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How Picasso overturned the rules of sculpture

Pablo Picasso, preeminent artist of the 20th century, is known far better for his painting than for his sculpture, but a new exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York celebrates his playful and transformational experiments in three dimensions. Jeffrey Brown reports.

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Next: Pablo Picasso was one of the world's most famous painters. But a new exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in New York examines his contributions to another medium, sculpture.

    Jeffrey Brown has the story.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    A court jester in bronze, an early experiment in three dimensions by Pablo Picasso. As Picasso Sculpture, the huge and much-lauded exhibition at New York's Museum of Modern Art shows, experiment is the right word.

    And it never stopped. Ann Temkin is one of the show's curators.

    ANN TEMKIN, Co-Curator, "Picasso Sculpture": It certainly had to do with a spark of inspiration, either technically or some kind of puzzle that came to his mind.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Picasso was the preeminent artist of the 20th century, but this side of him remains far less known than his painting. He formally trained as a painter, and kept at that throughout his life.

    Upstairs in the museum, one can see many famous examples, including the groundbreaking cubist masterwork from 1907 Les Demoiselles d'Avignon.

    The Sculpture exhibition, over 140 works gathered from institutions around the world, shows Picasso breaking ground in this medium as well, but more playfully, in spurts, as he became curious about space and material.

  • Co-curator Anne Umland:

    ANNE UMLAND, Co-Curator, "Picasso Sculpture": Now, stepping over this threshold, we have just time-traveled three years. And in those three years, Picasso, when he comes back to making three-dimensional objects, does it in ways that nobody has ever done before.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    A guitar made of paper, string, cardboard. A violin made of painted sheet metal and wire. Picasso changed the history of art through his choice of everyday subjects, his use of materials, his mixing of genres, as with the six small absinthe glasses brought together in this exhibition for the first time since they were in Picasso's studio, colorfully painted bronze, a real spoon all twisted together into a new kind of sculpture.

  • ANNE UMLAND:

    Up until now, pretty much, sculpture has to do with recognizable bodies of people, and they are modeled or cast. They're very solid. And instead of that, Picasso decides he is going to make a sculpture of something small and domestic and that you hold in your hand. He sets out to overturn just about every sort of rule or given or way of thinking about material that you can come up with.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    After every phase of experimentation, represented here by individual rooms, Picasso would leave aside sculpture for several years, before picking it up again, always with something new, these figures from the late 1920s, for example, and then a group of more monumental heads in the early 1930s.

    Unlike his paintings, Picasso rarely exhibited his sculptures. Instead, he lived with them.

  • ANNE UMLAND:

    He's not coming out of a sculpture tradition in Western art. He's looking at African or oceanic objects that have a ritual function and that have a soul or an anima.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Do you think he thought of them that way?

  • ANNE UMLAND:

    I think he thought of his sculptures as personages.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Personages, which means what?

  • ANNE UMLAND:

    Which would mean, to me, things that have a life.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    This giant head of a woman is from 1932.

  • ANNE UMLAND:

    I think it's amazing how she's both monumental and goofy at the same time.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Yes. You say goofy, which I'm not — I'm sure is a technical term in — art curators.

  • ANNE UMLAND:

    Yes, very highly technical.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    But it is sort of introducing the goofy to a tradition that is more about…

  • ANNE UMLAND:

    Solemnity and admiration.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Yes.

  • ANNE UMLAND:

    No, I think the way that he manages to make things that, yes, I will stick with my word choice of goofy or cartoony or the way the features are exaggerated, that maybe that's back to part of what he's doing to animate something that otherwise is very solid and inanimate.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Picasso remained in German-occupied Paris through the war years, using materials at hand, including for this bull's head, an old bicycle seat and handlebars cast in bronze.

  • ANN TEMKIN:

    And what's amazing is, with the casting, you still read the metal of the handlebars and the leather of the seat extremely clearly. And I think what Picasso loved about the joke was the fact that the bronze casting of these ordinary everyday objects sort of turns them into a work of art, but not completely. You're still aware of that original bicycle identity.

  • RACHEL HARRISON, Artist:

    Anything goes. And you can feel that in his work.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Rachel Harrison is a prominent contemporary artist whose work, like Picasso's, crosses genres. She sees a sense of play, but also the horror of war.

  • RACHEL HARRISON:

    I look at those bodies, and I see limbs that have come apart and come back together, and I see things that are more gruesome than beautiful.

    If the materials appear playful, it's because it wasn't his first medium and he had a comfort in oil and oil paint. And so when he comes to these other materials, like metal or plaster, there's just a kind of freedom that he has to experiment, and there's less at stake, because he wasn't exhibiting them in the same way.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    The playfulness continued into his later years. And the exhibition ends with a group of models Picasso worked on in the 1960s, when he was in his 80s. In some cases, they became monumental public sculptures, including his last and largest in Chicago's Richard J. Daley Center.

  • ANN TEMKIN:

    He had dreamed of making monumentally scaled work. And with these enlargements, there's just an entirely different physical and psychological relationship to them.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    One question this exhibition has raised for some art critics, was Picasso a better sculptor than painter?

  • ANNE UMLAND:

    I don't think we have to choose. I think we come down on the side of Picasso the artist.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Not, in the end, a bad side to choose.

    From the Museum of Modern Art in New York, I'm Jeffrey Brown for the PBS NewsHour.

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