Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Paintings I Like, pt. 30

Pablo Picasso, Head of a Matador, 1970.

After reading Roberta Smith's Times review of the late Picasso paintings at Gagosian, I was seriously curious to see the show. Smith, so generally cool and somewhat glib even in the face of art that she really likes, gushed about the profundity, the intensity, the genius, the nourishment of the soul, and more. She also claimed that the show exploded the notion that late career Picasso was generally kitsch and little more than what we would refer to in 21st century parlance as a brand. I for one have always felt that way; Picasso after cubism (and before, for that matter) has never sustained my interest for very long. And I became more intransigent in this opinion after I finally saw Guernica in person - it was a big drawing on canvas and it was just ok.

So did the Gagosian show change my mind? Definitely a little. I need to go back once or twice more and I might revise that answer upward. By far the best part of the late work was that he finally seemed to be addressing what had always been his weakest point: color. He was at root a master draughtsman (as evidenced by his always marvelous etchings), and so many of his paintings were either drawings made with paint on canvas - that is, forms described by outlines - or were tonal in character. This latter tendency to rely on tone as opposed to hue might be characterized as inherently Spanish; it can be traced back through Goya to Velazquez. His use of color tended to be quite simple and often trapped by black lines; old school comic book style. Color bounded by lines can't interact with the other colors on the canvas, and so much of the spatial, atmospheric, and emotional effects of painting arise from colors dancing and fighting with each other.

Given all this, I was surprised and pretty delighted with "Head of a Matador." The picture was fresh and genuinely exciting to look at, and not because of the drawing or psychology embedded in the eyes. The various complimentary and close-valued groupings all over the canvas made it crackle like it was plugged in. That great big head, activated in this way, is barely contained by the relatively small canvas, and the resulting scale of the picture seems vastly larger than its actual size (around 3' x 2'). The reds and oranges threaten to float right off of the surface, barely held in place by the surrounding greens, and function almost as pure light. The yellow and white that meet in the upper right make a spotlight so bright that I wanted to squint; showing that same razzle-dazzle so common to Turner.

I even like the mud, which is one of my pet peeves in any of the various strains of expressionism. Gestural handling of oil paint almost always involves mixing paint on canvas which almost always results in that particular pea soup color so common to sophomore painting class. But Picasso leaves half-mixed areas, as in the face and lower right of the hat, and then pairs the half-mixture with a compliment; in the afore-mentioned case, a bright orange. The slight change of hue in the face - little more than a change in temperature - creates a sense of cast shadows even though the cooler blue areas are not significantly darker than the warmer blue-violets. The lack of distinctness of the facial features that results from the two mushy, closely related colors are analogous to the dissolution of edge in Monet, and also conjure up a version of the atmospheric color effects in paintings of the Venetian renaissance.

In the Times piece, Smith speculates as to what other artists Picasso may have been looking at late in his career. She doesn't mention color-field, even though it was at its height of its critical and commercial popularity in the last decade of Picasso's life. He never set foot in the United States, so it's hard to say how much he knew or cared about it, but the color effects he was using in this picture were certainly the same ones being used by Louis, Noland, and Olitski. It's also possible that he finally came to really understand the operating principles of color used by his old friend and rival Matisse, who had died in 1954. Certainly Matisse loomed large over the American color painters of the era.

I still think Picasso made a lot of bad paintings in between cubism and "Head of a Matador." I'm generally inclined to forgive a painter's weak work when I can sense that he or she is moving in a different direction - transition is nearly always marked by awkwardness. For the most part, though, the problems I see in that vast swathe of Picasso's career are not the result of a tortured transition, but of a large ego and an audience eager to applaud whatever he made. In spite of this, some of these last pictures seem to represent a fundamental shift in his handling of color - it would have been really interesting to see what he would have come up with had he made it to 100.