Tuesday, 3 June 2014

Steinberg on Picasso

I've been reading Leo Steinberg's Other Criteria, Steinberg being one of Sylvester's acknowledged heroes amongst art writers. Steinberg's book covers several of Sylvester's favoured artists- Pollock, de Kooning, Rodin (who Sylvester greatly admired even if he hardly wrote a word about), Johns. The centrepiece of the book, however, is the three articles on Picasso- short pieces on 'sleepwatchers' and skulls in his work, followed by the wonderful long essay 'The Algerian Women and Picasso At Large'.
I'm interested by Sylvester's developing attitude towards Picasso, as he was initially perplexed by much of Picasso's late work. Looking back, he recalled that he 'started being hostile to Picasso in print in 1948', and that while reviewing Matisse in 1953 he 'made a resolve that my career as a critic was to be dedicated above all [...] to establishing that Matisse was a greater artist than Picasso'. Visting the show of Matisse papiers découpés at Tate Modern I wonder what he would've thought of it.
Steinberg's essay has drawn my attention to two rather obvious things, but ones which, given Sylvester's early enthusiasms, I'm surprised he didn't reflect upon in his writing of the time. Firstly, how Picasso, like Francis Bacon, didn't just focus his attention upon the figure, but often seemed to disregard everything beyond it: 'One can look at a hundred Picasso paintings of seated figures with conflated faces; the near-neutral backgrounds suggest that the artist does not consider backgrounds important. To a modern esthetic concerned with the "field," this can look like an obsolete academic attitude'.
This is one reason why, with the emphasis Sylvester placed upon representations of the human body in the fifties (not just Bacon but also Giacometti, de Kooning and Dubuffet) Picasso might've appealed to him more on that basis than was the case.
Another is the multiple perspectives of Picasso's wartime still-lives and most abstract drawings such as his Study for L'Aubade (May 5, 1942) which Steinberg describes thus:

'It is a controlled grid of multiple spatial directives. The lines moving in parallels define intersecting space lanes- like star trails, directions for indoor galaxies. But each single line also converges somewhere with another- the sets of convergences being programmed to convey vanishing points to dispersed destinations. A counterpoint, then, of two merging themes- indoor space lanes and lines of sight, criss-crossing in a kind of charted ubiquity. It is this space, with its invertible depths and its linear events generated by optical capabilities, which ideally enfolds Picasso's simultaneity images. It is a space inside a cat's cradle, every tensor in readiness for instant transfer; a contractile, expansive, collapsible space'.

Compare this with Sylvester's early writing on Klee and the similarities with the restless, all-over quality he writes about in Klee's late paintings is striking. Given Sylvester's friendship with Picasso's dealer Kahnweiler it's fair to assume he must've known Picasso's work reasonably well, and he certainly wrote about it often enough. I suspect the variety of Picasso's work might've been an issue. Syvlester identified Picasso as a great sculptor early on, but took some time to see, as he did after the 1960 Tate exhibition, that unlike a painter of masterpieces such as Matisse, Picasso's greatness lay in the spaces between the works.

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