A throng more than 3,000 strong gathered at the Walker Art Center Friday night to celebrate the opening of what is sure to be the must-see art event of the summer: Picasso and American Art. It was a warm, muggy night, perfect for a party, save for the occasional light drizzle that dampened the outdoor Target lounge, but not the spirits of the partygoers themselves.
Artinistas young and old shuffled shoulder-to-shoulder just to get into the exhibit, where they slid politely past each other in large but orderly packs, some standing on their tippy toes or peering through a sea of elbows just to get a glimpse of the master’s work. Getting close enough to read the nameplates was a bit more difficult. People at the back could be heard murmuring “Is that a Picasso?,” and a few moments later the message would be relayed from the front, “No—a Gorky.”
In the gallery itself, such herds, despite their size, tend to be relatively quiet, but one is never sure whether it’s out of respect for the occasion or fear of being overheard saying something stupid. This is especially true at the Walker, where the exhibits are known for defying easy interpretation, and patrons have become accustomed to being mystified and humbled on a regular basis.
Which is one of the reasons this show is so different. After showings on the east and west coast, at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, this is the tour’s only Midwest stop. It is arguably the most accessible show ever to appear at the Walker (is there a conscious being alive who is not aware of Picasso’s influence in the art world?), and according to outgoing director Kathy Halbreich, deciding to host the show was partly a strategic decision “to attract people who might not normally visit the Walker” in hopes that they might view the permanent collection as well. Such naked populism was entirely uncharacteristic of the Halbreich-era at the Walker for the past fifteen years, and it’s far too early to tell if it is a harbinger of things to come after her departure in November. It is far enough out of character, though, that Halbreich felt the need to mention it to a roomful of reporters on Thursday morning, if only to acknowledge that the management and board are aware of the odd fit.
The decision to do the show apparently hinged on the idea that it was too important an exhibition not to do. Picasso is easily the most famous and iconic artist of the twentieth century, and here is a show that demonstrates, in some of the most startling and obvious ways imaginable, the force of the giant’s influence on successive generations of America’s greatest artists, including such household names as Max Weber, Stuart Davis, Arshile Gorky, Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Roy Lichtenstein, and Jasper Johns. Put together over a ten-year period, largely through the efforts of Whitney curator Michael Fitzgerald, Picasso and American Art is a show almost everyone can “get,” because it puts several well-known and instantly recognizable paintings by Picasso side by side with the work of dozens of artists who either borrowed stylistically from Picasso, shamelessly ripped him off, or tried to combat his influence by mocking or trivializing him. Fitzgerald himself doesn’t want people thinking about this show as being about Picasso’s influence—he prefers the word “response,” because what the show is really about is the many ways in which American artists of the early to mid-twentieth century had to grapple with Picasso’s astonishing productivity (more than 45,000 works, which averages out to about two pieces a day, every day, for sixty-plus years) and the unstoppable juggernaut of his all-encompassing reputation.
There is little subtlety in these responses. Some are so similar that it’s impossible not to wonder why no one has pressed a copyright infringement suit—though in one case, Claes Oldenburg’s sculpture "Soft Version of Maquette for a Monument Donated to Chicago by Pablo Picasso, 1968," which sits next to a model of the actual Maquette (baboon) sculpture Picasso gave to the city of Chicago, a lawsuit was involved. Others, like the many Jackson Pollock’s in the exhibit, feel like angry retorts: “You call that abstract? Watch this—drizzle, drizzle—now that’s abstraction for ya!" As one moves through the exhibit, however, the responses to Picasso’s god-like legacy become less reverential, less emotionally heated, and turn decidedly ironic. One can only do four things with a god—worship it, wrestle with it, destroy it, or mock it—and the artists in the latter half of the exhibit, particularly Roy Lichtenstein and Jasper Johns, seem to have had a fine time poking fun at the legend of Picasso. In a quote on the wall, Lichtenstein points out the extent to which Picasso’s work has become a commodity, and he drives the point home by assimilating Picasso’s style into what are essentially large, if exquisitely executed cartoons. Jasper Johns is even more irreverent, taking one of Picasso’s famous noses and turning it around and upside down in various hilarious ways. The tone is wry and satirical, but it is, nevertheless, a reaction—one of many—to Picasso’s unignorable status as the king of twentieth-century art. And this, after all, is the whole point of the show. There is a great deal of tension in these pieces. One can almost hear the conversation/argument between the master and his disciples, and it is one of the most fascinating cultural dialogues in history.
It would be all too easy to stroll through this exhibit, note the most obvious connections, and say, “I get it: Picasso was a legend.” But those who grazed the show on Friday night would be well-served to return for a closer viewing when the gallery isn’t so packed. It’s easy to take Picasso for granted, because he has become almost as much of a brand as Target, whose projected logo swirled over the walls of the Walker throughout the evening, serving as a reminder that practically everything these days has some sort of corporate sponsorship behind it. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it’s just the sort of thing that tends to divert people’s attention from more important matters. In this case, the more important matter would be the profound ripple effect Picasso’s existence has had on the evolution of art in the past hundred years. This show, impressive as it is, illustrates but a pebble in a puddle of the tsunami that was Picasso. By all means go and catch the wave, but don’t assume when you walk out that you have “gotten it.” This is a Walker exhibit, after all, which means that you should end up thinking about it for a long time to come.
Picasso and American Art runs through September 9 at the Walker Art Center.