Heart-Shaped Box

Picasso: Guitars 1912–1914
Museum of Modern Art, NYC
Through June 6, 2011

In the course of only a few years, Pablo Picasso and his friend and colleague Georges Braque revolutionized painting through the development of Cubist Abstraction. Around 1912 or 1913 Picasso seems to have made a leap from the two-dimensional collages -- a technique Braque had pioneered -- bringing his own personal style of metamorphosis into three dimensions. Picasso's art, which seldom left the tether of a human or figurative referent, found a perfect metaphor in the form of the guitar.

The anthropomorphic shape of the instrument alone oozes sex (think Hendrix, Page, or White), and its assembly process echoes the cut-and-paste method of Cubist collage picture making. Picasso was always in the process of morphing figures into objects and back again -- like a shape-shifting necromancer with ADD.

What is striking about this exhibition is how Picasso managed to wrest such a melodic quality out of the purely visual components. He was, by all accounts, tone-deaf, knew the lyrics to only one or two popular songs (a fragment of sheet music for a sugary pop song "Sonnet" appears in one collage here), and, unlike Braque, never learned to play any kind of musical instrument. The focus of the exhibition is, of course, on the two versions of the seminal guitar constructions. One, the prototype, is in cardboard; the other, in cut sheet metal. The cardboard "Guitar" (1913) was arranged in several configurations before the final metal arrangement was realized. Its variable modes of installation characterized Picasso’s improvisatory way of working during the 1912–14 period covered in the exhibition.

Andre Salmon wrote of this new work when he first saw it: ". . . Picasso, leaving aside painting for a moment, was constructing this immense guitar out of sheet metal whose plans could be dispatched to any ignoramus in the universe who could put it together as well as him. . . "

The influence and impact of Guitar, at that time, cannot be underestimated. In fact, its importance from inception can be measured by noting the luminaries who flooded his studio to see it: the Russian Constructivist sculptor Vladimir Tatlin, Jacques Lipchitz, Duncan Grant, Clive and Vanessa Bell, art historian Roger Fry, and Gertrude Stein.

In a sense, this interplay between fluid and fixed sculptural methods prefigured much of modern sculpture. Carl Andre, Frank Stella, or Sarah Sze are all indebted in some amount to Guitar. In two demure figurative works "Head of a Girl" (1913) and "Head of a Man" (1913), we are entreated to see the workings of Picasso's thought process. Here he takes the dressmaker's or guitar craftsman's paper pattern and applies it to a traditional set of "husband/wife" portraits -- the kind a Rubens or Rembrandt might have painted. Signs and the markings of the guitar are just hinted at in the shapes of the lips and ears in the man's portrait . . . and wood-grained hair in the girls. Again we have a metamorphosis in the sense of diagrammed sensation -- a being between states, and in flux. A sense of touch as description or index: this is soft, this is hard, this is smooth, this is rough, etc.

Already Picasso cannot resist the temptation to morph the inanimate instrument into something more living. These symbols for human characteristics, notations, or signs become interchangeable in a Mr. Potato Head way -- equivalences in a sense. A feeling of god-like humor pervades these pieces, as if, after working on his guitars, and with some spare parts left over, Picasso felt it not too far of a stretch to make a man, too. - Bradley Rubenstein

Mr. Rubenstein is a painter, story teller, and smart culture aficionado.