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Friday, May 4, 2007

Picasso and American Art at SF MoMA

Tuesday I went to the MoMA show on the influence of Picasso on American art. It was dazzling. One room was more spectacular than the last, and because it was chronological the cumulative energy of the exhibition gave you a sense of how over a lifetime Picasso expanded not just his vision but his aura, his impact, his empire. My art history is patchy at best, so what was revelatory to me might be commonplace to someone better educated. I will risk embarrassing myself (can a writer do otherwise?) by copying here the impressions I scribbled down while floating through the galleries.

1 May 2007
I am waiting on a 20-minute line to get into MoMA's Picasso exhibition. There are worse places to blow 20 minutes than here, in the guts of the periscope. That might be a mixed metaphor, and it's also not the right body part. We're closer to the retina--does a periscope have one? We in this case counts the tourists and people without jobs who can be here for free first Tuesdays. The Canadians behind me have pointed out that Cy Twombly has mountain-climbing gear hanging in the atrium--carabiners. Imagine this place at night, with the artist and his minions (probably just the minions) dangling from the catwalk. Something in the image distills what was so gratifying about the Pelton workshop. So much fun, most of it after hours and removed from public view, and the visceral conviction that the work was dangerous despite minimal objective threat to life and limb. Art at the end, if all goes well.

Now I'm in the exhibition and crucial art appreciation neurons are not firing. I've parked myself in front of a medium-small gray Stuart Davis, "Early American Landscape" (1925) and I am going to stand here until I have an aesthetic experience. So far all I can get out of this is how good it would look in our living room, where the Yamrus portrait now hangs. The Davis is a little dismal, perhaps unintentionally. Perhaps dark grey rivers and sooty clouds didn't have the same resonance back in 1925 before people knew about things like acid rain and emaciated polar bears washing up on Alaskan beaches. But the painting is jaunty in style, and childlike without being unsophisticated (undoubtedly the use of grey pre-empts any accusation of naivete). It's buoyant enough to rise above my environmental mood swing--and my art appreciation lull, now expired. I'm having a good time.

Looking at more Stuart Davis I see how much I prefer his variation of Cubism to the Picasso/Braque theme, and I like what's stereotypically American about it: brash, fresh, sunwashed, brilliant, clean, clear, new. I know he's frequently associated with jazz but the unjazzy Aaron Copland is present in these paintings. (The Picasso-Braque paintings seem so cramped, psychotic, damp and moldy to me.) What I like most are the synthetic-Cubist paintings of Picasso and Max Weber. These marry stylistic derring-do and aesthetic sex appeal. Honey I don't want you in my living room, I want you in my bed.

In the neoclassical room I am dubious, but should remember how long it took me to love neoclassical Stravinsky, or even hear neoclassical Brahms (it sounded so Romantic!).

I could stand in front of Picasso's "The Studio" (1927-28) until they throw me out of here.

De Kooning's "Woman & Bicycle" ought to be called "Woman & Bicycle & Red-light Runner."

This Warhol quote is painted on the wall:
"When Picasso died I read in a magazine that he had made 4000 materpieces in his lifetime and I thought, 'Gee, I could do that in a day.'"

Imagine if Andy Warhol had had a blog.

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