Exhibit of the week: Picasso Black and White

There are, it turns out, layers of Pablo Picasso’s achievements “still to be explored.”

Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York

Through Jan. 23

There are, it turns out, layers of Pablo Picasso’s achievements “still to be explored,” said Michael Fitzgerald in The Wall Street Journal. Throughout his long career, the 20th-century master periodically dispensed with color in his paintings and used the “structural clarity of black and white” to explore or express new ideas. By pulling together 120 such works, the Guggenheim has assembled “one of the most exquisitely beautiful exhibitions of modern art” to hit New York in years. Yet it’s also “among the most intellectually engaging.” In 1932’s Sleeping Woman, we see the entirety of his ambition in a single image—a figure whose contours have been faintly drawn and redrawn in charcoal. It’s a portrait not of a particular woman but of the artist’s “roving hand and mind.” Picasso hoped to bare the subconscious, that hidden and unpredictable force.

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Let’s not limit Picasso to a single mission, said Karen Rosenberg in The New York Times. Yes, this tour of the artist’s adventures in monochrome gives us a “stripped down and essentialized” Pablo, but it also highlights how many paths he explored. Push past the “obligatory” cubism section, and the Guggenheim’s spiraling walls lead to “bracing sensual explorations of the figure, strident political cris de coeur à la Guernica, and winking homages to Delacroix and Velázquez.” Clearly, his reasons for cutting back on color varied. In The Milliner’s Workshop (1926), he uses black and white to tame a busy composition. In Bust of a Woman, Arms Raised (1922), he does it to simulate the look of sculpture. Frequently, his use of black and white echoes the pared-down palettes of fellow Spaniards Velázquez and Goya, or suggests the truth-telling spirit of newsprint and journalistic photography.

“In 2012 it’s not easy to sense that link between the truth and monochrome,” said Blake Gopnik in Newsweek. To our eyes, black and white often looks mannered, willfully artsy. But everything Picasso created was intended to convey some truth about the world that others couldn’t see, so it was natural for him to adopt the language of his era’s photography. Don’t forget that Picasso painted “his most famous picture” in black and white, said Jonathan Jones in The Guardian (U.K.). Though the monumental Guernica (1937) isn’t hanging here, studies for it are, and they make it easy to see that Picasso’s instant response to the bombing of a Basque village was to show us a truth that could only be told “in bone and shadow.” That “search for the hidden structure of the world” informs every work he ever undertook.

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