When sculptor David Smith was attending art school, he worked at a steel mill to pay the bills. But seeing metal sculptures by Pablo Picasso in 1931 was the “ liberating factor,” he said, in realizing that steel could be his art, instead of merely a way to fund his education, which at that point focused on painting. Picasso’s work has had a powerful influence on generations of artists who found inspiration in his rule-breaking ethic, unorthodox aesthetic, and groundbreaking techniques. The exhibition Picasso and American Art visually illustrates this impact. Following is a verbal rundown of the Spaniard’s influence as told by painters and sculptors of yesterday and today.
“ You must have heard that there was an exhibition of 400 paintings by Picasso. It was so beautiful, and it revealed such genius and such a collection of treasures that I did not pick up a paintbrush for a month.”
–Louise Bourgeois, 1939
“ I remember one time I heard something fall and then Jackson [Pollock] yelling, God damn it, that guy missed nothing!’ I went to see what had happened. Jackson was sitting, staring; and on the floor, where he had thrown it, was a book of Picasso’s work.”
–Lee Krasner, 1969
“ In my early cubist work, I was always afraid of looking like Picasso. The more I tried to evade his influence, the more self-conscious the paintings got and the more evident was the source.”
–Roy Lichtenstein, 1970
“ He’s always with me–certain artists are always with me. And surely Picasso is one of them.”
–Willem de Kooning, 1974
“ I remember the first Picasso I ever saw. . . . I thought it was the ugliest thing I’d ever seen. . . . I didn’t realize I would have to revise my notions of what painting is.”
–Jasper Johns, 1977
“ I guess what I really like are those photos of [Picasso] sitting in one of his big rooms in a big ugly chair looking at the paintings he had done that day. . . . These were the late paintings, the ones Robert Hughes dismissed (what an idiot). I love the late paintings; they’re very cartoon-like–Cartoon Picasso. He would do four or five in a day. Then he would stack them up and maybe mix in an older painting and sit there and stare at them. The time sitting and staring at what you do is good time.”
–Richard Prince, Vogue, September 2006
“ There’s that wonderful Picasso self-portrait, crayon and whatever, of a big head with very big eyes and stubble all over. It’s such a great, great work, one of the last things he did. It looks like a skull. My self-portrait with beard stubble [1968's Big Self-Portrait, in the Walker's collection], which I guess was done a few years earlier than Picasso’s, is in the same spirit–non-heroic, not portrait-as-celebrity or the Warhol sense of superstars, but reality and awkwardness and painfulness and all of that stuff.
It’s hard to remember how late Picasso was trashed, as well as was late de Kooning. To really have an impact, an artist has to finish great. Had Matisse not done his cutouts, which he reinvented in Nice, I don’t think he would be considered a great artist today. You really need a great endgame. And when Picasso was marginalized at the end of his career by the critics, he had tremendous urgency for artists. Artists looked at that work and saw unbelievable energy and invention at a point where most artists are just content to plow the same field. Attitudinally he’s saying, vital to the end, inventive til the end, takes risks. It was extremely encouraging.
What you do is you go out and reinvent the whole God-damn ball game.”
–Chuck Close, Vogue, September 2006
“ Picasso’s famous painting of the whores [Les Demoiselles d'Avignon], inspired by African masks, was kind of influential. So Picasso, he’s the important guy, but my appreciation of what he was doing was slightly jaundiced–just slightly. He is the Big Daddy of everything, so maybe I just feel like denying him that privilege. I didn’t want to get too caught up in the romance of him.
For a little while, my work was sort of contesting the primitivist impulse in his work, or at least playing with it. But I was inwardly circumventing the Picasso connection, moving it toward something that embodied the fascination with black myths and primitives and sexuality and vitality–just from a less Picasso-like angle.
My attention always comes back to that one piece–since I’m not a French-speaking person, I call them damsels. That’s it in some ways for me and Picasso. I was fiddling around with the damsels when I was in graduate school, and I made something in response to it. I found an interesting porn magazine, with a photo essay of four black women pretending to engage in a big or small orgy. They were very poised. One of the images seemed to have been modeled on Picasso’s damsels. I chopped up the magazine for collage purposes, years ago. I still have some of the clippings floating around in my clipping file.
I’ve been thinking about collage a lot lately, and my lack of regard for it. I don’t trust my hand with it–layering and making very clean aesthetic and visual leaps between types of information. But in the last couple of weeks, I’ve been in my studio makging things that could possibly be called collages. Maybe the damsels will get into my new collages, but I don’t want to go head-to-head with Picasso. No, man. Not right now.”
–Kara Walker, Vogue, September 2006
“ Most of my pals in high school called me Pablo or Picasso even in signing the yearbook. Breaking free of Picasso’s pervasive influence was a concern. His pop image was often like the clown who entertains the aristocrats with his foolish antics. Some of the artists Picasso had influenced were of interest in our younger art school days–Matta, Wilfredo Lam, and most of all Arshile Gorky. Most importantly perhaps Pollock and de Kooning seemed to remain deeply taken with Picasso, so much so that Pollock really never broke through ’til he abandoned Picasso. It was Pop Art that changed everything: art became fun and less European. At least we could proceed as if the water had been changed in the bathtub and Pablo was down the drain. The influence of Picasso’s diminished stature was the birthplace of my art when the School of Paris gave way to Andy Warhol’s Factory.”
–Frank Gaard, in an email, May 2007
Image: Roy Lichtenstein, Femme au Chapeau, 1962 (c) Estate of Roy Lichtenstein