Monday, December 24, 2012

Breakdancing with Picasso

I was left cold by the exhibition “Picasso Black and White” at the Guggenheim in New York yesterday afternoon. Touted as “the first exhibition to explore the remarkable use of black and white throughout the Spanish artist’s prolific career,” the show understandably omitted the greatest black-and-white work of Picasso’s career, the 25-foot mural “Guernica,” which I first saw as a teen at MOMA in New York and which is now installed at the Museo Reina Sofia in Madrid.

“Guernica” was the great void at the center of the exhibition, as many works now on display at the Guggenheim are explained by their relation to it. But it was not the only void. Color was the second. The exhibition catalog explained: “Claiming that color weakens, Pablo Picasso purged it from his work in order to highlight the formal structure and autonomy of form inherent in his art.” It strikes me, to paraphrase Frost, that Picasso painting without color is like Roger Federer practicing ground strokes without a net.

Perspective and narrative were voids number three and four. Picasso’s images, for all their fragmentation, lack a third dimension or any sense of characters interacting. Let me simplify that last statement. Picasso’s characters lack character, period. A face, a woman bathing, an acrobat . . . each isolated from others, even from itself.

Well yes, there’s “Guernica,” but then “Guernica” is in Spain.

Near the end of sleepwalking in circles with hundreds of other dreamers in the half-light of the Guggenheim’s empty, spiraling whelk shell, I ran smack into Picasso’s Las Meninas, his parody of the masterpiece by Velázquez. My heart stopped. Perspective! An observing presence at the center of the painting! The fragments of a narrative!

It was the food I had been hungering for all afternoon!

Maybe I had been put to sleep by recorded experts intoning about Picasso’s Blue Period and Red, and the rise of cubism (pathetically illustrated by only two works!), and especially the litany of his children, wives, and mistresses, fathered, met, and spurned, while the Great Man endlessly “made art.”

I grow quickly disenchanted with greatness that doesn’t keep its commitments.

One of the commentators was Picasso’s third (fourth?) child, born to his fifth (sixth?) mistress, Marie-Thérèse Walter. Daughter Maya recalled being awakened at two in the morning by her father and dragged to the studio to see what he had been working on while she slept. To hear her speak, I thought that Maya somehow had held onto a deep love and reverence for the old bastard, her father, but this seemed entirely to her credit, not his.

Then again, maybe my boredom—yes, that’s what it was, boredom—with the Picasso show was traceable to an exhibition of breakdancing Katie, Marian, and I saw en route from the noon Mass at St. Pat’s to our afternoon at the Goog.

It happened in the park in front of the Plaza Hotel, where Katie informed us quite authoritatively that Eloise had lived—though of course Eloise is a fictional character created by Kay Thompson.

A troupe of seven or eight men in doo-rags and Yankees ball caps and grimy but matching yellow T-shirts gathered over a hundred people around a chalk semicircle and got us all clapping and pulling out our wallets. Four white children were coaxed into the magic ring and danced with the men, prompting the narrator to name the combined group “White Kids and their Black Dads.”

It was all in great, great fun. Near the climax, they passed the buckets and asked for our donations, and Katie and I each threw in a dollar. I had put a total of $25 into two collection plates at St. Patrick’s, and 20 minutes later I would pay $66 for three tickets to the Guggenheim show.

Later I wondered if our values—$66 for art, $25 for religion, $2 for breakdancing—aren’t slightly out of whack.

1 comment:

  1. Merry and Holy Christmas, Webster, to you and your family.
    I would love to visit the Cloisters in NYC. The Guernica cannot compare to anything by Velazquez.


If you have trouble posting comments, please log in as Anonymous and sign your comment manually.