather than to reproductions in magazines or books.” This led the curator to examine exhibitions that influenced artists who came under Picasso’s sway, aiding in the side-by-side display of works in the current show.
Picasso’s initial exhibition in this country in 1911 led to Americans becoming primary supporters of his career, and to the country’s artists choosing “his work, probably more than any other artist, as the test for their achievements,” writes FitzGerald.
Russian-born Weber (1881‱961), who grew up in Brooklyn, N.Y., was the most stylistically adventurous of the early American modernists. After studying with Arthur Wesley Dow, Weber spent several years in Paris, where †at Gertrude and Leo Stein’s salon †he met and studied the art of avant-garde pioneers Picasso, Georges Braque and Henri Matisse. Returning home in 1909, he spread their message and created works featuring the multiple perspectives of Cubism, the simplified figures of the primitives and the vivid colors of the Fauves.
To promote the new art, Weber teamed up with art impresario Alfred Stieglitz, the most public advocate of modernist art in America, mounting exhibitions of the European avant-garde preceding their breakout display at the Armory Show of 1913.
One of the first Americans attracted to primitive art, Weber was inspired by the work of Native Americans, Africans and Picasso.
Weber’s small, simplified gouache, “African Sculpture,” 1910, featuring a carved Congolese figurine, reflects the influence of Picasso’s “Still Life,” circa 1908. When Weber bought the small, austere painting from Picasso, it became the first Picasso to enter the United States, according to FitzGerald.
Weber went on to apply his version of Cubism to memorable depictions of female nudes, cityscapes and nature scenes. Other contemporaries influenced by Picasso and European modernism before the Armory Show and on view in the current exhibition: Arthur Dove, Marsden Hartley and Man Ray.
Davis (1894‱964), a student of Robert Henri, started out painting realist views of everyday life, but after seeing the Armory Show he resolved to become a modernist. Inspired by Picasso, he evolved a highly personal brand of Cubism in iconic depictions of everything from consumer products (“Lucky Strike,” 1924) to still lifes (“Apples and Jug,” 1923) to land- and seascapes (“Early American Landscape,” 1925). According to FitzGerald, Davis’s “intense dialogue with the art of Picasso and of other Europeans&efine[d] his&chievements as the finest Cubist in America and one of the leading artists of his time.”
Davis became a mentor to a number of artists, including Graham (1881‱961), born Ivan Dambrowsky in Ukraine. A longtime Picasso admirer, after he arrived in the United States in the early 1920s he followed Picasso’s lead in an array of eclectic art. Connoisseur Duncan Phillips, who collected Graham’s work (such as “Harlequin in Grey,” 1928), called him “one of the best painters in America.”
Graham teamed up with Davis and another émigré, Gorky, to form a triumvirate of avant-garde painters that de Kooning called “the Three Musketeers.” Graham became Picasso’s strongest proponent in America and mentored younger artists, including Gorky, de Kooning and Smith.
Gorky (1905‱948), who was born Vosdanig Manoog Adoian, fled Armenia as a youngster, settling in New York City in 1925. He was, says FitzGerald, “a greater painter” than either of his friends Davis and Graham.
Picasso’s neoclassical paintings, such as his melancholy “Woman in White,” 1923, inspired Gorky’s celebrated expression of loss, memory and nostalgia, “The Artist and His Mother,” 1926″6. Gorky’s “Blue Figure in Chair,” circa 1934″5, with its double heads and overlapping profiles, drew on Picasso’s Cubist masterpiece, “Femme Assise (Seated Woman),” 1927. The vivid colors and spare vocabulary of rectangular shapes in Picasso’s “The Studio,” 1927′8, were echoed in Gorky’s equally abstract “Organization,” 1933″6. Gorky pursued a career of aesthetic diversity until committing suicide at age 43.
Dutch-born de Kooning (1904‱997) emigrated to America in 1926, and soon, guided by Gorky, fell under the sway of Picasso. His early work drew heavily on Picasso paintings like “The Studio,” and Gorky’s oeuvre. “Following Gorky’s lead,” writes FitzGerald, “de Kooning approached Picasso’s work less as a model for emulation than as a starting point for further reduction.”
Picasso’s vibrant, imposing painting of his mistress, Marie-Therese Walter, “Seated Woman with Wrist Watch,” 1932, prompted de Kooning’s less vivid, but equally compelling “Seated Woman,” circa 1940. Likewise, Picasso’s highly abstract “Figure,” 1927, appears to have inspired the distorted body in de Kooning’s “Pink Angels,” circa 1945.
“Of all the American artists,” avers FitzGerald, “de Kooning shared the most with Picasso, at least in the studio †not simply because of his European origins but because of his openness to experiment and his profound attachment to the sensuality of materials.” De Kooning became an enormously influential leader of the Abstract Expressionists.
The only sculptor featured in the exhibition, Smith (1906‱965) grew up in the Midwest and studied at the Art Students League, becoming an energetic, adventurous artist. In the 1930s, having befriended Graham and Gorky, he joined them in embracing Picasso’s art †and the welded metal sculpture of his collaborator, Julio Gonzalez.
Smith was inspired by both Picasso paintings and sculpture in such standout sculptures as “Interior,” 1937, “The Hero,” 1951‵2, and “Lectern Sentinel,” 1961. Several of Smith’s vibrant and appealing oil paintings of the mid-1930s, which drew on Picasso’s “The Studio” and other works, makes one wonder what he might have achieved had he stuck with painting.
Pollock (1912‱956), the wild man of the Abstract Expressionists, grew up in the West and studied with Thomas Hart Benton at the Art Students League before meeting Graham in New York. Pollock was awed by the range and power of Picasso’s art, especially his monumental antiwar blockbuster, “Guernica,” 1937. Pollock’s bestial “Head,” and tormented untitled (Orange Head), both circa 1938‴1, drew on motifs in “Guernica.”
For his horizontal, brilliantly hued abstraction, “The Water Bull,” circa 1946, Pollock mined images from “Guernica” and Picasso’s “Bullfight” of 1934. Pollock’s later drip and black paintings also incorporated ideas from Picasso.
Pop art star Lichtenstein (1923‱997), who grew up in New York City and studied at Ohio State University, often used other artists’ works, including Picasso, as source material. He created “Femme au Chapeau,” 1962, a much larger, more brightly-colored, subtly altered version of Picasso’s highly simplified “Femme au Chapeau (Woman in Grey),” 1942.
In the late 1970s, Lichtenstein drew on the first Picasso he knew and the one he most admired, the vivid, compelling “Girl before a Mirror,” 1932, in a reworking of one of his own earlier paintings. In “Girl with Beach Ball III,” 1977, he mixed Picasso’s double-headed figure with one of his own familiar comic-book blondes, creating “a structure as tightly designed and visually dynamic as anything in Picasso’s painting,” says FitzGerald. It is “a work that matches the visual magnificence of Picasso’s painting without precisely copying any of its details&•
In his final years, Lichtenstein combined images of beach girls from earlier works with a recasting of Picasso bathers from the 1920s in “Collage for Beach Scene with Starfish,” 1995. This playful scene is animated by the artist’s signature Benday dots.
The only living artist in the exhibition, Johns (b 1930) grew up in the South and became a leading post-Abstract Expressionist after moving to New York City in 1949. Shocked by his first sight of a Picasso work, which he called “the ugliest thing I’d ever seen,” Johns came to regard the Spaniard as the leading painter of his time and based many works on Picasso’s oeuvre.
In the 1970s, the ever-innovative Johns made Picasso himself the subject of artworks, and in the 1980s he began to incorporate imagery and structural devices from such Picasso paintings as “Woman in a Straw Hat with Blue Leaves,” 1936, into his pictures. He played off the figure of the legendary creature pulling a cart loaded with belongings, in Picasso’s “Minotaur Moving,” 1936, in “Summer,” 1985, a two-sided encaustic work, with a jumble of gear to the right and a human shadow to the left. The latter motif, inspired by Picasso’s “The Shadow,” 1953, also appears in Johns’s “Fall,” 1986.
Johns has continued to draw motifs and ideas from Picasso’s work. As curator FitzGerald concludes, “A century after Americans’ first encounter with Picasso’s art and more than 30 years after his death, his art remains potent tinder” for Johns’s art.
This superb exhibition underscores Picasso’s standing as the most important artist of the last century, and by juxtaposing his art with American works he influenced, offers a mini-retrospective of recent masterworks. It is a must-see for aficionados of Twentieth Century art.
The 400-page catalog includes text by FitzGerald, a full chronology by Julia May Boddewyn and nearly 300 illustrations. In addition to providing fresh insights into the manner in which Picasso’s art affected American artists, it examines how America helped shape his reputation. Published by the Whitney in association with Yale University Press, it sells for $65.
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