I Was Touched! Frisky Cubist Flashes Chelsea

l navespicasso5 I Was Touched! Frisky Cubist Flashes ChelseaPablo Picasso has always been easy to hate. Renowned as a protean talent who changed the course of Western art, he’s equally renowned for his many and egregious personal failings. Such a charged figure seems beyond the realm of apathy, but the redoubtable Spaniard has, in recent years, become a bore. Marquee value all but guaranteed Picasso Fatigue. Tack on Marcel Duchamp’s ascendancy into the select ranks of modernist icons and you have a painter whose primacy has been blunted, challenged and, for some people, overturned.

What makes “Picasso: Mosqueteros,” an exhibition at Gagosian Gallery’s 21st Street location, a surprise and, in the end, an event is just how un-boring it is. The show rescues Picasso from the doldrums of his own ubiquity; then it looses him to rampage through west Manhattan. Rarely has the stuff of life coursed through Chelsea with as much gross exuberance.

Curated by John Richardson, a confidante of the artist and author of the definitive A Life of Picasso, “Mosqueteros” sets out to establish a great Late Phase for Picasso—a “monumental apotheosis,” as the exhibition’s catalog puts it, on a par with those of Titian and Cézanne. The exhibition includes over a hundred drawings, paintings and prints created during the last 10 years of the artist’s life. (Picasso died in 1972 at the age of 93.)

Mr. Richardson had his work cut out for him. With its unceasing tumult of twats, tits, assholes, rubbery matadors and whores-fondly-remembered, Picasso’s late work has been dismissed as the goggle-eyed scrawls of a dirty old has-been. The description isn’t far off the mark. But few artists have cannibalized their own art (or their own lives) with as much brute vigor and corrosive good humor. Genius doesn’t redeem awful art. But it took some kind of genius to make paintings as spectacularly sloppy as these.

The late paintings careen with irresolution. They’re less about depth and invention than speed and immediacy. Colors, brushwork, patterns and space are set down with arrogant brevity or looping, scrabbled density.

Mr. Richardson posits the work as a conscious attempt to out-race irrelevance. Abstraction and neo-Dadaism had usurped Picasso’s avant-garde credentials: “By the mid-1960s, [Picasso’s] fans were melting away,” notes Mr. Richardson in his catalog essay. Picasso undoubtedly kept tabs on his contemporary standing.

But the Old Masters proved the most inspiring contemporaries. The vital presence of history powers the work. The recurring bobble-headed musketeers, with their broad brimmed hats, tidy facial hair and elaborate raiment, are straight from central casting as run by Frans Hals. Rembrandt clearly preoccupied Picasso, as did Velázquez and El Greco. Picasso may have been a consummate egoist, but he realized his artistic and—there’s no other way to put it, really—moral distance from these forebears. His roiling meditations on their art are filled with wild and clear-eyed gratitude. Nowhere else in Picasso’s oeuvre—nowhere—do you feel as much joy, wit and humility. It makes for an incredible rush.

The late canvases would be nothing if they weren’t self-indulgent—Picasso’s chutzpah accounts for their garish kick. But the prints confirm his preternatural gift for drawing. The delicacy, grace and profound elegance of his line are in thrilling evidence even when grainy experiments with print-making processes thwart it—maybe especially when they thwart it. The showpiece is La Celestine (1970), a single sheet of paper featuring 66 separate images printed from as many etching plates. It’s a showman’s compendium of a favorite theme—artist and model—and is of a piece with the mordant generosity that is the great painter’s last gift to us all.

“Picasso: Mosqueteros” is at Gagosian Gallery, 522 West 21st Street, until June 6.

mnaves@observer.com