As usual, Yogi Berra put it best: “Nobody goes there anymore,” he said of a once-popular restaurant. “It’s too crowded.” These days, it’s easy to feel that way about Picasso. For half a century, he bestrode the landscape of modern art like a Colossus, but that half-century ended half a century ago, well before his death, in the era when Minimalism, Pop art, Fluxus and the like were working (not necessarily with success) to cut the tense, taut cord that tied modernist painting to a longer, deeper tradition. Today, artists are more likely to claim a lineage from Marcel Duchamp or, if they’re trying to keep the former tradition in play, to see its main line running through Henri Matisse. Picasso, though he is still the popular byword for “famous artist,” has been sidelined.
And yet how crowded a territory falls under his banner. He’s said to have made some 50,000 works in his long lifetime—not only paintings, sculpture, collages and drawings, but also prints of every variety, ceramics and more—and some of them are always being exhibited somewhere or other. But this fall, Picassoiana was overwhelmingly evident in New York City, with large-scale exhibitions at Gagosian Gallery (“Picasso & the Camera,” curated by the artist’s biographer, John Richardson—a show whose checklist runs to 356 items, of which about a hundred are paintings, sculptures and drawings by the artist) and Pace Gallery (“Picasso & Jacqueline: The Evolution of Style,” with nearly 140 works on view at two of the gallery’s locations through January 10), not to mention “Cubism: The Leonard A. Lauder Collection,” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where approximately thirty of Picasso’s works from the years 1906 through 1916 can be seen alongside pieces from the same period by Georges Braque, Juan Gris and Fernand Léger, through February 16.
No one exhibition can hope to give an overview of such an oeuvre; at best, you can hope for something that makes partial sense. After my first visit to “Picasso & the Camera,” I’d have been ready to admit being almost impressed by the show’s failure to make any sense at all. That wouldn’t have been quite fair, though; partly, I was put off by the over-the-top design of the exhibition, which made me feel like I’d just walked into a World’s Fair pavilion rather than an art gallery. (The designer is David Korins, whose usual line of work is Broadway musicals.) It seemed impossible to focus on anything, to find an order beneath the visual razzmatazz of the diagonal columns and the blown-up photomurals and the seemingly innumerable paintings, drawings, sculptures, and lots and lots of photographs scattered chockablock everywhere. I high-tailed it out of the gallery but later made another attempt, and I was not sorry I did. There was, after all, a sort of order to the jumble: it is arranged as a roughly chronological survey of over sixty years of Picasso’s paintings and drawings, from just after the start of the last century to just before the artist’s death in 1973. The exhibition is not an ideal art-history textbook come to life, as the Museum of Modern Art might have staged it, but it does include some extraordinary loans that most museums would have trouble wangling. At the center, inside those temporary walls festooned with serried ranks of yet more artwork, films were projected: documentaries and home movies from the Picasso posse. Most of the show’s photographs were in the vitrines situated between the walls and the little film theater.