In the thirties, the obscure painters who would one day transform American art liked to spend the night in shabby New York cafeterias discussing art over nickel cups of coffee. The subject was painting, all painting. They talked about the painters of the past, Uccello, Piero, Michelangelo; about the pioneering modernists, especially Cézanne; about their great near contemporaries, Miró, Matisse, Mondrian. But the artist they talked about the most—the one who seemed to drink their coffee before they did—was Picasso. Not because he was the biggest or best: Others were arguably as important. But the others kept to their games, working within boundaries. They did not possess modernity itself. They did not, like the omnivorous Spaniard, seem to fall upon and ravish every corner of the modern world. They were inspiring uncles, not a devouring father.
“Picasso and American Art,” now at the Whitney, is an ambitious examination of how this great father-monster shaped the modern American imagination. The way serious artists influence one another is always a subtle and complex subject, especially when the interplay occurs, as it does here, among strong, independent figures rather than between a leader and his followers (as was the case with, say, Caravaggio and the Caravaggisti). In an exhibit where space is limited and curators cannot display less-visible forms of influence, such as the moral or personal sway of an artist, the focus inevitably narrows. “Picasso and American Art” leaves out much. But what it does do—juxtapose paintings—it does brilliantly. Those who like to look closely at individual works will savor the show, entering a state of compare-and-contrast bliss. And, more mysteriously, they may gain a better sense of what’s peculiarly American.
To make the subject manageable, the creator of the exhibition, Michael FitzGerald, has concentrated on Picasso’s impact on nine Americans (Max Weber, Stuart Davis, John Graham, Arshile Gorky, Willem de Kooning, David Smith, Jackson Pollock, Roy Lichtenstein, and Jasper Johns). Weber was the first American to respond powerfully to Picasso. He probably saw Picasso’s masterpiece Les Demoiselles d’Avignon when he was in Paris in 1908 and seems to have understood immediately that Picasso’s fracturing of space—and progression toward Cubism—represented a new way to convey the modern world. But he was no academic copycat. In a picture called Chinese Restaurant, he added American pizzazz to what, in Paris, still remained a fairly reserved and cloistered style.
The leading New York critic of the day, Henry McBride, emphasized the point: “[Weber] is as all-accepting as Walt Whitman, and at last we have an artist who is not afraid of this great big city of New York.” Stuart Davis was equally fearless, and, like Weber, he found in Picasso what suited the boisterous New World. Davis responded less to the intricate, inward-looking quality of Cubism than to the bold, brightly colored, and declarative planes in certain other pictures of Picasso’s. He further simplified Picasso’s ideas. He dickered with the scale. And, suddenly, if you hang a Davis near a Picasso, you begin to feel American art swaggering out of the studio. You know billboards, jazz, horns, and the strut of the street.
Just as artists grew accustomed to Cubism, Picasso radically shifted styles—entering, in the early twenties, his neoclassical period and, not long after that, shifting into Surrealist-inspired work. Picasso’s mercurial temperament was profoundly liberating to Americans: It embodied freedom, change, and possibility. He became a kind of enriching existential paradox: He’d done everything, but nothing was impossible. Without Picasso’s neoclassical Woman in White, we would probably not have Gorky’s great portrait of himself and his mother—or, probably, Gorky’s own shifting explorations of style. And without Picasso’s struggle with the female figure—in many forms and guises—we probably would not have de Kooning’s ever-changing American bitch-goddess.
Picasso’s extraordinary aura—enhanced by his confrontation with the horrors of war in Guernica—helped provoke American artists to reach for a grand achievement of their own. The Abstract Expressionist rooms contain some telling juxtapositions. Whereas a Picasso painting always seems to remain within the rectangle, behaving, finally, like a good boy, those of Pollock and de Kooning—as the scale of American art begins to expand—attack the frame, becoming increasingly tumid, unruly, and explosive. The Americans were always complaining about the fancy “cuisine” of European art, and here, where a Picasso and a Pollock share space, you can see what they mean.
By the mid-fifties, Picasso, though still active, no longer touched the quick of American painting. Young artists did not find themselves roiled by his example. He was an old master in the museums or a corny celebrity on the Riviera. Perhaps the last important artist whom he affected as a young man was Roy Lichtenstein. I had always thought that Lichtenstein’s Pop riffs on Picasso were just a kind of showy shuffling of the art-card deck, but, in fact, as FitzGerald suggests (he has done an extraordinary amount of useful research), Lichtenstein, as a young soldier in Paris, revered Picasso. In the context of this show, with the earlier example of Stuart Davis still in mind, Lichtenstein’s Pop versions of Picasso suddenly become more revealing. They represent the kind of billboarding of art, artist, and celebrity that we now take for granted in American culture.
Most of these artists are, of course, well known. I can hear the moans. More Picasso? Pollock again? In this show, however—as in the Met’s “Vollard”—the eccentric angle refreshes the old hat. Some pictures are famous, others little known, even when they’re by Picasso. But all look different in this company. FitzGerald gives the end of the show to Jasper Johns, who, in contrast to the other Americans, began to engage Picasso only late in his own American career, having already formed his own sensibility. There is something melancholy about the ending Johns makes. He is an artist who, in his work, often thinks of death. Picasso becomes, for him, an occasion for rumination. Johns stews over the past. He remembers remembering. He makes rhymes in the shadow of the reaper. Unlike Weber, who begins the show, he is not taking up a new style made for a brash new world.