Papa Picasso: Children of one man

American artists and its country haven’t tired of the iconic Spanish artist since he first landed on its shores in 1909. But 34 years after his death, has he finally overstayed his welcome?

Sara Nicole Miller

Forget Hefner and his Girls Next Door – Picasso is the playboy of modern celebrity culture. And his ghost, along with the jumbo “Picasso and American Art” exhibition at Walker Art Center, will oblige you to agree.

where to go

Picasso and American Art
what: Art exhibit
when: Now through Sept. 9
where: Walker Art Center
Tickets: $6 with student ID

In modern art’s heyday, everybody loved Pablo. In fact, by all practical looks, Picasso’s artistic persona became the iconic looking glass to America’s 20th-century art-world Alice. But as we well know, the times, they are a changin’. And his artistic genius no longer fully explains the reason behind his continued demigod status in American culture, both pop and highbrow.

“During his life, Picasso was a kind of ‘perfect storm’ of fame – he had talent,and a charismatic personality, at a time when the emerging art world needed stars,” explained Joli Jensen, a communications professor at the University of Tulsa. Jensen will speak about Picasso, art and celebrity Thursday as part of the Walker’s Target Free Thursday Nights lecture series.

Fame was a throne that Picasso didn’t hesitate to sit atop. He had the chauvinistic sangfroid of a Minotaur, with puddles of critic drool gathering about his artwork, and he kept enough mistresses in his lifetime to open a harem or two. He’s also been the banter of the American art world since late modernism – not bad for a guy who’s been dead for more than 30 years.

The exhibition highlights – in a simplistic, compare-and-contrast type way – Picasso’s aesthetic and cultural impact on nine American greats.

“Picasso’s 20th-century fame shaped how artists responded to him, as a person and as an artist. His cultural icon status continued for decades, and forced all other painters to somehow deal with his work,” Jensen said.

But the conditions of fame and influence that once graced Pablo’s lot are decaying. Artists are responding to the new pressures and stimuli of a completely different world. In short, Picasso might soon prove (gasp!) played out.

“I’m afraid Picasso’s artistic reputation is in trouble right now – he’s been too popular for too long,” Jensen explained.

Picasso didn’t just ogle artists across the Atlantic with his impressive technical motifs alone; he had a menagerie of cohorts in the industry invested in making him a modern star.

“His celebrity drew from, and relied on, American desires to own and celebrate ‘modern-ness, ” Jensen said.

But oddly enough, Picasso never even set foot in America. His maiden foray across the Atlantic, contrary to the persona that would come to define him, occurred rather modestly: under the arm of artist Max Weber in 1909. The “Picasso” in tote was a modest still life – a dim depiction of a pot and some blurry green fruits – and not a particularly interesting one. But it made way for the first tidal wave of Pablo-mania that would haunt and fascinate the burgeoning avant-garde in America.

It is for this reason, and this reason alone, that “Picasso and American Art,” is more a soak in fanatical, postmodern strangeness than it is your average canonized art exhibit. The world is running out of ways to gush about Picasso, and in the exhibition, it tends to show.

A jaunt through the gallery looks like a real-life version of the corresponding bounded catalogue: a knotty historical narrative, combining all the stylish fizz and comparative vigor of a comprehensive PowerPoint presentation. There are many placards to read, and even more eye-popping pieces to view. Once in a while, a floating quotation – a quirky comment or ego stroke flung in Picasso’s direction by a featured artist – lands itself upon the high gallery walls.

Naturally, the exhibition features highly esteemed works, approximately 140 of them, and about 40 are Picassos. What rounds out the theme is a sampling of his inspired American contemporaries: Max Weber, Stuart Davis, Arshile Gorky, John Graham, Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, David Smith, Roy Lichtenstein and Jasper Johns. It’s an impressive dance card, even for a loose-lipped artist like Picasso.

Curator Michael FitzGerald established two criteria for the featured artists within the exhibit: They had to have significantly responded to Picasso’s work by his death in 1973 as well as have strongly involved themselves with his work and transformed it into something different.

In some instances, the similarities to Picasso are apparent, stopping homage and influence just shy of copycatting. And if you don’t pick up on it at first glance, you will by journey’s end; the exhibition’s glaring obsession is to prove it to you. After all, the exhibition screams “this guy is THE American idol.” And who can argue with such an enchanting reception?

But “Picasso and American Art” proves that you don’t need Pablo to throw a wicked party. All the artists have such strong aesthetic presences – from Gorky’s “The Artist and His Mother” to John Graham’s “Queen of Hearts” – that their art stands well on its own.

“These were artists who were reaching out, breaking through the limitations of American art at that time,” FitzGerald said.

According to FitzGerald, they tried to show which Picasso pieces these artists came into contact with and how the artists related to and deviated from Picasso’s work. The exhibit’s spatial layout tries to make as many proximal illustrations as possible, planting Picasso in dialogue with de Kooning, Gorky and so forth. But even so, obvious dialogues concerning iconic burnout in the age of the Picasso postcard can’t help but linger about in the ether.

“As with all dead celebrities, he’s lost control of his image by dying, and there’s nothing he personally can do to revive his reputation in the art world,” Jensen claims.

Ultimately, though, there’s nothing wrong with labyrinthine, gushy Picasso gigs – they have their time and place. The Picasso we all know and love, even in death, will continue to play the part of the old stage ham – as long as there’s a cultural apparatus cheering him on in the wings. But that’s not to say the audience members won’t get bored Ö eventually.

“He has become a cliché,” said Jensen, “which is always the price of long term fame.”