Reckoning, If Not Repaying, New World’s Debt to Picasso

“One of the most ambitious … undertakings in the Whitney’s history” is how Adam Weinberg, the museum’s director, describes Picasso and American Art, an exhibition that sets out to examine the “profound impact” Picasso had on painters and sculptors stateside.

It had damn well better be an ambitious undertaking. Picasso’s influence on world art—forget the United States—went beyond profound. It was all-consuming. Greater artists—Matisse, say, or Max Beckmann or Pierre Bonnard—can’t claim the purchase Picasso had on the course of art or the public imagination. The contemporary scene may consider Marcel Duchamp a godhead, but Picasso was the man; the 20th century is inconceivable without him.

Picasso drove artists to distraction, particularly American artists already suffering from an acute sense of inadequacy. They felt like pikers marooned in a cultural backwater. Picasso confirmed their anxieties even as he offered inspiration. Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan, in their biography of Willem de Kooning, write of “New York artists … haunted by [Picasso’s] protean fecundity, his refusal to stand still or repeat himself.” Jackson Pollock exclaimed: “That guy missed nothing!”

The effort to escape from “that guy’s” shadow had its most moving dénouement in the development of Arshile Gorky. In pictures like Organization (1933-36) and Blue Figure in Chair (ca. 1934-35), Gorky came to terms with Picasso by following his every move. He clearly found it rewarding to mimic the master; the understanding of pictorial dynamics evident in these paintings is never less than sophisticated. The rest of us may be frustrated by his slavish devotion, if only because of 20/20 hindsight: We know Gorky for the master he would become.

Organization and Blue Figure in Chair are included in Picasso and American Art, as are many other fine paintings and sculptures, not least additional canvases by Gorky. His elegiac The Artist and His Mother (ca. 1926-36), which channels Ingres as much as Picasso, is always good to see. Even better is Gorky’s Self-Portrait with Palette (1937), which shares a gallery with Willem de Kooning’s Standing Man (1942). Who was the more tenacious and frustrated perfectionist? You can feel each man dance around his tremendous facility. The pictures are thrillingly irresolute.

A handful of diminutive biomorphic abstractions by de Kooning, all dating from the late 1930’s, are surprisingly whimsical and even lovable. Max Weber’s one and only masterwork, the Whitney’s Chinese Restaurant (1915), ranks with all but the best Cubist art. Stuart Davis’ brash and ballsy Colonial Cubism (1954) trumpets its hard-won independence from European precedent. A trio of paintings by Arthur Dove are fetching, with Abstraction #3 (ca. 1910-11) being particularly fine.

Almost all of the works owe an obvious debt to Picasso, but not all of them are top-notch. Undistinguished and derivative pictures represent John Graham, a great eccentric of American Modernism and an often spellbinding painter. The Marsden Hartley paintings on view also fail to impress—then again, his finest work derives its strength more from German Expressionism.

Watching the Americans struggle with Picasso can be fascinating, even if the results aren’t always cohesive—witness Pollock’s jumble of Cubist fracturing and pictographs in The Water Bull (ca. 1946). Sometimes the struggle is depressing. Sculptures by David Smith falter with wobbly authority; Picasso’s unfailing bravado crushes them. Smith’s inclusion fits the thesis, but at what cost to the exhibition’s vitality?

Even the paintings and sculptures by Picasso himself only fitfully present the artist at his best. They often reveal him at his most expedient. Difficulty obtaining loans, especially with an artist of Picasso’s stature, is understandable. That said, slapdash Picasso is more interesting than most art. There is a smattering of gems and iconic images at the Whitney. In the latter category are Three Musicians (1921) and The Studio (1927-28); in the former, Bathers (1920), with its neoclassical figures and pervasive, eerie calm.

The exhibition culminates with the advent of Abstract Expressionism. By mid-century, the Americans had pretty much licked Picasso at his own game and, for that matter, the European art world. Pollock’s looping drips, de Kooning’s voracious women, Gorky’s tender linearity and—come again?—Louise Bourgeois’ psychosexual totems put the cap on America’s anxiety of influence. The valedictory tone is fitting: It’s the Whitney’s job to champion American art.

But then the show doesn’t end with the New York School. The Whitney’s curators seem to think that Jasper Johns is their red, white and blue trump card. Mr. Johns does quote Picasso’s imagery both overtly and covertly, yet his dour art has absolutely nothing to do with Picasso. Mr. Johns’ longstanding (and long-depleted) artistic strategy is a Dadaist’s game of hide-and-not-really-seek. Superficially appropriating art is the opposite of absorbing its lessons or understanding its structure.

Mr. Johns was not Picasso’s “sympathetic [American] interlocutor,” as the curators insist. The lifts from Picasso (a weeping woman here, a shadowy figure there) are exploited for their emblematic status—for their ubiquity rather than their artistic power. Like the American flag, maps, beer cans and his penis, Picasso is just another notch on Mr. Johns’ well-worn belt of ready-mades. Mr. Johns comes to Picasso from outside and never makes it in. The famous Spaniard—not his achievement—is all Mr. Johns knows.

Robert Rauschenberg, Tom Wesselman, Roy Lichtenstein, Claes Oldenburg and Andy Warhol all make appearances, yet it is Mr. Johns who sinks the show. Given how meager Mr. Johns’ art is in substance, it’s impressive how leaden it is.

The conclusion of Picasso and American Art is so drably monolithic that it betrays the skimpiness of what precedes it. For a thorough understanding of Picasso’s role in shaping American culture, get the catalog; you’ll find flesh on the bone there. As for the Whitney, better it should take on Duchamp and American Art; that’s where the museum’s heart really belongs.

Picasso and American Art is at the Whitney Museum of American Art, 945 Madison Avenue at 75th Street, until Jan. 28, 2007.

Reckoning, If Not Repaying, New World’s Debt to Picasso