NEW YORK — In labeling artists as geniuses, we non-artists consign them to a special kind of idiocy. With the likes of Mozart, Virginia Woolf, and Picasso, the unspoken implication is so often: They can’t help themselves; the art just spouts out.
If, in addition, the genius’s personality is awkward, or his personal life chaotic to the point of self-parody, it’s all the more tempting for us to segregate, infantilize, and quietly discount him.
But who are we fooling?
Picasso — a genius — was no idiot. He didn’t just have a knack for drawing, a native gift (although he clearly had that). He had an ability to combine that gift with a level of sustained and self-renewing intelligence that was frankly astonishing.
You can see that intelligence on display in one of the great Picasso shows of recent decades (and oh boy, haven’t there been a few). “Picasso Black and White,” at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, surveys the Spaniard’s entire career. But it focuses on the work he made in shades of black, white, and gray. Lots of gray.
It is not, as you might infer from the title, a show of drawings and prints. These are mostly large-scale paintings and sculptures, with ambitious drawings thrown in. The delights of painterly facture — surfaces clotted and pimpled one minute, swooshy and smooth the next — are abundantly evident throughout.
The separate bays in the Guggenheim’s ascending spiral architecture ensure a stately pacing, so that each work is given the breathing room it deserves. Despite the limited palette, the interest never palls. Instead, amid all the stylistic pyrotechnics we have come to expect from Picasso, the connections between these works flare in the brain with kaleidoscopic brilliance.
The spiral layout, affording generous views ahead and behind, might actually be the perfect format for Picasso displays. The artist, after all, was always looking back at himself even as his creative drive corkscrewed ahead. The theme-and-variation dynamic that emerges establishes not just the high level but the true nature of Picasso’s intelligence.
And on that score, I can report, the received wisdom has it right: Picasso’s intelligence was not based — as it was for Matisse — in any special grasp of the properties of the color spectrum. He had some great moments with color. But it was not his forte, and in jettisoning this aspect, the Guggenheim’s experienced Picasso expert Carmen Giménez has distilled Picasso’s real genius, which was for drawing, modeling, assembling, and inventing in two and three dimensions.
Picasso himself seemed to recognize this. The works he considered his finest, or most fruitful, he tended to keep for himself. An unusual proportion of these were in black and white. Many fell to his family after his death, and have rarely been seen by the wider public.
Thus, the show benefits hugely from Giménez’s good relations with the Picasso family. A hefty proportion of the works has been lent by them, and will be unfamiliar to most viewers — which is reason alone to go out of your way to see the show.
There are days when I, like everyone, find Picasso too cerebral, and too much the virtuosic showoff. I tell myself that he lacked emotional weight. But is that really right?
The show leaves you in no doubt that the trembling, trance-inducing tension between two and three dimensions in Picasso plays into a wider human tension between seeming and being. The longer you look, the more this tension takes on an almost Shakespearean richness of connotation.
“Color interests me less at the present time than ‘gravity’ and ‘density,’ ” Picasso said in 1954. Sticking to black and white helped him immerse himself in that interest, and the related questions of form, shape, and, for want of a better term, coming-into-being.
Picasso was always asking, What is the relationship between touching, looking, and understanding? How does desire fit in? What does the force of one person’s desire do to the specific reality — the gravity and density — of the person desired? How far can you stretch a recognizable image into the realm of abstract signs without snapping the link?
That black, in particular, connected with the sober coloring of the Spanish tradition — Velazquez, Ribera, Zurbaran, and Goya — was not by accident. (“The Maids of Honor,” the greatest of Picasso’s multiple riffs on Velazquez’s “Las Meninas” is one of the show’s highlights.)
But white for Picasso was just as important. It was rarely just a starting point, an empty space to be acted upon. It was a color, and in pictures such as “Seated Nude” (1922-23), “The Lovers” (1923), “Olga in a Fur Collar” (1923), and “The Kitchen” (1948), he slathered it on liberally.
Nor, as Giménez points out, were the connections between Picasso’s preference for black-and-white and photography entirely coincidental. He had interesting conversations with his friend the photographer Brassai about these links, and he surely thrilled to the magical relationship between negatives and positives in the photographic darkroom (Brassai himself was a master in the darkroom, converting day into night and night into day with Picasso-like glee).
But Picasso also had his own “negative” reasons for favoring a limited palette: focusing on black and white and the many shades of gray in between allowed Picasso to explore his acrobatic experiments in form without the distraction of color, which always — for him — had an arbitrary quality. (“How many times, just as I was about to add some blue, did I notice that I didn’t have any!” he once told his friend Edouard Teriade. “So I took some red and added it instead.”)
Picasso had no single black-and-white period, along the lines of his blue, rose, or neo-classical periods. Rather, as Brassai noted, periods of working with a bright palette would routinely be followed by “a sculptural period with little color, almost monochrome, as if his canvases had been painted from some fictive sculpture.”
It’s a key observation. Most of the best works in this show — from the relatively conventional “Bust of a Woman, Arms Raised” (1922), who seems to shiver out of the frame and into our space, to the terrifyingly raw “Woman in Grey and White” (1941) — are like drawings of three-dimensional sculptures.
Except that, upon closer inspection, so many of them sustain ambiguities of space that simply can’t be imagined in three dimensions. The reverse is true, too: There are sculptures, such as “Woman With Outstretched Arms,” from 1961, that are essentially flat planes folded into three-dimensional shapes, with outlines and cross-hatched shading superimposed, greatly complicating the way we read their existence in space.
Picasso related drawing to sculpture in ways that do strange things to your physical awareness. The scale, for starters, is always surprising. Figures in smaller works seem to burst out of their frame. Body parts swell in relation to the whole (the hand in “Reclining Woman With Large Hand,” for instance) in ways that match, or heighten, both physical sensation and psychology. Planes and facets that the mind expects to see turning in space in one direction are shaded to suggest contradictory shifts of fiendish complexity.
Outwardly, the notations can seem cartoonish. An arrow for the mouth. Triangles for ears. Four parallel curving lines for shading under the chin. But the spatial complexity — even in a simple portrait such as 1939’s “Bust of a Woman With a Hat” — is tremendous. And Picasso’s psychological acuteness (bitterness coexisting with anguish, stately dignity with stubbornness) matches the formal bravura, with results of devastating immediacy.
Again and again, you’re left feeling pried open like a piece of origami, pulled inside out like an old jacket, freshly reassembled like a wonky mechanical toy.
Many of Giménez’s pairings are simply brilliant. “Head,” for instance, a disk divided into two halves, one black, one white, with crude, characteristically ambivalent signs for eyes and nose, all resting on a tripod, is displayed near “The Painter in His Studio,” painted in the same year, 1928. The painting, in shades of black, white, gray, and pale yellow, is a little metaphysical tour de force, and it uses the same head motif as the sculpture.
Near the end of the show we see Picasso reviving his interest in a problem first explored more than half a century earlier, of how to convey on a flat surface the touch and weight of a female body perceived (and imagined) in the round. The results (“Reclining Woman Reading,” “Reclining Woman Playing With a Cat”) are amazingly fresh, almost as if he were tackling the problem for the first time.
How did he do it? He was a genius. It may be facile, but it’s true. He was also very smart.Sebastian Smee can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.