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.

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The MoMA exhibition catalog rightly refers to Picasso’s first Cubist assemblages of 1912–13 as “breakthroughs” and “revolutionary,” due as much to their improvisational and makeshift construction as to the fact that their materials and methods were fundamentally new to European art. (Degas had already incorporated found materials into his sculpture—for instance, the tutu and hair ribbon worn by his 1881 Petite danseuse de quatorze ans—but these were details added to a relatively more conventionally modeled figure.) But Picasso was not generating these ideas out of nothing; he was drawing on his observations of African sculpture, with which he had recently become obsessed.

In particular, Picasso had purchased a mask, a work of the Kru people of West Af­rica, “whose protruding cylindrical eyes double as recessive eye sockets,” as the catalog says. This protruding recession is more than just a striking visual oxymoron. It’s fundamentally a way of invoking presence, of lending the object a kind of vividness foreign to the more literal-minded European tradition because the object is continually appearing and disappearing and appearing again. And if you think I’m exaggerating when I say that African sculpture of the sort that fascinated Picasso and his friends conjures a presence that has no equal in European art before the 20th century, try this: If you find yourself in Paris, enter the Louvre through the Pavillon des Sessions, which has housed, since 2000, a collection of masterpieces of the “arts premiers”—that is to say, tribal arts. If you proceed from there to the art of Europe, you might experience a letdown. To encounter the Mona Lisa or The Death of Sardanapalus immediately after having fed your eyes on the art of Africa or Oceania is, I’m sorry to say, to see slackness and insipidity. It is only after letting some time pass, taking some deep breaths and making an effort to reorient yourself, that you can once again see and accept the specific character and virtues of the European visual imagination on their own terms, despite an apparent lack of the inner force of the arts premiers.

Picasso wasn’t the first European artist to open his eyes to the vast terrain of art from beyond his own continent, but none before him ever acted on it with such daring and extremism. It’s hard to remember now just how surprising this must have been at first, now that generations of modernists have followed Picasso’s lead and thereby produced some of the most prestigious holdings of the world’s museums. In order to do so, it helps to come at the art from a different angle.

Why, for instance, is the guitar such an important subject for Picasso—and in the present instance, the very site of his reinvention of sculpture around 1912–13? Not only is it a recurrent motif in his painting, but the first of his constructed sculptures is a relief of a guitar, mainly made of cardboard. (The exhibition at MoMA also includes sheet-metal guitars from 1914 and 1924.) Is the guitar simply a sign of his Spanish identity, a way of keeping his exotic difference before the eyes of his Parisian (and eventually worldwide) admirers? Maybe so, but then why did his French-born co-inventor of Cubism, Georges Braque, adopt the same motif? Just in order to humor his Spanish friend? I doubt it. There’s a deeper significance to the choice.

Picasso wrote to Braque in late 1912 of being in “the process of imagining a guitar.” The phrasing is important: His sculpture is an imaginary putting together (and taking apart) of a guitar more than it represents the guitar as a finished product in the world. But I hadn’t considered, until reading Michael Denning’s recent book Noise Uprising: The Audiopolitics of a World Musical Revolution, that a guitar was in many ways a different thing in 1913 than it was, say, when Manet painted his Spanish Singer accompanying himself on the instrument in 1860. The “soft-spoken parlor instrument in the European and North American musics of the late nineteenth century,” Denning explains, “was adapted to factory-made steel strings in the 1880s and 1890s.” It became a louder instrument and was accepted as “indigenous,” it seems, “throughout the Polynesian Pacific, the gypsy Mediterranean, and the black Atlantic.” New tunings were devised and the use of the slide developed. The guitar was becoming the vehicle for new forms of urban vernacular music—often denounced as weird and cacophonous—around the world.

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Cubism, with its propensity for taking the sedate and familiar subjects of still life—bottles, pipes, musical instruments, and other bric-a-brac of daily life—and making them look harsh and strange and inorganic, suddenly seems close in spirit to whatever need led people to reinforce the structure of the guitar so that it could handle loud steel strings rather than the soft gut ones of the 19th century. The desire for a transformation in culture wasn’t simply a phenomenon of the art world: Denning quotes the distinguished German-Jewish art historian turned musicologist Curt Sachs, who, in his 1937 World History of the Dance, wrote:

Since the Brazilian maxixe of 1890 and the cakewalk of 1903 broke up the pattern of turns and glides that dominated the European round dances, our generation has adopted with disquieting rapidity a succession of Central American dances, in an effort to replace what has been lost to modern Europe: multiplicity, power, and expressiveness of movement to the point of grotesque distortion of the entire body.

Substitute crépons—the brightly colored Japanese prints beloved of Matisse and his friends—and African tribal sculpture for Sachs’s maxixe and cakewalk, and then as you go on make a few more such substitutions of artistic phenomena for dance, and—mutatis mutandis—you’ll have a good summary of the upheavals of modern art from the age of Gauguin and Van Gogh through the Fauves and Cubists to German Expressionism. All this is just background, I should add, to Denning’s main story, which is focused on the late 1920s. His argument is that the new sounds that we later learned to call “world music” developed, aided by the rise of electronic recording technologies, in the early 20th century in port cities around the world—Havana, Buenos Aires, Rio de Janeiro, New Orleans, Honolulu, Jakarta, Johannesburg, and others—represented the sound track to a burgeoning anticolonial resistance; the response of the metropolitan capitals is of secondary interest to him. But what Sachs’s history of dance suggests is that subliminally, at least, this anticolonial revolution found deep if unconscious sympathies in the very heart of the colonial capitals. Europe had grown bored with itself, wanted shaking up. Through colonialism, it had become politically and economically dominant, but culturally it felt stifled, perhaps even craved its own overthrow; it was, as C.P. Cavafy had already predicted in 1898, waiting for the barbarians.

The heterogeneity of the materials that Picasso incorporated into his art is key to the transformation he helped bring about. That first Guitar is made of paperboard, paper, thread, string, twine, and coated wire installed on a cardboard box, while other works of the Cubist period on view at MoMA incorporate sheet metal, nails, upholstery fringe, tin plate, sand, a metal absinthe spoon; moving forward in time, you will see springs, colanders, a glove, and a gas burner from a stove. Then there were the materials and processes Picasso used that we no longer see because he cast them in bronze or simply buried them in plaster, throwing a veil of unity over all this junk. The 1933 plaster Head of a Warrior has been X-rayed and shown to contain, among other things, “a sculptor’s stand, chicken wire, nails, wire, and a crow bar”; its eyes are cast from tennis balls. The head of the 1934 plaster Reaper was cast from a waffle iron.

This ingenuity at making do and repurposing whatever materials happened to be at hand may have been something new for European sculpture, but for vernacular arts, including popular music—a new form, neither folklore nor art music, and as congruent with modernity as anything Picasso did—it was standard operating procedure. Denning quotes the Ghanaian musicologist J.H. Nketia on early-20th-century music in West Africa, in which traditional instruments were joined by all sorts of newcomers: “New style music is more daring in its choice of medium. Bottles, cigarette tins, adaptations of the western side drum, guitars, saxophones, clarinets, and other sound instruments are pounced on. Many bands attempt a ‘syncretism.’”

Daring in its choice of medium, syncretistic—to make a joyful noise without regard to genteel sensibilities is among the great impulses shared by all the arts of the 20th century, and still today. In music, it’s what West African highlife, Cuban son, New Orleans jazz, and many of the other musics that Denning talks about in Noise Uprising have in common with the art music of composers like Charles Ives, Edgar Varèse, and the Stravinsky of The Rite of Spring, not to mention such half-forgotten figures as Leo Ornstein. It’s also what connects Picasso, and not only him, to this larger history beyond the so-called visual arts, the reason why the guitar is the most apt emblem as well as the precise starting point for his reinvention of the art of sculpture. Matisse may have preceded him, and the Dadas may have caused more of a rumpus, but it was the guitar-wielding Picasso, more than anyone else, who channeled this eruption of what Denning calls “noise”—parodically following the many respectable music lovers of all nations who decried the sounds of the new century—into the places where hundreds of years of Western aesthetics had demanded harmony.

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In the century since then, many artists have been beguiled by the noisy silence of Picasso’s guitar. Consider, for example, the great Venezuelan sculptor Gego, born Gertrud Goldschmidt in Hamburg, Germany, in 1912, just when Picasso was “in the process of imagining” his new instrument, and who died in Caracas in 1994. A small but wonderful exhibition of her work, “Gego: Autobiography of a Line,” was recently on view at the Dominique Lévy Gallery in New York. Picasso was first among her inspirations, as is clear not only from the form but from the very title of the small, wall-mounted sculptures she called Dibujos sin papel, or “Drawings Without Paper.” (It was Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler who coined the felicitous and now-familiar phrase “drawing in space” for the freestanding figures in iron wire that Picasso was making around 1928, when he was trying to fulfill a commission for a memorial to Apollinaire. His proposals were never accepted.) Gego’s Dibujos sin papel are intimate, tender, and witty; they perhaps give little evidence of her understanding that the idea of drawing in space could extend much further than Picasso’s ever did in the direction that Kahnweiler intuited as its ultimate upshot, namely the “creation of spaces” on an architectural scale. It’s understandable that the exhibition at the Lévy Gallery could not include one of Gego’s Reticuláreas, the room-filling, space-transforming nets of metal wire that she began making in 1969 and continued through 1982. (There were some watercolors and drawings related to these works on view, however.) But just as enchanting is the series of Chorros, wire sculptures hanging freely from the ceiling, which she produced in 1970–71. The Spanish word means something like “flows” or “streams,” and the works do communicate an energy that might make you think of a shower of metal; but really, in light of the Picasso show, they are like nothing so much as the Spaniard’s metal guitar strings, no longer holding together an improvisationally constructed box but instead dangling like wind chimes.

A different side of Picasso’s continuing influence can be seen at the Anton Kern Gallery, also in New York, where Mark Grotjahn’s exhibition “Painted Sculpture” is on view through October 29. Here, you might think of Picasso’s Glass of Absinthe, modeled in wax and cast in bronze in an edition of six (with a real absinthe spoon cobbled to each) but then each painted differently. For his works at Kern, Grotjahn, a Los Angeles–based artist, has taken large cardboard boxes as his starting point, gouged three holes in them for eyes and mouth, and appended a long tube (sometimes two) to create a Pinocchio-style nose. If art is fiction, isn’t it a kind of lie? He’s made multiple casts of his rectangular cardboard “masks” in bronze and then used them as canvases for some energetically messy abstract painting that’s often woven together with a lot more subtlety than it seems. The inspiration of masks is an evident commonality with Picasso, but an even more significant connection may be with the cardboard that Picasso used for the deconstructed bodies of his guitars. A box with holes in it is a resonator. Art is still looking for its own ways to make a big noise.

Denning, I suspect, would look askance at connecting his musical heroes—the likes of Louis Armstrong, the Sexteto Habanero, and Umm Kulthum—with a high-art icon like Picasso, let alone his more recent progeny. (Curiously, Kru sailors—members of the same group of West African tribes as the maker of the mask that inspired Picasso—are recurrent though individually anonymous protagonists in Denning’s book for their role in spreading a “trademark two-finger guitar style” around the continent.) Part of what Denning loves about the makers of samba, kroncong, and hula is that they were workers, members of an underclass heralding the coming collapse of colonialism—not representatives of the metropolitan cultures whose dominance was, at least to some extent, shaken in the course of the last century. I understand the difference, but I think there were some secret accords being sounded in the dissonant tones of the new art and music.