Picasso Sculpture, Museum of Contemporary Art, New York

'Baboon and Young' (1951) and 'Head of a Warrior' (1933). Photo: 2015 Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York©2015 Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artists Rights

‘Baboon and Young’ (1951) and ‘Head of a Warrior’ (1933). Photo: 2015 Estate of Pablo Picasso/ARS, New York

Picasso, that perpetual wizard, enchants New York when again with a show of his exuberantly creative, category-busting, mind-expanding sculpture. Just when items at the Museum of Modern Art were beginning to get actually depressing, curators Ann Temkin and Anne Umland have mounted a heady expedition across what seemed like nicely-scouted terrain. “Not another Picasso blowout!” I muttered when it was initial announced, but I was incorrect to grumble. This show burbles with the joy of an artist cavorting in his personal imagination. I wended my way via each gallery with a smile affixed to my face, savouring the jokes, the sensuous physicality of his labours, and the obvious pleasure he took in his talents.

I thought I knew Picasso, but I had no concept of the riches his sculptures include. They have been not much seen in his lifetime, and they make up a reasonably tiny proportion of his enormous output: “only” 700 works, compared with 4,500 paintings. Nevertheless, even if he had by no means place brush to canvas — if he had in no way made “Guernica” or invented cubism or had a Blue Period — I would revere him on the strength of this show alone.

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Picasso spat out sculptures in brief bursts, then abandoned the medium for years at a time. Each phase in his paintings finds a parallel in wood, paper, plaster, ceramic, and bronze but the sculpture exudes an expansive spirit, a free of charge-flowing experimentation that he kept consolidating in paint. In the very first room, we see the influence of African sculpture on his early wood carvings, whose ravaged surfaces make Gauguin’s appear polished. A female “Head” from 1907 resembles a figure from “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon”, painted that same year, but she appears more crazed and jagged, her eyes gouged with passion, her mouth scooped into a hideous leer. Picasso tapped into the sacred and magical aspects of African sculpture even as he thrilled to its purely formal qualities. Later on, lengthy after he had left “primitive” art behind, he cherished his sculptures’ totemic presence, maintaining them about the property as domestic spirits until his death.

Untrained as a sculptor, he felt none of the academy’s constraints. From the scarred wood statuettes he progressed instantly to the classic types of “Apple”, a deconstructed plaster fruit that might have sprung from Cézanne’s boldest futuristic dreams. In “Guitar” (1912), Picasso broke new ground with disarming nonchalance. A few scissor-clips were all he necessary to totally free the line from the page, yanking it into 3 dimensions and springing it from the constraints of illusionism. The sound hole juts forward — not a void but a thing projected into the viewer’s domain — although the instrument’s physique dissolves, plane by plane, into space. Early viewers had been mystified by this cardboard construction and a sheet-metal sequel of 1914: “What is that?” they asked, according to the poet André Salmon: “Does that rest on a pedestal? Does that hang on the wall? Is it a painting or sculpture?”

Picasso blasted open the gate amongst painting and sculpture. “We were . . . liberated from the imbecilic tyranny of genres,” Salmon wrote. “The Orator”, a plaster-and-stone building from 1933, confronts us with the sweep of an urgent arm. But stroll about him and you’ll see that he is all façade his flattened rear remains as unadorned as the back of a canvas. Other pieces are thoroughly conceived in the round. The museum has gathered all six versions of the painted bronze absinthe bottles, which corkscrew spasmodically, demanding to be circled.

Picasso swings dizzyingly from commanding volumes to feathery wisps. The heavy bronze “Woman with Vase” (1933), is an assembly of blobbish body parts shooting off in all directions. Later, he tore a crumpled napkin, poked it with a burning cigarette to generate haunted eyes and a twitching nose, and dubbed it “Head of a Dog”. But even such a small and perishable scrap can loom. Brassaï photographed the paper pooch, turning it into some thing huge, ancient and menacing, like the golden mask of Agamemnon. He performed the very same trick on “Relief”, transforming a small corrugated wedge of plaster into a wonderful ruined temple. (The curators have broken out 25 Brassaï photos of Picasso’s sculptures into a separate little show that, unbelievably, manages to enhance the prodigious originals.)

However he flirted with abstraction, Picasso constantly cherished his subjects: people, beasts, bottles and guitars emerge out of lines and planes. He comes across here as a godlike imp, blowing life into inanimate components, developing a planet out of detritus. During one specifically mischievous period in the 1940s, he gathered pebbles and carved cartoon eyes and attributes into their polished surfaces, turning them into prehistoric talismans or Cycladic figurines.

I was taught to think of Picasso as the Ur-modernist, the initial and greatest of the 20th-century avant-garde. But his sculpture teaches an totally different lesson. The radical cubist phase, when he dissected space and time, was just one particular short episode in a quicksilver career that spilled into every conceivable style. Baroque, classical, rococo, “primitive”, outsider — all run by means of a body of function united by his unmistakable hand and uncommon sense of humour. I can think of only a handful of other artists — Leonardo, Daumier, Klee, Dalí, Koons — whose work twinkles with the exact same good cheer, and none with such an in depth comic arsenal. He was a virtuoso at caricature, visual puns, and the wild assemblage of unlikely parts into a flawless whole. The giant neoclassical “Head of a Warrior” (1933) charms us with its bulbous nose, hint of a grin, and protuberant tennis ball eye.

One particular of my favourites is “Baboon and Young” (1951), in which the simian mama’s smiling muzzle is composed of two model cars. Her ears come from broken cup handles, and her tail is an automotive suspension spring. MoMA’s bronze iteration smooths more than the rough meeting of components, but the spirit of sublime silliness persists. Possibly that’s the secret of his genius: Picasso’s gifts were cosmic, but he treated them like toys.

To February 7, moma.org

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Section: Arts