Pace Profiles Pablo Picasso

The Palo Alto gallery takes a one-dimensional look at a complicated artist
LIVING LEGEND: Like an increasing number of artists to come after him, Pablo Picasso was a celebrity in his own time. Photo by Photograph by Gjon Mili, Courtesy Getty Images

Pace Gallery isn't ready to cancel Pablo Picasso. The problematic aspects of his biography aren't on trial in "Seeing Picasso: Maker of the Modern" (through Feb. 16, 2020). For some of that reckoning, you could turn to the recently reissued memoir Life with Picasso, by one of his exes Francoise Gilot.

Instead, "Seeing Picasso" is a modest survey of his outtakes. Or you might consider them riffs on his greatest hits. For anyone who hasn't seen his work up close and in person, this is a fine opportunity to see how it holds up in the 21st century.

The paintings, drawings, collages and sculptures are displayed in chronological order so you can absorb the way his imagination developed. A helpful digital audio-visual tour supplements the exhibit, contextualizing the artist (and Cubism!) in a way that's more insightful than the confusing timeline that circles round the gallery's front lobby walls. Not included on the tour is one of my favorite comic takes on Picasso. In a "Saturday Night Live" sketch, Jon Lovitz dons a black and white striped shirt and a bald skin cap. Sitting at a Parisian café, he scribbles on a piece of paper and smugly declares, "I'm Picasso," thereby declaring it a masterpiece.

Some of those scribbles haven't aged well (I'm looking at you, Le peintre et son modele dans un paysage, 1963), while others still retain their gnomic qualities. Tete de femme (Head of a Woman, 1946) is a bizarrely conceived painting that's entirely sculptural. Picasso paints the stone figure of a human form, but one that's disassembled. Its long neck swoops up to a face that's been flattened as if by an anvil. On that flat face, he pencils in feminine lips and delicate facial features. It's an ethereal cartoon of a woman's face plastered against the heavy architecture of that stone body. Her expression is made comical by the juxtaposition, like Marcel Duchamp's mustache in his L.H.O.O.Q.

But first take a look at one of his early portraits. How on earth did he start in 1896 with the tepid, ungainly Lola a la poupee(Lola with a Doll) and arrive 50 years later at Tete de femme? One answer is made visible in a series of drawings—in graphite, ink and charcoal—that start to materialize around 1907. In Visage triste (Head and Shoulders of a Woman), he deconstructs a woman's face from inside by rearranging her facial planes and bone structure. It's as if he started to recognize his super power, seeing through or beyond the material world's presentation of flesh.

There are two versions of Femme debout (Standing Woman), from 1910 and 1912. In each one, he abstracts the body further and further until she's barely held together. Or about to fall apart. This reordering of the body will eventually lead to the planar oddity of Femme la Main sur une Cle (Dora Maar), 1938. Maar's face is in the middle of different dimensions. Her eyes don't match up. Her nostrils flare open like tiny craters. Her breasts, harnessed in a green blouse, point in opposite directions. And yet, even with all of these distortions, her two-toned lips are fixed in a smile. She looks like someone who's caught between the entrance and the exit of a time-travelling portal. But Maar, or, rather, Picasso's interpretation of Maar, isn't worried or unhappy about it. She's still sporting her jaunty purple hat and matching coat.

Bikini Vase is a silly piece of sculpture that doubles as a dated Borscht Belt punchline. A red earthenware pot takes on the shapely outline of a woman's body. Picasso paints a yellow bikini on it and the indentation of a belly button. If a male artist included it in a show next week, there'd be cries about his objectification of women and misogyny (the pot is headless). But this show, as in any retrospective of his work, intends to shore up the value of the multimillion-dollar masterpieces and emphasize his reputation as the most innovative artist of the 20th century.

Will his biography stand between you and the portraits of the women he mistreated? Decades past the era of his supreme influence, you might be able to separate the man from the art he produced. Or you can peruse Gilot's memoir to see Picasso through her eyes.

Seeing Picasso: Maker of the Modern
Thru Feb. 16, 2020, Free
Pace Gallery, Palo Alto

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