It was 1976. I was a freshman at Vassar. Art was all around me. Somehow I saw my first Pollack. I was hooked. Vassar is a short train ride to New York, so within weeks of something going PING in my brain after seeing Blue Poles I was on a train. Autumn Rhythm at MoMA buried the hook for life. I was dripping paint on canvas in the hall outside my dorm room not an hour after getting off the train in Poughkeepsie.
Artists learn about art from other artist. My first instinct, encouraged by artist friends, was to move from Pollack, De Kooning, Kline and Rothko forward. I read about the Cedar Tavern in New York where it was possible to get falling down drunk with a painter / hero / artist. My imagination could easily put aside problems such as I wasn’t born when the New York School painters were drinking at the Cedar and I don’t drink (lol).
POP hit me like a truck on the highway. Warhol, Lichtenstein and Johns saw art everywhere in everything. I had to know who created such an incredible idea. I found a quiet Frenchman who preferred playing chess to painting - Marcel Duchamp. Picasso, in the midst of so much contemporary flux, seemed remote, stodgy and French (not necessarily in that order).
Edmund Besh set me straight about Picasso. “No, No, No,” I remember my painter friend Edmund yelling at me, “you have it all wrong.” My heroes owed an unpayable debt to the Spaniard Edmund explained. Ed got my attention. I started looking at Picasso without prejudice. Everyone I loved was there including my most recent discoveries (Schnabel, Fischl and Clemente).
Picasso And The Allure of Language at Nasher
It is easy to be intimidated and/or overwhelmed - So much talent so little time - when you start looking at Picasso. Understanding Picasso requires seeing him as human. If you’ve ever held a paintbrush with intent you view Picasso’s output as signs of alien life. Area 51 + Picasso = we are not alone.
The Nasher Museum at Duke's current stellar show Picasso and the Allure of Language helps see this GIANT as a man with limitations. Picasso really wanted to be a writer. It took writer Gertrude Stein grabbing him by the collar and insisting he return to his painting to remind Picasso as a writer he made an unbelievably great painter. The interior room dedicated to Picasso and Stein is curatorial genius. Nasher’s curators were able to include samples of Stein’s writing. This couldn’t have been easy, but it reinforces how painterly Stein writing was. Stein’s writing reminded me of Agnes Martin’s paintings or Ed Rushca’s word paintings.
The show includes several great Picasso paintings including the cubist masterpiece Dog and Cock, 1921 on loan from Yale and First Steps, 1943 (also from Yale). Another curatorial great idea was including a huge photo enlargement of Picasso in his studio sitting next to almost every painting in the show.
Another Nasher exhibit highlight is pages from Pierre Reverdy’s Le chant des morts (The Song of the Dead). Here we see Picasso’s Calder-like drawings illustrating Reverdy’s book. Pages from a book on the wall are hard to see as “book”. Nasher includes a masterful flash-like monitor to flip through the book. The monitor’s easy iPod-like interface made page flipping easy and exciting. Seeing these paintings in original written context makes Picasso’s simple red lines jump off the page. The experience was moving even though I can’t read French (long painful story there lol).
I recommend the $3.00 audio tour as it provides important inside scoop and background. The audio tour goes quickly following well laid out symbols and is a fun podcast-like approach to audio learning.
Picasso and the Allure of Language helps “see” Pablo from a new angle. If Picasso could write as well as Stein we would know, beyond any reasonable question, the man was from another planet. As it is, the dude could paint.