Picasso is a truly Protean figure. He manifests no “essence” that you can grasp in your search for understanding, and there’s no better example of this than the great exhibition of his sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art in New York through February 7. That the artist who for so many decades made himself synonymous in the public mind with the word “painter” should have also turned his hand, and brilliantly, to the sister art of sculpture is not in itself surprising. His rival Matisse now and then created, as if to demonstrate the essential unity of plastic arts, a fairly restricted number of extraordinary sculptures whose resonances can still be detected today. But that Picasso had, so to speak, what amounts to a second career as a sculptor—producing enough work to justify a lifetime’s effort, and of greater variety than could possibly be expected from a mortal span of years—beggars belief.
The exhibition’s curators, Ann Temkin and Anne Umland, inform us that Picasso’s sculptures number about 700 (their exhibition includes 150 of them). This is, as they point out, “a relatively small number” compared to the 4,500 paintings he produced, but it’s also more than the sculptural oeuvres of Brancusi and Giacometti put together. But this was not thanks to steady production. Temkin and Umland point out “a consistent pattern in [Picasso’s] practice as a sculptor: distinct periods of concentration, interrupted by periods of greater or lesser duration, followed by works that bore no obvious relation to those that preceded them.” His was a consistent inconsistency, in other words. Each of these divergent phases would prove a rich vein for other artists to mine, some of them among the best. Vladimir Tatlin, Umberto Boccioni, and Giacometti himself were just a few of those who found more potential in certain early periods of Picasso’s sculpture than the Spaniard himself had the patience to plumb. Picasso was always on to something else. Yet despite his restless zigzagging from one methodology to another—not unlike the way he endlessly moved house or discarded lovers—his sculptural work, seen as a whole as it is at MoMA, has a radical consistency almost despite itself, one that is easy to feel though difficult to articulate.
The consistency has something to do with the indivisibility of the impulse to make and transform things, to take stuff in hand and do something with it. It sounds simple enough, and most people share this impulse to one degree or another. But who has ever been so possessed by it as Picasso? If he was constantly taking up new techniques and then setting them aside in favor of others, it was probably because it was always immediately apparent to him that no one technique could stand for all, that the encompassing and immortal drive to intervene in matter could never be totally satisfied by paint or plaster, cardboard or clay; nor by just modeling pliable substances, carving more resistant kinds of matter, or constructing assemblages out of miscellaneous disjecta—“strange, coarse, and mismatched materials,” as Guillaume Apollinaire delightedly called them. Only an endless shuttling among materials could intimate the glimpsed totality. The one exception: carving in marble. “It does not inspire,” Picasso insisted, marveling, “How could Michelangelo have seen his David in a block?”
Sometimes Picasso seems to have influenced his fellow artists by pure osmosis: That Boccioni’s 1913 Antigraceful—a portrait bust of his mother—was influenced by one of Picasso’s most renowned early sculptures, the 1909 Head of a Woman, has always seemed evident; Apollinaire made the connection right away. But the Italian Futurist probably never knew that his study of the perceptual complexity of an inanimate object in Development of a Bottle in Space, also from 1913, had to some degree been anticipated by Picasso’s plaster Apple of 1909, which was not published until long after Boccioni’s death or exhibited until after Picasso’s own. In retrospect, Picasso seemed to see his Head of a Woman as the source of something that would come a little later: “I thought that the curves you see on the surface should continue into the interior. I had the idea of doing them in wire.” Cast in bronze from a plaster original, this head foretold, according to its maker, the radical transparency and openness of the assemblages he would begin making a few years later—sculptures that, for the first time in Western art, had interiors you could look into and through.