“Simple” is not a word ordinarily associated with Picasso’s art. Yet Ann Temkin, MoMA’s chief curator of painting and sculpture, uses it often in describing his sculpture, which now fills the entire fourth floor of the museum in a spectacular exhibition, the first devoted to his sculpture in the U.S. in almost half a century. “His sculpture is accessible, simple,” she says. “Some of his paintings require a sophistication to fully understand. Here, we get what it is right away. We feel his hand very directly. We relate to it very immediately.”
“Picasso Sculpture,” which runs through February 7, is filled with works that bear out her observation. Picasso understood how few visual cues we need to recognize a face, a figure, an animal, a plant. A bicycle seat and handlebars become a bull’s head. If a lump of plaster has wings, it’s a bird. How do you make a thin branch of fir into a woman? Carve breasts. When his companion Dora Maar’s dog disappeared in 1943, at every meal for the next several days, the story goes, Picasso made a dog’s face out of a napkin to console her. One that survived appears here: Picasso tore the napkin into the shape of a dog’s head and, with a cigarette, burned two holes for eyes and another for the nose.
MoMA has taken the unusual step of dispensing with the labels that tell us what we’re looking at. The official reason: visitors’ experience of some 140 works, all displayed in the round, won’t be interrupted by their running back and forth between the sculpture and the label on the wall. They are given a handout instead, with diagrams identifying the sculptures by name, date, and medium. No matter. As Temkin says, “We get what it is right away.”
With these sculptures we see a Picasso we can relate to—“a more human Picasso,” says Temkin. “With his paintings, we never say, ‘I could do that.’ With some of the sculptures, you can say, ‘Let me go into my garage and put something together.’”
Picasso raided not just the garage, but the kitchen and the junkyard as well. A toy car becomes the face of a baboon, a colander becomes a woman’s head. Thick nails are the legs of a woman reading, stretcher bars the torso of a bather. He assembled a nanny-goat from a wicker basket to form its ribcage, two ceramic jugs for its udders, and palm fronds for its spine. (The 1950 original, at the Musée Picasso in Paris, was too fragile to travel, says Temkin. The show includes MoMA’s own 1952 bronze cast of it.) Picasso started using everyday objects in his sculptures early on—including the cheap absinthe spoons in his famous 1914 series of absinthe glasses—and never stopped.
It may seem counterintuitive, but, says Temkin, Picasso approached sculpture not just with a freedom from traditional, laborious production methods but also from the time-consuming restrictions of painting. “Sculpture appeals to that part of his temperament that seems exploratory and spontaneous,” she says. “He’s not sculpting marble or using another tedious process. [Even] with painting, you have to prepare the surface, wait for the paint to dry.”
Accompanying this spontaneity is a witty playfulness. Though his late painting is sometimes dark and melancholic, his later sculptures seem consistently lighthearted. A girl jumps rope; defying gravity, her legs are in the air and it’s the rope that touches the ground. A bather made from wood planks and stretcher bars, humorously titled The Bathers: Fountain Man (1956), has an erect penis. “And he did that when he was 75!” Temkin comments.