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It’s hard to get excited for another Pablo Picasso exhibition. He is, after all, the Steven Spielberg of European modernism — flashy, prolific, proficient at a vast range of genres, and overrepresented in the mainstream cultural canon. But Picasso Sculpture, the Museum of Modern Art‘s (MoMA) first exhibition since the late 1960s devoted to the master painter and collageist’s three-dimensional works, is an opportunity to discover a relatively obscure part of his practice. Save a handful of exceptions, Picasso kept his sculptures to himself until the penultimate decade of his life, and even now only certain types of works are widely circulated: the Cubist still lifes, the plaster busts of women, the bronze and wood assemblages derived from his encounters with African art. These works figure prominently in Picasso Sculpture, but so do his incredibly fine and playful ceramic vases of the late 1940s and early ’50s, the somber bronzes he made living through World War II in Paris, and the funny, whimsical plaster and wood sculptures of the mid ’30s. While so much of Picasso’s two-dimensional work has been rendered static by its status as seminal art history, many of the sculptures in this show are refreshingly surprising and inventive.
The exhibition’s roughly 140 works are arranged in mostly chronological order across 10 rooms on MoMA’s fourth floor. Each gallery is devoted to works produced during one specific bout of sculptural production. Unlike his continuous two-dimensional output, Picasso went long stretches without making sculpture and then would apply himself to working intensely with one type of imagery, style, or material for a few years. A room off the “War Years” gallery features a small presentation of 24 photographs Brassaï took in Picasso’s studio in 1932 and 1943, offering a sense of how he lived with the works spread across every available surface.
Controversially — at least for those easily offended by unorthodox exhibition design — there are no wall labels in the show. Each visitor must arm herself with a 24-page booklet that lists the vital stats for each work. Speaking at Wednesday’s press preview, MoMA’s chief curator and the co-curator of Picasso Sculpture, Ann Temkin, explained that conventional wall texts would have been impractical and confusing, requiring visitors to continually zig-zag from the pedestals and display cases to the gallery walls and back, while the booklet allows them to get and stay nose-to-nose with the works. And there are plenty of small, intricate pieces that benefit from close and sustained inspection.
What’s most startling about Picasso’s sculptures is how, for the most part, they do not seem to have aged. All those Cubist collages and blue period portraits may look like relics of the last century, but pieces like the tiny plaster figure “Woman with Leaves” from 1934 — whose dress was made by pressing corrugated cardboard into wet plaster and whose face resembles an ancestor of the beloved robot Johnny 5 from Short Circuit — or the group of five small, wand-like wooden sculptures of standing and seated women from 1930 — evocative of outsider art but also Alberto Giacometti and Louise Bourgeois’s many totemic or needle-shaped sculptures — look like they could have been made last year.
The rooms devoted to bodies of work made between 1933 and 1937 and between 1945 and 1953 are especially rich in such seemingly ageless works. One rarely seen group, installed in a display case in the latter room, is a set of nine small pebbles, bone fragments, and chunks of ceramic into which Picasso engraved faces. The tiny works’ lines and features are very sharp and elegant, but the unconventional, improvisational choice of medium and method epitomize what makes Picasso’s sculptures so interesting. He was never formally trained in three-dimensional art making, as he was in painting, and it shows in both his willingness to break with tradition and convention, and his tendency to delve into practices like bronze casting, welding, and carving as he learned to master them. This resulted in some of the wonderfully strange, funny, and enduring works that make this show so worthwhile.
Picasso Sculpture opens September 14 at the Museum of Modern Art (11 West 53rd Street, Midtown, Manhattan) and continues through February 7, 2015.