The exhibition that’s now on view in the Walker galleries, Picasso and American Art, argues that Pop artists of the 1960s responded to Pablo Picasso’s art. But was Picasso himself a sort-of Pop artist? When Robert Rosenblum came to the Walker to give a lecture “ Cubism as Pop Art” in conjunction with the Picasso show at the Walker in 1980, he argued that Picasso was indeed thinking Pop. I listened to a cassette tape of his lecture when I was searching in the archives for sound bites to put in our Picasso audio guide. We didn’t end up using any of the stuff I dug up, but this talk by Rosenblum was just too good to put back in the basement. So I decided to post audio of his lecture. (And despite the fact that we didn’t officially use any of the archival sound clips I found, Robin, our New Media guru, did have my voice appear on Art on Call reading some of the artist’s names, which was a pretty cool consolation prize.)
Rosenblum starts his lecture by laying out his thesis, which was that Jasper Johns, Andy Warhol, and Roy Lichtenstein were not the first to use elements of popular culture in their art. Name brands, pop songs, and newspaper clippings are all over Picasso’s artwork. However, for many years, scholars ignored what the words in Picasso’s paintings might be saying, preferring to concentrate on the formal, more abstract aspects of his Cubist paintings. But when Pop art came on the scene, suddenly all of these hidden meanings started to pop out. You can just barely make out a woman playing a stringed instrument in Ma Jolie (winter 1911-1912). Yet despite the cryptic imagery, Picasso has written the title across the bottom of the canvas, his nickname for his lover at the time and the refrain to a song often played in the music halls of Paris. Rosenblum looks in depth at Ma Jolie as well as a 1912 painting by Picasso that uses the French brand of bouillon cubes, Kub, to ironically comment on Cubism.
Rosenblum said in his lecture that he wanted his audience to think about “ how new art changes our idea of what old art looks like.” Rosenblum asserted that when one thinks young artists are crass and audacious, one should take another look at many of the artists already considered to be “ masters,” for even more established artists were often radical in their own time. Maybe seeing Matthew Barney as a goat in Drawing Restraint 7 can give us insight into Picasso’s self-portraits as a minotaur. Perhaps Robert Gober’s bronze, fake wood plank in Quartet can inspire us to reflect on the trompe l’oeil wood grains in Picasso’s Cubist still lifes; or maybe considering Kara Walker‘s provocative scenes and Demoiselles D’Avignon can spark ideas that illuminate both artists’ work. In any event, Picasso and American Art is a rare opportunity for us to consider not only how Amercian artists continue to respond to Picasso, but also how contemporary art can give us new ways of looking at one of the 20th century’s most acclaimed artists.
Robert Rosenblum. On Modern American Art: Selected Essays. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1999.
______. Cubism and Twentieth Century Art. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1979.
______. “Cubism as Pop Art” in Modern Art and Popular Culture: Readings in High and Low. Edited by Kirk Varnedoe and Adam Gopnik. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1990.