Trying to critique a blockbuster museum show like “Picasso and Chicago” at the Art Institute of Chicago is kind of like trying to offer thoughtful criticism of Coca-Cola; at this point, there’s not much that can be said that would enhance or diminish the iconic status of either of these monolithic cultural forces. So why bother?
Here are a few personal thoughts and observations about the show:
Membership previews for the show began February 16th. By February 17th, some of my art-loving friends had already asked me if I had seen “Picasso” yet. The appetite for shows that offer work by major art historical figures seems undiminished by decades of institutional critique leveled at massive cattle-call museum exhibitions like “Picasso and Chicago“. Theory and practice that seek to point out the problematic relationship between power-player museums, canonized artists, and money certainly have their place within contemporary critical circles. However, the efficacy of such criticism is seriously diminished in the ticket line.
Trading on major art brands like Pablo Picasso is not without its pitfalls. Expectations for blockbuster shows are high. Friends who rushed to see the show in the days after it first opened offered mixed reviews. A student of mine complained that there is too much print. Other students agreed. Within the over 250 pieces in the show, there are several galleries dedicated entirely to Picasso’s graphic work. Which is a great opportunity for viewers to delve deeper into themes of sex, violence, misogyny, and self-loathing more commonly found in printed works like the Shunga-esque The Minotaur (June 24, 1933) and the gruesome The Great Bullfight with Female Bullfighter (September 8, 1934). However, museums can triple their attendance figures during shows and retrospectives of big name artists, particularly those known primarily as painters. “Picasso and Chicago” will undoubtedly be a big draw, one that will attract viewers who expect to see canonical art history on the wall when they see a name like “PICASSO” in bold lettering on museum banners. In practical terms, “Picasso and Chicago” is not textbook Picasso. There’s plenty of Modernist Picasso, such as The Red Armchair (1931). There’s Blue Period Picasso, exemplified by The Old Guitarist (1903). There’s a sprinkling of Cubist and Neo-Classicist Picasso. But the scores of prints – which offer many rich examples of the artist’s unique genius – dilute the density of paintings per square inch and that’s what some viewers are paying for. The double-edged sword of the blockbuster art show is that it generates outsized attendance predicated on outsized expectations.
The curatorial framework surrounding “Picasso and Chicago” serves to burnish the city’s image as a major influence on cultural history by over-selling a tenuous relationship to the artist. Even by the show’s own standards, Picasso had little to do with the Windy City. The artist never even visited Chicago or any other American city for that matter.
- Publication material boasts of the “special relationship” between Picasso and Chicago, noting that The Art Institute of Chicago was the first American museum to exhibit the artist’s work. This accomplishment took place in 1913 as part of the International Exhibition of Modern Art, though it’s a landmark easily overlooked because the exhibition began in New York and is more commonly remembered by its nickname: The Armory.
- “Picasso and Chicago” begins and ends with galleries dedicated to the creation of Monument for Richard J. Daley Plaza (1965), a massive steel structure that was the largest sculptural piece Picasso created in his lifetime. That information alone is characterized as significant by the show’s wall text and publication material despite the fact that the work itself appears to have no connection to Chicago’s famed former mayor or the civic functions performed in the Richard J. Daley Center nearby. The sculpture is composed of two symmetrically oriented profiles that combine to look something like a winged horse. It’s a city landmark, to be sure, but mostly because it’s known as “The Picasso” and not because it has any relationship to Daley or its surroundings.
- Bursting between the two galleries dedicated to The Monument for Richard J. Daley Plaza, the real meat of the show is a variety of pieces owned by the museum and private collectors throughout the city. The Daley Plaza angle offers a thin frame for what is otherwise a mini retrospective of works that happen to live in Chicago.
Picasso was a 9 to 5 artist. Strolling through the galleries, I was really struck by the fact that nearly all of the pieces in the show are labeled with the exact date of their completion, not just the year. Nude Under a Pine Tree, a massive composition featuring a monumental Modernist nude in repose, is dated January 20, 1959. Francois, an idealized – and oddly decapitated – portrait of the mother of two of Picasso’s many children, is dated June 19, 1946. The vast majority follows suit. It would be naïve to assume that each piece in the show took the artist only a day to create, though that was sometimes the case. Wall text next to a painting titled Villa in Vallauris (Feb. 4, 1951) reveals that the geometric depiction of Picasso’s house in southeastern France was created in one go. The fact that a show consisting of over 250 pieces represents only a fraction of the artist’s output serves as a reminder of just how prolific Picasso was. Everything that’s known about the artist’s temperament and ambition is backed up by the fact that he lived through his art every day of his life. “Picasso and Chicago” may not be a perfect show, but the opportunity to experience the artist’s work and dedication is inspirational nonetheless.