SF MoMA needs more guards. Picasso and American Art is perhaps the most valuable exhibit to populate the museum's walls since it reopened in 1995. The show includes several works by American painting superstars such as Jackson Pollock, Andy Warhol, Willem de Kooning, and Roy Lichtenstein, to name just a few. The goal of the exhibit is to contextualize Picasso's dramatic and significant influence on American contemporary art. His paintings are displayed alongside the works of other famous painters who mirrored his style at some point in their careers. Many of the inspired-by-Picasso paintings were created within a few years of his originals, providing visible evidence that artists are the biggest proponents of the notion that imitation is a form of flattery. I've affectionately titled this exhibit "The Copycats Picnic," which includes Picasso himself, as African art forms were one of his earliest influences.
In 1939, Picasso had his first big show in the states. Young emerging artists such as Pollock and Louise Bourgeois attended the exhibit and fell into tortured, self-conscious artist mode. Bourgeois stopped painting for a month. Pollock bought a book on Picasso and later threw it against a wall in a fit of rage, screaming, "That guy thought of everything!" Picasso single-handedly shattered their dreams. Though each artist represented in MoMA's new exhibit eventually developed a unique style of their own, it is clear that all of them were at one time under the influence of Picasso's groundbreaking style that forcefully shifted the world of contemporary art, four hundred and forty four stolen paintings at a time.
Arshile Gorky seemed to be the most unscrupulous of the copycats, he straight up plagiarized Picasso's work. Claes Oldenberg, on the other hand, was actually commissioned to create a copy of a maquette of an outdoor public sculpture Picasso donated to the city of Chicago. Oldenberg's "soft version" was used as evidence in a lawsuit resulting from the fact that city officials tried to financially benefit from the gifted work. In the last gallery, several works by Jasper Johns are respectful tributes to Picasso, one of which appears to be a gentle color study that includes the only image of Picasso's face in the exhibit. Also, two of Johns' recent encaustic-on-canvas works, Pyre and Pyre 2 make their debut in this show. The matching pieces incorporate the diamond-shaped pattern associated with the Harlequin, a figure infamous for seducing women with wine that also happens to be Picasso's best known alter-ego.
To learn more about the exhibit, rent one of MoMA's iPods for two dollars. The Podcast program is produced by the Whitney Museum of American Art and includes fascinating information about selected works in the exhibit. The Podcast immediately schooled me when, for a moment, I truly believed that I must be the first person in history to notice that Lee Krasner had signed one of her paintings "Krassner," with an additional "s". Looking down at my trusty MP3-playing device, I noticed with dejection that one of the tracks was titled Krasner Signature, effectively solving the mystery. The only saving grace was the gossip related to the mystery. Artist gossip is much more interesting than regular celebrity gossip, and the Podcast contains more dirty laundry than an issue of People Magazine.
It doesn't matter if you are not a fan of Picasso's work; he stopped caring when he dropped dead at a dinner party in 1973, leaving the world with his final words, "Drink to me, drink to my health -- you know I can't drink anymore." What does matter is that you recognize that his profound impact helped the world realize that art should not be limited by the boundaries of realism and accurate representation. A prime example is his painting, The Studio, which is thoroughly abstract -- a seeming smattering of colorful shapes. Somehow, art historians have gathered that it actually represents a table with a bowl of fruit (two triangles and a circle) on a tablecloth (a red square) with the artist standing in front of a door (a white blob on top of a yellow rectangle) painting a sculpted head (another white blob on top of the red square). Whether he intended to or not, Picasso successfully encouraged his audience to be more diligent in honing their analytical skills.
In addition to being the longest-lived artist of the twentieth century, Picasso also had a very long traditional Spanish name -- Pablo Diego José Francisco de Paula Juan Nepomuceno MarÃa Julio de los Remedios Crispín Crispiniano de la Santísima Trinidad Ruiz y Picasso. Good thing he only signed his paintings with the last part, otherwise there would've been no room for the images.
Picasso and American Art runs through May 23, 2007 at SFMoMA.