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PICASSO THE CONSERVATIVE
by Charlie Finch
 
"Picasso and American Art," Sept. 28, 2006-Jan. 28, 2007, at the Whitney Museum of American Art, 945 Madison Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10021

Leave it to the Whitney Museum to present an exhibition, "Picasso and American Art," which dryly presents Pablo as a conservative influence on the praxis of artists.

The show examines the influence of Picasso's work during his lifetime on nine American artists. The effect is to watch Pablo wrestle, strangle and put a hammerlock on the work of these artists, as they struggle under the weight and mass of his output, rather than releasing artists such as Pollock and de Kooning into free-form flight.

Such is the power of hindsight in looking at art. We simple spectators are granted godlike vision in judging the visual and creative struggles of our best-known artists under the beastly Picassodon. It is painful to see small early de Koonings which mimic Picasso's In the Studio or perversely fascinating to watch Arshile Gorky produce Cubist paintings which are better than Picassos!

Early efforts by Louise Bourgeois attest to her lifelong incompetence in drawing, while Jasper Johns' retardataire defenestrations of Picasso's Woman in a Straw Hat with Blue Leaves seem redundant and unnecessary exercises in light sadomasochism.

As in all such shows in the current curatorial merry-go-round, in which museums such as the Whitney borrow accolades from the circus ("Ten years in the making!" "Sights never seen before on these shores!"), the delight is in the details. Hence, Arthur Dove's Nature Symbolized No. 1 contains an orgasmic color that one has never seen before, a kind of burgundy black. John Graham's Harlequin, Playing Card and other pieces are a revelation and one of the few examples in the show of work that simultaneously evades, transcends and ignores the limits of Picasso's iconography on the creative head and hand. (The other is Lichtenstein, whose erotic beach bunnies stir the blood.)

A cute little Marsden Hartley landscape tries to inch its way into your pocket and a tiny Pollock horse, clipped from Guernica, dances on your shoulder. It is essential to infiltrate the grandiosity around such a noble effort such as "Picasso and American Art" to find your own reward -- such as Picasso's bronze Absinthe Glass, which saucily spritzes Johns' moldy cans of ale in a wall vitrine. Or tip your hat to Lee Krasner's two efforts, which do Pablo better than Dora.

Weirdly enough, Picasso, through the template of this exhibition, comes across as a reactionary influence on some great artists. You will never look at the work of Stuart Davis with quite the same joy again. Such are the unintended consequences of an intriguing show.


CHARLIE FINCH is co-author of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula (Smart Art Press).