The Ardor of Mr. Picasso PICASSO’S SCULPTURE at MoMA (through Feb 7, 2016) – Art/Write by Peter Pitzele


In the endlessly fertile exploration of his givens—natural shapes, unexpected materials, the conversation between flat and form, and his deep relationship to metamorphosis—Picasso’s sculpture at MoMA takes those givens into three dimensions. What he borrowed, stole, intuited, or co-created we will never surely know. What is evident is his immensely playful and adaptive temperament, what I want to call his ardor; it moved him to find materials and subjects everywhere. The mere whiff of inspiration from whatever source sent him off on jags of creative ardor.[1]

Of those “givens”—and I mean those aspects of his work that seem there from the start and still there at the end—the one that engages me is “metamorphosis.”

Classically the word referred to the ancients and oral era (before alphabets) whose mnemonic culture celebrated their sense of the sinuous continuum of the human, the animal, the vegetable, the mineral, and the divine. For them the world was endlessly speaking. They felt what we might call the hallucinogenic capacity of the human eye to experience transfigurations: a tree in the wind suddenly a shape of portent, a rock that communicates to the throne, the flower that opens between a woman’s legs, the beak that is a mouth, the eyes that are seeing everywhere from the peacock’s tail.

“Metamorphosis” is a theme of modernism, from Kafka to Stravinsky from Eliot to Gorky, from the surrealists to the titans of the New York School. These artists never lost the sense of being part, albeit distantly, of a metamorphic world. For them metamorphosis was neither a metaphor nor a generalization; it was the term to refer to the instability of phenomena and at the same time their communicability.[2] Among them Picasso was a founding father.  

That ancient knowing—which literacy labels “archaic, primitive, animistic, childish, child-like, polytheistic, idolatrous, gyno-centric, etcetera”—was the common soil of indigenous peoples who hunted, gathered, or followed their nomadic ways. In particular and in all cases, these were cultures literally avant la lettre, that is, before the abstractions of alphabets. While no one who has grown up in literacy can ever fully know the way the world felt and revealed itself to those who were born to pre-literate peoples, Picasso has some trace elements of this ancient way in his genes. He knows the plasticity of our world, and nowhere more than in his sculpture does he play with the resources, the nourishments, that come to him through this inheritance. [3]

For artists who are enchanted by Circe (who could change men into pigs and back again); who hang out with Proteus (who could change his own shape at will), or count as kin any of those shape-shifters from every tradition, the result of metamorphic play is comedy.

I do not mean comedy in the sense of that which produces laughter. I mean it more as that which produces une certaine sourire. You will often see that particular smile (anything but certain) on the faces of those people looking carefully at Picasso’s sculptures at MoMA. It takes a while for the effects to register, for the parts to assemble and disassemble and reassemble into complementary wholes, figure and ground in constant repartee, the found object turned into an object of art by a twist and a turn.  That smile, by the way, can lead to a marveling chuckle, but equally to silence and even  to a strange sense of reverence.



Bull 1958

Bull 1958


This wooden sculpture, shown here only in its frontal view, is a convincing piece of taurine anatomy.  But note the framed eye in the neck and below it the hint of a smile. The artist and the bull share the same form. And by the way are those really horns or might they not be the softly uplifted arms of one of his women? Or even the legs of a child diving down into the bull’s head? You say I go too far, but wait till you see the show and discover for yourself all the ways shapes refuse a single connotation, the way the fronts and backs of pieces engage in sly repartee, the way recognizable materials— nails, spoons, spools, and sundry found objects— are transformed into body parts or vegetation.

In the ceaseless mutations of Picasso’s creative work, our attention is called not only to artist as a genius, but to the geniality of his work. So many of his sculptures are testimonies to a changeful god, to the wonder of the creative itself as it is revealed in  the process beneath the products.[4] Are we to speak of Picasso’s ardor for metamorphosis, or is the metamorphic itself the source of his ardor?

See the show. Find the smile.


[1] (Ardor: Latin: heat: metaphoric, as in passions, eagerness, zeal.)

[2] intimations of that speaking world are found in Genesis where the divine speaks the world into form and where Adam names the animals. In other oral cultures, the story would go that the animals told Adam their names.

[3] See David Abram: The Spell of the Sensuous, Vintage 1996 for a far more nuanced understanding of this ancient, oral knowing.

[4] It is said that we are made in the image of God. For Picasso, the image of God is of God as maker of images. And these images are never to be worshipped—which is to say frozen into idols; they are to be seen as only as momentary incarnations. God creates in clay and dust. There is no permanence.