Picasso did not like abstract art. He thought it was inadequate. He said that an abstract hunter with an abstract gun would never shoot anything. I used to agree and so I was a figurative painter—now I’m an abstractionist and I still agree. One of the reasons for my respect for Frank Stella is his willingness to admit that abstraction might fail to do justice to experience. But then he keeps the faith by pointing out that abstraction speaks to the abstractness of experience, or some part of it.
Like everyone who knows better, I always scorned the periodization of Picasso according to his love affairs. Art history for the hair salon, the kind of thing that Arianna Huffington goes in for. But now I think differently. What sets Picasso on another level, higher than almost anyone, is that he is completely Pop, meaning that his portraits of women are the closest that painting can get to love songs, however ambivalent, and his formal ambition is as great as modernism ever saw. One might argue that Stella, Mondrian, Joan Mitchell, maybe Judd, have a formal ambition as strong, but they don’t have the popular element. Picasso is full, rounded and complete, so something like Shakespeare. In his work the formal values are sufficient, yet the content is also important—the two enable each other.
This may not be the best portrait of Marie-Therese, but it’s my recent favorite from the show in Toronto; the looping movements of the limbs make such funny shapes, and the expressiveness of the piece is in how the shapes get entangled with each other. At first look she seems to be off in some kind of lunar realm, but further acquaintance discovers a complex subjectivity, as complex as her curves.
The immense variety of manner from work to work is just an outcome of the normal fluctuation of feeling one has about anyone. This other piece has a touch of idealization for sure, but then she was a pretty girl, and that’s enough of a motivation for a work, or a song. Here classical realism is the perfect mode.
Brian Wilson would never have thought of the garland, but the feel would be familiar to him. The two eyes on the same side don’t seem like a distortion anymore—it’s just his way—and faces like that are as beautiful as any.
How different these works are from those of Fiona Rae, whom I chose a couple of posts back as a negative example. In Picasso’s work the feeling is clear; Rae’s painted montages work with the openness and ambiguity of abstraction, but that seems to
entail vaporized feeling. Her work is also Pop, but it’s an idea of Pop out of an art book, it doesn’t reach directly to a common emotion. It’s like techno dance music—the hooks are irresistible but it’s more work than pleasure. She is a virtuoso, and her pictures have a kind of automatic appeal because of that—every stroke, smear and image is legible and definite. But the total effect, which depends on many localized collisions, is not clear. Decisiveness without anything particular to say. I hope that’s not what Stella means as the feeling particular to abstraction. Or at least I’m going to trust that it can be something else.