Wouldn't it be great to pick up the catalog to the exhibition "Picasso: Masterworks From the Museum of Modern Art," which opened Sunday at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and to read in place of the usual pious boilerplate about "the most influential figure in Modern art" something else entirely--something more along these lines:
OK, look. We know as well as you do that, artistically speaking, this Picasso show isn't about anything. It's way too small to be a serious survey of the artist's famously productive career, and, because we've left out Picasso's single most important painting, "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon" (1907), and his pivotal sheet-metal sculpture, "Guitar" (1912), it's not even a credible survey of the Museum of Modern Art's prodigious holdings of his work.
In order to justify the considerable risk involved in packing fragile works of art into crates, loading them on a plane or truck and shipping them off to temporary digs a couple thousand miles away, where they get unpacked, carted around, repacked and then shipped off again, we know we're supposed to have something new and important to say about them--some scholarly insight, reconsideration or revelation that only a museum exhibition can persuasively demonstrate. But, this time we don't.
We don't even have a once-in-a-lifetime circumstance as a motive for the show--say, a museum expansion project, which would otherwise relegate this major body of Modern art to some dusty vault for months on end.
But, just this once, won't you cut us some slack? I mean, you have to understand the magnitude of the temptation here. In the brand-recognition department, the name Pablo Picasso is right up there with Coca-Cola, Hollywood and Microsoft. This stuff is worth a fortune! Sure it's unseemly for an art museum to be thinking of its public patrimony as a financial asset. Once a work of art leaves the lively world of commercial trade and enters the tax-exempt arena of the museum, it's supposed to begin its not-for-profit life. But, if we at MOMA and LACMA are going to extend even further our already humongous reach into the American social and cultural landscape, we need still more millions than we've already got. Renting out these Picassos will generate cash--buckets of it!
Wouldn't that be great? Reading a catalog statement like that would at least make your eyes bug out of their sockets, rather than roll up under the lids in snoring cynicism.
We live in cynical times, when motives are automatically suspect and self-interest--enlightened or otherwise--is a watchword. But knowing that doesn't make it any easier to get through "Picasso: Masterworks From the Museum of Modern Art." The show is Essence of Cynicism--distilled, bottled, marketed to a fare-thee-well.
As a bonus, it manages to insult its local audience. The exhibition at LACMA represents the third time recently that MOMA has rented out a big chunk of its Picasso collection, one of the two finest in the world. The first two rentals were to minor venues in Ottawa and Atlanta--cultural bantamweights that, unlike L.A., are devoid of a cosmopolitan art life.
In Atlanta, boomtown capital of the New South, the local High Museum of Art doesn't even have a collection of its own to speak of. When it rented the MOMA Picassos, the High reportedly prayed for attendance in the vicinity of 190,000--and, to its delight, nearly a quarter-million visitors showed up. The display brought the highest attendance in the High's history.
It makes you wonder: Is that how LACMA sees Los Angeles? As some unsophisticated, art-poor backwater? One that requires a vacuous celebrity bus-and-truck show rented from New York, in order to sucker the local rubes through the turnstile?
So, what exactly will we big-city hicks see in this exhibition? Several great and famous paintings, an important sculpture or two and a good number of intriguing works on paper. This is Picasso, after all, and even the lesser work of an artist of that stature is intrinsically interesting.
The show, however, is small. More than 70 of its 115 works are prints, drawings or book plates. It certainly fails as a career-long survey.
Sculpture, represented by just 11 works, comes across as a virtual afterthought. Ceramics are wholly absent.
Outside the last of the show's six galleries hangs Picasso's charming, childishly rendered, 1938 portrait of his baby daughter, Maya--which means we careen through the last four decades of the artist's working life in just six paintings, six sculptures and two dozen graphics. Likewise, the representation of Picasso's early, Symbolist-inspired Blue and Rose periods is undernourished.
Why Arrange It Chronologically?
Work for work, the Cubist watershed that swelled, crested and dispersed from 1906 to World War I is its most satisfying section. Fully one-third of the show dates from those fecund years. Even the galleries' handsome brown and silver-gray walls derive their color scheme from Analytical Cubist paintings, like "Girl With a Mandolin" (1910) and "The Architect's Table" (1912).
Which raises a question: Why install a show chronologically when you don't have the goods to tell the story? Why not have some potentially eye-opening fun instead--like hanging the erotically ripe "Girl Before a Mirror" (1932) next to the archaizing "Two Nudes" (1906), which is its galumphing ancestor?
The answer, of course, is that chronology implies biography, and the Reader's Digest-style story of Picasso's life is far more appealing to far more people than any request to look--really look--at canvases smeared with paint. In a world of 24-hour-a-day entertainment, which is the world we live in now, who'd pay an admission premium of $12 to $15 for something as elitist-sounding as that?
The absence of "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon," which launched the most radical artistic revolution since the Renaissance, and of "Guitar," which brought the revolution into art's third dimension, tells you just how insignificant an endeavor this show is. (At least the cardboard maquette for the sheet-metal "Guitar" did make the trip. Wittily installed next to the 1912 collage "Man With a Hat," the musical instrument looks oddly similar to a human figure.) Truth in labeling suggests the show ought to have been called "Picasso: Masterworks From the Museum of Modern Art--Except for the Two Masterworks You Want to See Most."
So, here's what I suggest: Take your $12 admission fee (or $15, if you were planning on seeing the show during a jam-packed weekend) and put it in an empty coffee can. Every day, put just one more dollar in.
In a year you'll have enough money saved to buy a round-trip plane ticket to New York, roundtrip cab fare from JFK to West 53rd Street, admission to MOMA and lunch from the hot-dog vendor on the street outside. Take the Saturday red-eye, spend all Sunday at the museum and you'll be back in L.A. that night--tired but full. Artistically speaking, you'll remember that soul-satisfying journey long after this vacant LACMA show is gone and forgotten.
Or, you could buy $12 worth of stationery and stamps and write to trustees at both museums and tell them: Please, knock it off.
* "Picasso: Masterworks From the Museum of Modern Art," LACMA, 5905 Wilshire Blvd., (323) 857-6000, through Jan. 4. Closed Wednesdays.