Time Out New York / March 9, 2011

"Picasso: Guitars" and "The Great Upheaval"

It’s easy to forget that we are now as distant in time—roughly a hundred years—from modernism’s frenetically creative early days as its original participants were from the Napoleonic Wars. Easy because the best art made in the teens of the last century still feels so vital, responsive to both developments in parallel creative fields and changes in the wider world. As is made clear by two conventionally mounted but precisely conceived current exhibitions—“The Great Upheaval: Modern Art from the Guggenheim Collection, 1910–1918” at that same institution and “Picasso: Guitars 1912–1914” at MoMA— the period leading up to and including World War I was marked by a rapid turnover of ideas, many of which exercised a profound influence that resonates to this day.

The fact that both shows are drawn from their respective institutions’ collections (albeit augmented by loans in MoMA’s case) may dampen their excitement a little, but given those collections’ inarguable quality, few will consider this a drawback. It’s true that both displays include their share of canonical favorites, but even compulsive museumgoers are bound to make some new discoveries. MoMA’s show is secreted in a modest rear gallery, but packs enough in to make it worth a dedicated trip. The Guggenheim’s uses the building’s entire central spiral plus one adjoining gallery, but at around 100 works, it stops short of overwhelming. And of course, the projects’ temporal overlap makes pairing them a no-brainer.

“Picasso: Guitars” is concerned with the iconoclastic Spaniard’s use of the instrument as the subject of numerous paintings, drawings, collages and three-dimensional works. The artist was no musician, however, or even much of a fan; he was interested in the object primarily as a form simple and immediate enough to withstand his most extreme technical experiments. Bracketing the show with two key constructions—one, from 1912, pieced together from bits of cardboard and string, and another from two years later built with sheet metal and wire—curator Anne Umland makes a convincing case for the intervening period as one of their maker’s most innovative and uninhibited. Shuttling between studios in Paris and the south of France and declining to exhibit his newest work, Picasso explored a freedom to improvise equal to that of any soloing axman’s.

Alongside the constructions—both encased in Plexiglas like the rarest Gibson Les Pauls—are several mixed-media works in which Picasso combines collage techniques with tricks of the decorative painting and printing trades, employing his own cheeky takes on faux bois and faux marbre (fake wood and marble). He sticks or pins clippings of newspaper, wallpaper and sheet music onto some works and mixes grit into the paint of others, writing to Braque in excitement at trying his friend’s “latest powdery and papery procedures.” In the extraordinary Violin (1912), mounted here on a lightbox, he even sandwiches a paper cutout inside another folded sheet to make a secret silhouette. It’s just one of many striking notes from a visual guitar hero as inspired (and virile) as Jimi Hendrix.

Another revelation in “Picasso: Guitars” is a set of photographs, taken by the artist and published in a 1913 issue of avant-garde journal Les Soirées de Paris, depicting arrangements of objects, works and works-in-progress. That these hybrid images—think of them as documenting installations avant la lettre—caused a stir among even the magazine’s purportedly forward-thinking readers speaks to the perennially disruptive potential of new media and new technology. This capacity is everywhere in “The Great Upheaval,” which spotlights work from a period that witnessed extraordinary invention on the part of artists and scientists alike. The exhibition keeps on-site contextual data to a blessed minimum, but a few facts and figures are all we need to understand the pace of change. For example, 1910 saw not only the coining of the term Postimpressionism, but also the first commercial passenger flight.

Featuring works by 48 international artists including Cézanne, Chagall, Duchamp, Léger, Malevich, Matisse, and of course, Picasso, “The Great Upheaval” organizes its contents into a chronological sequence that ascends the Guggenheim’s famous ramp (I generally prefer to start at the top, but never mind), culminating in a floor of wartime output. Painting predominates, but there are some stunning exceptions, including sculptural masterpieces like Brancusi’s Muse (1912) and Boccioni’s Unique Forms of Continuity in Space (1913), as well as some intriguing lesser-seen counterparts by the likes of Czech Otto Gutfreund and Ukrainian Alexander Archipenko.

But “The Great Upheaval”—the title quotes Blaue Reiter group founders Kandinsky and Franz Marc’s prescient forecast of an epochal creative shake-up—really scores when the collection’s depth allows curators Tracey Bashkoff and Megan Fontanella to trace the routes taken by individual artists. Witness, for example, the shift in approach between Mondrian’s Summer, Dune in Zeeland (c. 1910), a radiant landscape seemingly if not actually influenced by the contemporaneous debut of infrared photography, and his more iconic “Composition” works from 1913–16, which appear later on. Next to “Picasso: Guitars,” the Guggenheim’s show is sprawling, but in focused moments such as these it comes close to the same success.