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Walk through the MoMA’s exceptional survey of Pablo Picasso’s sculptures and you get the sense that some Night at the Museum juju is happening here. Surely, when the galleries power down for the night, these 140-odd objects — each, in its own way, freakishly alive — must chatter and pose, fight and flirt. How else to discharge the extraordinary energy of this show?
That the show is installed chronologically and spans roughly six decades is about as close as “Picasso Sculpture” comes to routine. Even its location is unusual: The show beats a snaking path through the fourth-floor galleries typically given over to a drumbeat of postwar hits and offers instead a leisurely abundance of the Spanish-born artist’s three-dimensional experiments. It’s a show with such variety and depth, so artfully plotted and with the lightest touch, that it makes a critic’s job beside the point. Go, and then go back as often as possible — that about sums it up.
When we look at Picasso’s paintings, we think of a guy with a sculptor’s eye. The space described in the proto-cubist Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, with its multiple viewpoints captured in a single plane, is something like a squashed sculpture. And though Picasso did paint some of these objects, such as the six little bronze absinthe glasses from 1914, united here for the first time since they left his studio, the inverse doesn’t exactly apply. There are polychromed surfaces, but it’s the plays of texture and materials — bronze, metal, wood, plaster, paper, nails, pebbles, napkins, or some combination of those (and more) — that carry the day. Entirely self-taught as a sculptor, the artist kept his little experiments close, exhibiting them much less frequently than his pictures. A suite of photos shot by Brassaï during the Second World War, on view in a side gallery, has the intimacy of a family album.
With whom did the artist share his boudoir? Early on, he made totemic wooden works influenced by Oceania and Africa; a jester from 1905 matched the themes he was exploring on canvas at the same time. By the early 1930s, we see distorted ladies come full force: A bronze bather from 1931 is an ur–Kim Kardashian, with a tremendous lower register and seemingly tacked-on projectile boobs. A plaster bust of a woman from the same year has a bulbous, phallic nose that merges into her forehead and, eventually, her hair. What can’t a penis do? (And we yearn for a sub-exhibition analyzing the female sculptures here, by turns fecund and grotesque.)
Other vertebrates caught his eye. We meet a Noah’s Ark of animals. A bronze cat from 1941 stalks its prey with its tail at half-mast; its body is built up from so many daubs of modeling clay, like the impastoed surface of a painting. And, not to leave out the protozoans, a case full of carved pebbles — all winky eyes and smirky mouths — pays fanciful tribute to the smaller life forms. By 1964, the date of the last work in this show, the art world’s preoccupations had moved toward abstraction. For Picasso the 1950s and ’60s were a time to become more attuned to existential trauma. Woman With a Baby Carriage, a bronze cast assembled from scavenged stuff — including a stove plate, cake tins, and strainers — seems a harbinger of a robotic future. A family of bathers built from the most minimal of wood slats — they’re some of the closest Picasso gets to abstraction — has the tenderness of scarecrows. Yet even these straitened figures, with their rigid forms, might leap to life when the lights go down.
Museum of Modern Art
11 West 53rd Street
Through February 7, 2016