Wednesday, October 21, 2015

"After Picasso: 80 Contemporary Artists" at the Wexner Center for Contemporary Art

Mike Bidlo
Not Picasso (Girl Before a Mirror, 1932), 1986
Oil on canvas, 64.17 x 51.18 in. (163 x 130 cm)
Private Collection, Courtesy Galerie Bruno Bischofberger
I left After Picasso: 80 Contemporary Artists, the vast show at the Wexner Center of the Ohio State University, thinking that for such a big show I felt very few moments of joy. I know that Picasso makes pulses race, and the exhibition is predicated on this: Witness His artistic impact. The show is burdened by impact that is much, much less than Picasso's achievement. Alas, this academic location of influences, echoes, and salutes brings us work that barely stirs the blood—and it places interesting work in contexts where it appears lonely and small. Briefly, the show is thin on content touching primary human questions or emotions.

The occasion for After Picasso is the 25th anniversary of the Deichtorhallen Hamburg. Their celebration is this show: Huge artist and a theme that is more important in concept than the art that demonstrates it. Add loans from all over the globe and we've got an Event.

This show unsuccessfully tries to serve two audiences. While it may be a home run for academics, it fouls out as a show for a general, curious public. In its conscientious effort to conceive every possible overlap of "Picasso" and "influence," it wastes space and viewer patience on tedious appropriations of Picasso's work; on isolated figures or composition borrowed from Picasso; and on art that reacts to or riffs on Picasso icons or styles. We rarely see suggestions of how an artist's vision reached a plane inconceivable in a world untouched by Picasso. 
Cindy Sherman, Untitled 280, 1989-93.
Color print, 140x94x8cm. Courtesy of
Neda Young, New York.

Picasso's greatness is not an issue, so little is proven by the many demonstrations of his marks on artists who appropriate or borrow from his work. Except in an academic sense, we gain little appreciation of the borrowers as creators of art deeply interesting in itself. Our understanding of influence is even stretched by the fitting of some material to a curatorial narrative. Cindy Sherman's self-portraiture has for years displayed her interest in art history broadly cast. The Picasso inspiration for Untitled 280 speaks no more of a fascination with Picasso specifically than do her portraits using iconic images from a vast world of artists. 

Director of the Deichtorhallen Hamburg, Dirk Luckow, writes in the catalogue's preface (translated from German),
"The hypothesis of the exhibition is that the great influence that Picasso's art has today is because his work and his person cannot be separated…"

Galerie Leyendeker, Tenerife (T. Ü.)
1985, Silkscreen, 83,8 x 59,4 cm
© Estate of Martin Kippenberger,
 Galerie Gisela Capitain, Cologne

No doubt about Picasso's personal fame. But I'm all for separating the work and the person. I found that by devoting a section of the show to his celebrity, the curators only reinforced my sense that they were less interested in what art is and can do than in its trappings. Picasso's ego—like any artist's—rightfully resides in his work. This has to pertain for all artists. Unhappily, I fear, we find this to be true of his imitators and satirists as well.

The inspiration for a series of photographs by Martin Kippenberger was a photo of Picasso in his underwear, shown here on the poster for Kippenberger's show. In the show (no images available) Kippenberger himself poses in the role of Picasso, wearing similar drawers, at ease  around a nondescript interior. Kippenberger's show, for better or worse, satirizes himself and his subject simultaneously. 

It would be easy to replace Picasso with a photo of shirtless Vladimir Putin or Whitey Bulger on a poster like this, in just such a broad stance, positioned slightly above the viewer: Grandiose virile posturing didn't begin with Picasso. Only to the extent that such characteristics inhere in Picasso's artworks should the curators move this theme from catalogue to gallery. It's a footnote, extraneous; regrettable or fun, as you wish to understand it.

Khaled Hourani, Picasso in Palestine, 2011. Installation view, (IAAP) Ramallah.
Courtesy Khaled Hourani; Photo Khaled Jarar
When such poses are held by armed men protecting a work of art, then we are in a much more interesting and significant realm. I find this photo of a project that brought a Picasso to the West Bank much more moving than the many reiterations, imitations and reinterpretations of Guernica included in the show. Robert Longo was invited to do a new work for inclusion in the show, and his massive charcoal Guernica Redacted claims a significant position. Compared to Hourani's photos (of which this is one of several), one feels that Longo has, beyond the conceptual, no pulsing connection to war, torture, or even conflict.
Robert Longo, Guernica Redacted (After Picasso’s Guernica, 1937), 2014/2015
Charcoal on mounted paper, four panels, 111.4 x 248 in. (283 x 630 cm)

Courtesy Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, Paris – Salzburg

© 2015 Robert Longo / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Installation view at the Wexner Center, photo: Stephen Takacs

Rather than being stunted (or stunned) by Picasso's greatness, Hourani has been genuinely inspired by Picasso's art. What's more, he uses an apolitical Picasso painting to focus his anti-war message, to make it as localized and universal as art itself. The installation was a complex act of creativity that not only reacted to Picasso but built on and beyond him.

Folkert de Jong, Les Saltimbanques: Old Son "Jack T."Styrofoam, polyurethane foam, and pigment;
69.6 x 21.6 x 19.6 in. (176.86 x 54.94 x 49.86 cm)
 Private collection, New York.
Image courtesy of the Deichtorhallen Hamburg.

Folkert de Jong's sculpture, Les Saltimbanques: Old Son 'Jack T,'  is another of the show's highlights—a piece with a clear, acknowledged connection to Picasso but independent of  that for its vitality. It is launched by associations but unconstrained by them. The difference in dimensions—sculpture suggested by multiple figures in a painting (La famille de saltimbanques, 1905)— in itself liberates the piece from the presumed original. De Jong's artistry in his own medium creates a single figure that condenses the impact of several into one solid exemplar of debilitating isolation. Like Hourani, de Jong starts at Picasso and moves down his own road under his unique lights. 

The best works in the show, the ones that most clearly demonstrate Picasso's reach into the minds of artists who have come after, seem both by eye and by logic to be the ones in which Picasso's images do not appear. In the photo-collages of John Stezaker we have one of the very few opportunities in this massive show to encounter work by an artist who has so thoroughly digested Picasso that we as admiring viewers would, outside of this show, probably be surprised to have him pointed out in these pieces. In an exhibition with few surprises, Stezaker's work stands out, and it surely delivers the exhibition's best didactic moment. Appropriation, celebrity, and imitation aside, what have contemporary artists chosen to keep of Picasso? What of him has become unconscious/unavoidable by now?
John Stezaker
Marriage I, 2006
9.25 x 11.22 in. (23.5 x 28.5 cm)
Courtesy of the Saatchi Gallery, London

"Marriage 1" is composed by collaging two black and white photographs that neither match nor don't match. We may study the piece steadily for long periods; it will remain the same, yet we will never be sure of defining the subject (it/her/him), describing the spatial orientation of the image, or answering any "normal" question about identity based on the image.

The Cubist perspective is fluently and elegantly invoked in the photographs. The sense of comforting reality that pictures give us is more persistent than the Cubist disorientation. The eyes hold us intensely: How can we not know this person; how could it be that we are not intimately known by someone who can look into us so deeply? As long as the eyes provide a deep focus, we assume order in everything around them.Our eyes skip around anything odd, out of place, incongruous, queer…For better? For worse? Marriage 1, like marriage for many, is locked in and shifting. The technique, the way of seeing was new with Picasso and friends. The subject and its presentation via a realization introduced to the world over a century ago are brilliantly Stezaker's. It's fresh and new and deeply informed.

I don't envy the task of planning a season at Wexner or any similar contemporary art space on a university campus. To balance the claims of the academic artists and art historians with those of an informed public—including non-specialist university students, faculty, and staff—has to be a sensitive and difficult task. This time the pendulum swung too far in one direction, I think. 

Among the works included, many may be secondary or irrelevant to the main themes of the individual artists' oeuvres. But even so, what there is in After Picasso: 80 Contemporary Artists is clearly of genuine, legitimate interest for art historians and curators. But since the show brings with it gallery upon gallery of art far less interesting than what inspired it—art with messages diluted from its sources—to see it is to work hard for what few rewards of content there are. 

My deepest thanks to Erik Pepple, Media and Public Relations Manager at the Wexner Center for the Arts, for his extended efforts in providing special request images for this article.