This article was written on 07 Dec 2012, and is filled under Reviews.

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Not Just the Greatest Hits: Picasso Black and White at the Guggenheim

Pablo Picasso, Marie-Thérèse, Face and Profile (Marie-Thérèse, face et profil), Paris, 1931

Pablo Picasso, Marie-Thérèse, Face and Profile (Marie-Thérèse, face et profil), Paris, 1931

by Jonathan Beer

Among museum professionals the word ‘edutainment’ is tossed around quite a bit. It describes content that is both entertaining and educational, and has come to apply to the multifarious nature of museum programming during a global economic crisis as well. It is safe to say that most museums (in an ideal world where funding wouldn’t be an issue) would strive to create more exhibitions that challenge and broaden the horizons of their patrons. Unfortunately, due to financial constraints, museums are now increasingly dependent on the financial success of their exhibitions and thus, education becomes aligned with entertainment, hampering efforts to push boundaries. More and more blockbuster exhibitions are put on to draw larger crowds by showcasing the greatest hits of famous and popular artists, and for that reason many museums leave something to be desired.

The Picasso: Black and White exhibition, currently on view at the Guggenheim (which is as guilty for curating blockbuster shows as other major museums) does not fall in that category. The works featured span the artist’s 70 plus year career, offering a revealing glimpse of a sometimes unsteady Picasso, in painted, drawn and sculpted form.

Pablo Picasso, Sylvette, Vallauris, 1954

Pablo Picasso, Sylvette, Vallauris, 1954


The work is arranged along the Guggenheim’s famous spiral tiers not chronologically but in clusters that illuminate moments of trial and discovery in the works. It begins with sculpture and ends with painting. Four sections of wall text, placed at critical points along the ramp, provide an important context (and respite) to what might otherwise seem to be an exhausting show: 118 works is a lot even for the most ardent Picasso fanatic. The beginning of the exhibition points out the Spanish painter’s early struggles with finding a voice outside of his obvious facility. Works like his 1913 painting Woman with a Guitar and the 1911 picture Accordionist show Picasso finding a foothold during his synthetic period.

Pablo Picasso, Accordionist (L’accordéoniste), Céret, summer 1911

Pablo Picasso, Accordionist (L’accordéoniste), Céret, summer 1911

Picasso’s struggle does not disappear; it grows along with his confidence. His creative energy is felt in full force; the weight of actual work far surpasses any monograph surveying the trajectory of his work. Seeing this show, I am reminded of what a retrospective is supposed to do. The mainstay of this exhibition is not just Picasso’s work, but the excitement of following along his creative path. There is an immersion available in Picasso’s work not only because of his long running investigation of subject matter, but also because of his prolific output. One wall text states that between May and June of 1937 Picasso made over 45 drawings that led to what is undoubtedly his most famous work, Guernica. The urgency of the maker electrifies many of the works: Seated Woman in an Armchair (Dora) 1938, towers about the viewer, tittering on unsteady legs, woman and armchair are joined in an “animpossible and irreversible structure, forever bound in the confidence of Picasso’s line.

Pablo Picasso, Seated Woman in an Armchair (Dora) (Femme assise dans un fauteuil [Dora]), Grands-Augustins, Paris, May 31, 1938

Pablo Picasso, Seated Woman in an Armchair (Dora) (Femme assise dans un fauteuil [Dora]), Grands-Augustins, Paris, May 31, 1938

The exhibition is refreshingly not about Picasso’s prowess, instead it reveals his retreats and returns that broaden the public conception of Picasso beyond an artist who consistently created masterworks for the duration of his career. Curator Carmen Gimenez does not make the claim that all Picasso’s are masterpieces; she acknowledges the importance that these other works played in the ideation process. She understands that these rarely seen, ‘lesser’ works provide a context that deepens the vision of Picasso as a fallible artist. Its strength is in the fact that you are not bludgeoned by spectacle, rather the public is given a more open-ended, permissive and vulnerable view of one of the most important artist of the 20th century.

As cultural institutions, museums are responsible for the material they push into the public spectrum; for that reason their programming should strive to creatively address the increasingly astringent financial atmosphere with an emphasis of maintaining the illuminating role they can play. This survey could be seen as a model for exhibitions focused on formative aspects of artist’s careers. Perhaps presenting a more complete creative lineage could in turn foster a stronger public interest in art and culture.

Picasso Black and White
The Guggenheim Museum
October 5, 2012–January 23, 2013



Jonathan Beer is a New York-based artist and writer. He began to write critically in 2010 while attending the New York Academy of Art for his MFA in Painting. His paintings have been exhibited at Kathleen Cullen Fine Arts, Flowers Gallery, Boltax Gallery and Sotheby’s in New York. Jon is also a contributing writer for The Brooklyn Rail, ArtWrit and for Art Observed.

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