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Picasso’s Whimsical Sketchbook:

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At 90, Genius Kept a Steady Hand

Picasso: The Berggruen Album , an exhibition at Mitchell-Innes & Nash, offers a rare opportunity to watch one of the great painters of the 20th century demonstrate his genius-by pretty much setting it aside. The 26 drawings, which Picasso made over the spate of seven days in November of 1970, are culled from a sketchbook in art dealer Heinz Berggruen’s collection and are on public view for the first time. The 90 year-old artist set out to prove that his “hand has not developed a wobble.” He must’ve been pleased with the results.

Devoted primarily to the female nude, the drawings are fluid and sure, markedly different from the paintings of the time. You remember them: riffs on Ingres, Velázquez and Rembrandt, hasty, brutish and brimming with orifices. There are orifices aplenty in Picasso’s sketchbook as well-one selection, dated Nov. 9, 1970, would make Larry Flynt smile.

It’s difficult not to saddle the drawings with biographical and psychological baggage. Picasso’s failings as a human being were formidable and well known. He was a monster to the women in his life (terrible to the men in his life, too). In his art however, Picasso was capable of a critical self-awareness that renders his obsessions palatable, fascinating and quite funny. In one drawing, an absurdly muscled descendant of a Greek Attic figure is firmly put in his place by the woman he seeks to possess. In another, a young woman tolerates-though not for long-the attentions of a dirty old man. The butt of these whimsical jests on desire and age is almost certainly Picasso himself. What makes all of it sing is the artist’s unfettered mastery. There’s not a mark here that doesn’t amplify Picasso’s genius or his unquenchable appetite for life. The Berggruen Album is an event that shouldn’t be missed.

Picasso: The Berggruen Album is at Mitchell-Innes & Nash, 1018 Madison Avenue, until June 26.

Conflict of Interests

The challenge for any institution wishing to present a survey of contemporary art is whether to participate in the ongoing trivialization of art or to stem the tide. Put another way: Does a museum capitulate to the status quo and reap the momentary cachet such a relationship confers, or does it risk accusations of conservatism in making the case for art as a phenomenon with its own ornery and independent life? The distinction is neatly put forth by the two sculptures that greet viewers at the entrance to the National Academy of Design’s 197th Annual Exhibition: William Tucker’s Homage to Rodin (Bibi) (1999) and Nina Levy’s Greeter, Exhibitionist and Jeer (2002). Mr. Tucker’s bronze monolith is a hulking, muscular mass of primordial matter. Ms. Levy’s piece is comprised of three self-portraits: a photo, a seated nude and a standing figure with a grotesque, oversized smile. The differences between the two artists are huge and unbridgeable. Mr. Tucker considers art a serious, even noble calling and a means for extracting meaning through the shaping of form. Ms. Levy regards art as an agent of its own denigration and a byproduct of theory.

New Yorkers who value the “transformative potential of the visual” (to borrow the words of the Academy’s president, painter Gregory Amenoff) will be tempted to hightail it out of the museum after encountering Greeter, Exhibitionist and Jeer . Who can blame them? It’s a nasty piece of work. Ms. Levy isn’t a member of the Academy, nor is Mr. Tucker or the other 100 or so invited artists-a conscious attempt to make the Annual more “diverse.” Though it doesn’t take a firm stand for high culture, no one will mistake the exhibition for the Biennial, not least because it features some consequential art-the sculptures of Natalie Charkow, Harry Roseman and Jim Osman, say, or the paintings of Sharon Horvath, Ben Aronson and Laura Harrison. In fact, by my count, there are 21 solid-to-stellar artists at the National Academy; that’s 20 more than currently at the Whitney. Now tell me where you should be standing on line.

The 179th Annual: An Invitational Exhibition of Contemporary American Art is at 1083 Fifth Avenue, at 89th Street, until June 20.

Irresistible Oils

The biggest compliment one can give the abstract paintings of Bill Scott, on display at Hollis Taggart Galleries, is that they’ll spur fellow painters to run to their studios and get down to business. Has there been an artist who put brush to canvas with a greater generosity of spirit and playfulness of approach? Of course-still, it speaks to the élan typical of the pictures that you want to answer no.

Mr. Scott overlaps and juxtaposes sprawling, off-hand calligraphy and shifting, informal geometry. References to plant life and gardens are insinuated, particularly through compositions that have been allowed to develop organically. The cynical voice in the back of my head informs me that the dichotomy between abstract image and representational impetus is soft-pedaled and thereby prettified. My eye disagrees, telling me that the courting of pictorial clutter is well-nigh irresistible and that the pictures have more to show for the possibilities of oil paint than those of Per Kirkeby, Brice Marden and Joan Snyder, all of which Mr. Scott brings to mind-and all of whom he trumps.

Bill Scott: Process and Continuity is at Hollis Taggart Galleries, 48 East 73rd Street, until July 9.

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