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The afterlife of influence

A landmark exhibition at New York's Whitney Museum traces Pablo Picasso's impact on 20th-century American art. Yet in the contemporary art world, the most influential artist of the last century seems to have disappeared. What has become of Picasso's influence today?

Left, Pablo Picasso, Head of Weeping Woman (III), May 31, 1937. Right, Jasper Johns, Untitled, 1990.
Left, Pablo Picasso, Head of Weeping Woman (III), May 31, 1937. Right, Jasper Johns, Untitled, 1990.

PABLO PICASSO'S spell over 20th-century art can perhaps be summed up in five words spoken by the Armenian-American painter Arshile Gorky in 1934. Informed that Picasso had recently started making messier paintings, the very tidy Gorky famously replied, "If Picasso drips, I drip."

Picasso's staggering output -- more than 20,000 paintings, drawings, prints, sculptures, and photographs -- gave him an exposure unprecedented for a living artist. The fact that he spearheaded the century's most important movement (cubism), invented its defining technique (collage), and painted its most imposing masterpiece ("Guernica") makes it hard to think of any modern artist -- including rivals and elders -- who didn't at some point in his career take cues from Picasso's Paris studio. If modernism had a pope, it was Picasso.

New York's Whitney Museum of American Art is currently displaying an ambitious exhibition that carefully chronicles the Catalan's tremendous importance to this country's major 20th-century artists. But the exhibit -- "Picasso and American Art," on display through Jan. 28 -- confines itself to artistic relationships begun during Picasso's lifetime, which excludes anyone who wasn't already making mature work by 1973. Understandably, curator Michael FitzGerald told me he had both "practical and intellectual reasons" for limiting an already expansive show to artists who "risked a response" from the living master, but the inevitable question arises: What has become of Picasso's influence in the 33 years since his death?

As the Whitney show demonstrates, Picasso had many interesting and conscientious protégés in his prime, but fewer people followed, or even knew, his work from the 1960s and '70s. By the time Picasso died, most American artists were following his followers instead. In the '80s and '90s, a fierce critique of modernism had rendered its central figure somewhat suspect in the American academy, and the subsequent rise of new media -- video, installation, and performance art -- made the painter's achievements less than relevant.

It would therefore be easy -- and true -- to say that Picasso's impact on the contemporary art scene has dramatically declined. But when you talk with younger artists and gallery owners today, you find a renewed interest in Picasso. It seems more accurate to say his influence has dispersed rather than diminished -- and that the story of his influence is ongoing.

. . .

Paintings of fractured dark forests and African figurines open the Whitney exhibit, as pioneering Yankee modernists like Marsden Hartley, Arthur Dove, and Stuart Davis start grappling with Picasso in 1911, only a few years after he invented cubism. Desperate to wake America from the provincial dream of realism, these artists used the liberated geometric structure of Picasso's landscapes to build their own, distinctly American spaces, complete with enchanted trees, bright ads, and big signatures.

This early mix of European sophistication and American energy sets the stage for the trio of émigrés -- Arshile Gorky, Willem de Kooning, and John Graham -- who would translate Picasso's ideas into the first truly influential school of American painting, Abstract Expressionism, in the 1940s. We watch as Picasso's fractured and angular spatial framework gradually morphs into the Americans' more sweeping and tactile gestures. This slow germination erupts a few years later in Jackson Pollock's totally liquefied splatter paintings, whose vertiginous freedom completes the journey from Picasso's Mediterranean to the wild west.

Having triumphantly wrested the center of the art world from the School of Paris, the so-called New York School gave way to the Pop generation -- Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, and Jasper Johns -- who had to contend with the master in the '60s and early '70s, when his imagery was already firmly embedded in the popular imagination. It would seem only natural to make copies of a painter who himself was known to improvise on paintings by the old masters, but while Picasso's versions of Velazquez and Poussin were enthusiastic reinventions, Lichtenstein and Warhol emphasized the quote marks, making deadpan variations on pictures -- of weeping women, guitars, and nude bathers -- that were now unassailable icons of European culture.

Warhol's blowups of Picasso drawings lack the punch of his Campbell's cans or Jackie O's, but Lichtenstein starts some pretty peculiar dialogues by inserting his dot-matrix blondes in surrealist landscapes and having a Picasso-style face stare blankly past its frame at the brushy Abstract Expressionist style by which it had just been eclipsed. Like Lichtenstein's blowups of lowly comic strips, his versions of Picasso paintings strike a strange balance between homage and critique, but Lichtenstein's trademark ambivalence functions more irreverently when directed at high art. This aiming at Picasso, rather than for him, was entirely new.

Jasper Johns's engagement with Picasso -- as represented at the Whitney by 21 pieces that range from simple pencil sketches to an elegant suite in homage to 1953's "The Shadow" -- takes these mixed feelings even further. Among the 23 Americans exhibited, Johns provides the best mirror for Picasso's versatility, as he quotes both directly and indirectly from Picasso's pictures, making art that shares Picasso's omnivorous taste both in materials (wax, string, wood, sand) and in subject matter (space, death, and, most famously, testicles). At four decades and counting, Johns's relationship to Picasso is also the most sustained.

Mostly gray, his pictures use diagramatic arrangements, shallow space, and muted tones to take questions that Picasso boldly asked -- What is space? What is death? What is sex? -- and rephrase them more stoically. As with Johns's famous flags, maps, and targets, which he often painted in a single color, his careful neutralization of Picasso images somehow helps us see them better.

At 76, Johns is the youngest living artist represented in the show, and his pictures are the only ones exhibited from the last decade. And yet, although Johns's work reveals a lot about Picasso, it only gives us the vaguest clue about his influence in the present, leaving the impression, unintended no doubt, that Picasso's influence suddenly trailed off.

. . .

Indeed, when art-world people are asked to name the biggest influence on today's art making, Picasso's name doesn't exactly leap to mind.

"We're the Warhol generation, not the Picasso generation," says Joshua Buckno, a young curator who works at Boston's Nielsen Gallery.

Roger White, a painter and critic who attended Columbia University's influential MFA program, ascribes Picasso's waning influence to Warhol's French antecedent, Marcel Duchamp. For a generation forced to grapple constantly with mass culture, artists who could turn a urinal or a soup can into art seem more relevant than a man who obsessed over African masks. Duchamp's methods -- pranks and puzzles that always emphasized the conceptual over the visual -- are especially prevalent in today's graduate-level art programs, where, according to White, "one is learning to talk about art as much as make it."

Richard Ryan, a professor of painting at Boston University who started teaching at Yale in the 1980s, also notices Picasso's relative absence in academia. "You don't hear Picasso's name mentioned as much as you used to," says Ryan. He sees this as something of a mistake, "because if you get involved with the basics of visual representation -- space, color, form -- he's always there before you are."

As theoretical and commercial savvy are increasingly emphasized in the academy, outright visual sophistication has become strangely suspect. As a result, not only Picasso-inspired images but the values Picasso embodied as a painter -- sure-handed drawing, material virtuosity, and a sense of formal adventure -- have become harder to find in the art world. Of course, Picasso was himself a savvy self-promoter and very much a trickster -- indeed, Duchamp's early work came right out of Picasso -- so his "disappearance" may simply show how his personality and intellectual legacy have had more effect on recent art than his pictures.

Nevertheless, a resurgent interest in representational painting -- on the part of collectors and curators as well as artists -- suggests that this might be changing.

New York gallery owner Zach Feuer, who represents several Picasso-inspired painters, thinks the generation that was taught to critique modernism -- its domination by men, its cults of personality, its complicity with colonialism -- is "now also ready to address many of its appealing aspects." Feuer points to Picasso's amazing range as what gives younger artists "an entry point to dealing with modern art sincerely."

With an artist as prolific as Picasso, it would indeed be strange not to find something you genuinely admired, and decades of hindsight give artists the freedom to mine inspiration from the fullness of a career that lasted almost 80 years. From the multiple-panel "cubist" portraits of Chicago-based photographer Dawoud Bey to painter Scott Grodesky's beguiling tricks with reverse perspective, some artists are idiosyncratically continuing Picasso's cubist legacy. Others -- like New York painters Carroll Dunham, Cecily Brown, and the late Jean-Michel Basquiat -- have taken a lot from the manic and bawdy pictures at the other end of Picasso's career.

Dana Schutz, who is represented by Feuer, says she admires Picasso "precisely for his versatility" and has taken lessons from his entire oeuvre: "freed up color, contradictory spaces, and liberatingly poor taste." And although her pictures of pill-poppers and self-devourers look very much like updated versions of his weeping women, Schutz emphasizes that her encounter with Picasso has lacked the sense of confrontation it had for previous generations. "I never had the feeling I had to 'get past' Picasso," she says. "It was a more playful kind of influence."

With Picasso now more of a grandfather than a father figure, this attitude -- respectful but more relaxed -- may be typical of an updated stance toward the Spanish master. Instead of responding reverently to his latest discoveries, like Gorky, or irreverently to his accumulated status, like Lichtenstein, contemporary artists are choosing when and how to engage him on their own terms.

If Picasso's creative lawlessness -- his mixed-media zigzag of furious innovation -- gave rise to a chaotic art world where it seems impossible to trace the sundry ramifications of his work, it has also clearly left a rich and varied archive for future generations. And while some of his influence on contemporary art will undoubtedly remain invisible, there have already been enough responses since Picasso left the scene for us to hope that one day we'll see a fascinating sequel to the Whitney's landmark show.

Dushko Petrovich, a painter, is currently artist in residence at the Royal Academy in London. He is the art critic for the journal n+1 and the founding editor of Paper Monument, an art journal launching in the spring.

Left, Roy Lichtenstein, Girl With Tear I, 1977. Right, Dana Schutz, Devourer, 2004.
Left, Roy Lichtenstein, Girl With Tear I, 1977. Right, Dana Schutz, Devourer, 2004.
Left, Pablo Picasso, The Shadow, 1953. Right, Jasper Johns, Fall, 1986.
Left, Pablo Picasso, The Shadow, 1953. Right, Jasper Johns, Fall, 1986.
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