The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Picasso: A Cubist Commission in Brooklyn is the latest commemorative show in the Celebration Picasso 1973–2023 series across New York’s museums. A Cubist Commission in Brooklyn has received far less fanfare than the Brooklyn Museum’s It’s Pablo-matic, but they share the same dilemma: How do we find something original to say about Picasso in 2023?
A Cubist Commission in Brooklyn focuses on a single project. In 1910, Hamilton Easter Field (a painter in his own right now best known for his patronage) commissioned a series of 11 panels by Picasso to decorate his home library. The commission was never completed. This exhibition brings six paintings likely made for Field together for the first time with sketches and minimal archival material related to the commission. The works on display represent an early and experimental stage of Picasso’s Cubist work, one preoccupied with flattening forms into their component planes, seeking to capture three-dimensional objects from all angles. They share a muted, largely beige and gray color palette, without the distinctive kaleidoscopic aggression of late Cubism. From a distance, the earthy colors blend into a dull, muddy mass. It’s only up close that the textures really stand out.
They’re beautiful textures, though, every shape rendered with subtle gradations of light and dark. I was more compelled by the sketches than the paintings, in particular a series of gorgeously sparse, geometric nudes drawn in the summer of 1910, while Picasso was planning his response to the commission. These ink-on-paper drawings could be seen as forming a bridge between the more naturalistic figurative work he made in the early 1900s (represented here by a 1904–5 sketch of a nude woman that Field also owned) and the Cubist paintings he produced for the commission. But the show makes no attempt to draw a thread between these works. They’re hung far apart, and the gallery text emphasizes their differences, rather than their shared desire to distill the subject down to its barest essence, to make depth and motion with a simple line.
Field’s home is now destroyed — he lived in the slice of Brooklyn Heights that was flattened by the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway — so there would be no way to see the works in situ even if the commission had been completed. The library space that he intended the paintings to fill was a tight three by seven meters, far smaller than their exhibition space at the Met. Few of the works are hung at the level Field intended, which raises other questions. How did Picasso work on these pieces? Can we know if he used easels at eye level, or if he considered the angles from which they would be seen? How do the paintings change when they are positioned above a doorway, rather than at the Met’s standard mid-wall level? The fragmented forms and blended perspectives that define Picasso’s early Cubist works imbue these paintings with a level of visual complexity; they appear simultaneously flat and full of depth. What would be the experience of seeing them from below, or fit into the tight corners of Field’s library? A few photographs on view show these paintings in Picasso’s studio, but the reproductions are so small it’s hard to recognize anything. One digital rendering depicts how “Pipe Rack and Still Life” could have been located above a doorway, but again it’s hard to get a real sense of how the painting would look from that angle.
It seems a little unfair to review this as an exhibition: it’s a display of some excellent and careful research, but the single room suffers because it feels like a sliver of a larger narrative. Gallery 830 is an unassuming corner of the museum, and getting there takes you through several rooms of 19th- and early 20th-century art. These other rooms offer hints of what early Cubism grew out of and was reacting against: pillowy Renoirs, angular Cezannes. Gallery 828 next door has three earlier Picassos, which go some way toward bridging the stylistic gap between early Cubism and the rest of the 20th-century avant-garde, but there’s no sense of how this specific commission might have compared to other artist-patron relationships of the time. How unusual was it that Picasso stayed in France, working only from Field’s measurements? And did Field have plans for the rest of his home? Aside from a small wooden panel from a fireplace surround, carved by his foster son/companion/protégé Robert Laurent, there’s nothing that suggests what other art he planned to display. The letter from Field to Picasso on which the exhibition hinges is short and functional, and he saw none of the finished panels in the 12 years between the initial commission and his death. Why was he so willing to wait for them?
A Cubist Commission in Brooklyn is a compact, simple display, but the work and research it contains is diminished by being so cut off from its historical and personal contexts. Field’s role in art history is marginal today, but he was a significant player in the development of early 20th-century modernism in the US, and the story of this incomplete commission would be more coherent were it connected to that narrative. Instead, the exhibition feels empty: the unfinished series, the demolished house, and the thinness of Field’s biography all left me with a sense of lack. This display was put together in the context of commemorating Picasso’s death, so he is the figure who looms largest. Yet his may not be the most fascinating story in the room.
Picasso: A Cubist Commission in Brooklyn continues at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (1000 Fifth Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through January 14. The exhibition was curated by Anna Jozefacka with Lauren Rosati.