Picasso Guggenheim Review: Picasso Black and White Displays an Artist You Thought You Knew

If you are an art lover, whether professional or dilettante, you can do a lot worse than spending a few hours at the Guggenheim seeing the fantastic new Picasso Black and White exhibit. Though it spans the artist’s entire career, an immense undertaking, the collection doesn’t sacrifice quality for quantity. As you may have guessed, the exhibit features only works in monochrome; black, gray, white. Picasso is meant to have said that “color weakens” and he dispensed of it in order to stress form, structure, and line. Many of the works are on private loan and five have never been exhibited before. For the uninitiated, to whom the name “Picasso” connotes only "Guernica" or his more famous Cubist works (I am one of you), there will be lots of surprises.

Firstly, his canvas drawings. Etched in the most simple lines, they would be cartoon-like did they not impart figures of a Hellenic, sculptural weight. The images are a part of his “return to order” or classical period, inspired by his time in Rome and the influence of Greco-Roman sculpture. If Picasso to you means two noses and nine staircases, this exhibition will show the man in a far less raucous light. The second surprise is the quiet pathos of paintings like "Woman Ironing." The first painting in the chronologically-ordered exhibit, "Woman Ironing" dates before WWI when Picasso's work became primarily Surrealist. There are leanings toward abstraction here in her distorted proportions, but more importantly "Woman Ironing" is the beginning of Picasso’s political paintings. Throughout his life and career, he had a natural kinship with the working poor and a keen sense of injustice that informed later political paintings like "Guernica."

On the upper ramps of the Guggenheim are some of the grander compositions. Often astoundingly complex, these may stir dim recollections of a sparsely attended “Introduction to Modern Art” class in college. I defy you to spend less than 15 minutes in front of "Maids of Honor or Las Meninas," Picasso’s homage to Velazquez’ masterpiece of the same name. It’s difficult to describe, and since this article is an exhortation to get yourself to the Guggenheim, I will let you form your own opinions. I can say only it’s as if Rembrandt stumbled into an Orson Welles film, only with more absinthe.

When you visit the exhibit, which you should, I recommend the audio tour — it’s full of interviews with Picasso's contemporaries, his biographers, his daughter, as well as quotes from the artist himself. Though the exhibit is devoid of color, the effect is not exclusion for exclusion’s sake. Picasso painted in black and white at nearly every major point in his career: through two World Wars, the Spanish Civil War, during relationships with his famous mistresses, Olga and Mary Therese. Thanks to brilliant curation and juxtaposition, these works give a positively colorful (I had to) impression of the artist and the man.

Picasso Black and White will be on display at the Guggenheim Museum in New York City until January 23, 2013.