When Picasso at the Museum of Modern Art: 80th Birthday Exhibition opened in 1962, I was only five years old, but I had already gained a strong impression of the artist. Standing before “Guernica” (1937), my father, at the time assistant principal of Erasmus Hall High School in Brooklyn, took it upon himself to go on and on about Picasso’s “genius.” It was as if the artist had given him permission to be especially pompous and domineering that day, brandishing an idea of greatness that excluded all others, including his own daughter. My visceral reaction was to run away — back then, kids were safe in art museums — and I found myself at MoMA’s Surrealist art gallery. There I encountered Méret Oppenheim’s 1936 fur teacup and knew in my heart that it was great art. I did not know that it was created by a woman, but it encapsulated all my resistance towards my family, domesticity, and good-girlness. Thank God I made that wrong turn.
This year is the 50th anniversary of Picasso’s death and at least 45 official exhibitions have been planned to celebrate the occasion. Only one dared to take on the status of the artist: It’s Pablo-matic: Picasso According to Hannah Gadsby at the Brooklyn Museum. As a result, the curators said they received hate mail and the museum was lambasted by critics. When I visited the show, the galleries were crowded with both women and men (something I had rarely found at exhibitions focusing on feminist art) and people were laughing along with Gadsby, the stand-up comedian who inspired and co-curated the exhibition with museum curators Catherine Morris and Lisa Small. The museum visitors didn’t seem ignorant of Picasso’s place in art history, nor did they look like they were eager to “cancel” him. It just felt that Picasso, like all celebrities, could be taken down a notch and the world wouldn’t fall apart.
In my lifetime, there has been a Picasso show dominating our viewing time almost every year, yet only one major retrospective of Oppenheim. MoMA alone has featured Picasso’s work in hundreds of shows throughout its history and the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s 2010 exhibition of Picassos in its collection attracted over 700,000 visitors. The moniker “genius” has been employed within the first five words of every review of these exhibitions. I can guarantee that I have never read a review or article that opened with “Picasso, the artist who left several suicides in his wake …” nor have I ever seen anyone shy away from displaying the artist, despite his despicable treatment of his children, and only a few critics dared to question the master. Worse yet, we are perpetually confronted by critics who think that vicariously experiencing reckless behavior is a hallmark of contemporary art and that performing a kind of ironic machismo is essential to gain a following.
It’s Pablo-matic is a number of things, including a vital survey of feminist art acutely aware of Picasso’s legacy. For example, Joan Semmel’s stunning painting “Intimacy-Autonomy” (1974), intentionally truncates and bifurcates the body, a style synonymous with Picasso’s, but from a female point of view. Nina Chanel Abney’s “Forbidden Fruit” (2009), also flipped the finger at the careless repetition of “nude on the grass” in Modernist painting. More importantly, many works — from Guerrilla Girls to Howardina Pindell’s searing video “Free, White and 21” (1980) — take direct aim at the American ideal that “genius” is a gift designated by God and available to all, rather than the reality that is most often engendered and cultivated by social circumstances, exclusive of many.
If you doubt that this is still true, just re-read Jason Farago’s review in the New York Times. He seemed particularly bothered that Gadsby lacks the proper credentials to assemble such a show. They don’t have a PhD in Art History, oh my. Neither do I nor many celebrated art critics. But God forbid a nonbinary comedian turns their gaze on our culture.
Bear in mind that three-quarters of our planet has a very different relationship to Modernism and Picasso, another thing that many critics do not take into account. In fact, they fall back on Picasso as a reason to overlook or dismiss many other important cultures and art histories. I remember returning from a trip to China in the early 2000s, excited by the eruption of creativity in the country with barely any PhD programs or modern art museums and galleries, and encountering this response from an editor at a leading art magazine: “Yes, but does China even have a Picasso?” Too often, this is still the case.
Let’s take a moment to reflect on the great life of Françoise Gilot, who passed away this week at the age of 101. The Met has only four drawings by Gilot in its permanent collection compared to 400 works by her ex-lover, Picasso. She inspires us to rethink who qualifies as a genius. Let’s elevate those who sustain a career despite the obstacles against them and demonstrate unbridled creativity without the lifetime of support that Picasso received. My geniuses include Faith Ringgold, who gave me my first job in the art world, and Martha Wilson, who also offered me a place at Franklin Furnace Archive. I would also give the title to the late Emma Amos, Joan Semmel, Judith Bernstein, and Joyce Kozloff. The latter told me that I could do great things, even as a woman artist with children. The many other women artists in It’s Pablo-matic also deserve this recognition, and it’s their true genius that makes this show worth seeing.