Thomas McManus

Picasso, the painter who changed sculpture forever

Woman’s Head (Fernande) 1909, Bronze

To attend the Picasso Sculpture Exhibit at MoMA is to witness the secret workings of a relentless creative mind. Never schooled in sculpture, he was free to explore its potential, without fear of failure. Coupled with his sense of playfulness and rebellious outlook, he worked in the gap between painting and sculpture. He made no assumptions about what a sculpture could be, and he didn’t let convention get in his way. Richard Serra said, “Picasso seems to be actually more inventive in sculpture than in painting.” What few realize is that the greatest painter of the 20th century was also the greatest sculptor of the 20th century. To see this show is to know the canon other serious sculptors must compare themselves.

Picasso once famously said, “Good artists borrow, great artists steal.” and the artist he stole the most from was Cezanne, a painter who not only painted what he saw, he painted how he saw. Cezanne eschewed staining, “sculpting” his work with thick brushstrokes, and with multiple perspectives, he reduced his pictorial elements to cubes, cones, and cylinders. From this starting point, Picasso created Analytical Cubism. Picasso took Cezanne at his word, and he painted cubes that fractured the picture plane, creating a breathing space for shapes to float in and out. Facilitated by the freedom this structure offered him, he investigated multiple views of perception. Picasso painted some of his most provocative works of art at this time, and propitiously, he continued to work in sculpture.

The first room in the show shows how quickly Picasso progressed in his early 1903 to 1909 period. From a sentimental bust of a bronze harlequin to a primitive wood sculpture of a nude, you are immediately led to his breakthrough work, Woman’s Head 1909. Modeled out of clay, and then cast in bronze, Woman’s Head, portrays his lover, Fernande, from multiple viewpoints, as partly buried cubes emerge from a block of clay. Picasso tries to release his cubes and make them float, but traditional sculptural processes hold him back. Unlike his paintings, there isn’t any air in this work, which limited his potential for spatial exploration. Multiple viewpoints stuck in the mud of the clay, lack clarification. Luckily, his painting process offered a solution to his predicament.




Still life with Guitar. Variant state Paris, assembled before November 15, 1913, Subsequently preserved by the artist Paperboard, paper, string, and painted wire installed with cut cardboard box

While working on his still life paintings, Picasso would use sketches, or maquettes, as the reference for his work. One of these sketches was a three-dimensional cutout of a guitar, handmade of paperboard, paper, string and painted wire, glued together. A photo of it exists as a centerpiece in a three-dimensional tableau made of paper cutouts. Once finished, Picasso had an insight. Why couldn’t the sketch stand alone and be the sculpture? That way, it would free up the negative space of his work allowing shapes to float, as they did in his paintings, allowing multiple viewpoints to mesh with each other. This bold move demonstrated a rejection of the lofty subject matter of sculpture. This wasn’t a statue of a goddess, a general on a horse, or even his mistress. It was a sculpture of an inanimate object. Of a guitar! Then in 1916, Picasso folded up the paper guitar and put it away in a box. It remained there for 64 years until the MoMA acquired and displayed it again, soon after the artist’s death. Fortunately, before mothballing the paper sculpture, Picasso decided to make a more permanent version of it in 1914.



Guitar, Paris, after mid-January 1914 Ferrous sheet metal and wire

Guitar 1914 wasn’t made from clay, wood, or marble. It was made with metal. It wasn’t carved, chiseled, or molded. It was constructed. It even had lines (the strings were made of wires). It hung on a wall. What was it then? With Guitar, Picasso resolved a conflict between painting and sculpture by introducing a strange hybrid. Some called it pictorial sculpture.

Here, Picasso answers ‘why’ questions. Why is sculpture always about the human form, when it could be of an inanimate object? Why can’t it be assembled, when you can construct it out of metal? Why does it have to be on a pedestal, when it can hang on a wall? Why does sculpture have to be so serious, when it could be fun? By challenging sculpture’s very nature, Picasso brought a new energy to the medium. The poet Andre Salmon observed, “We were delivered from painting and sculpture, liberated from the imbecilic tyranny of genres.” Guitar 1914 set the stage for the greatest sculptural exploration and innovation of the 20th century.


Still Life, 1914, painted pine and poplar, nails, and upholstery fringe. About 12 inches high.

Still Life, 1914 is the first sculpture that made fun of sculpture. Instead of carving, he paints pine and poplar wood and nails them together. Although still life as a genre is within the purview of painting, Picasso boldly makes it the subject of sculpture. By portraying a workman’s lunch, he offers a sardonic commentary on the ‘high’ ambitions of ‘Art’. (A Dutch Master, 17th century feast, it isn’t.) Haphazard sawn wood, machined and hand carved, refute the journeyman’s aesthetic of refinement. Further blending painting and sculpture, he uses paint to distinguish the surface of the glass (glossy) and the rest of the tableaux (matte). The addition of tasseled upholstery fringe, a found object integrated into the piece, proffers another snub at the craftsmanship, giving the piece an air of insouciance and whimsy. This daring act, incorporating real objects into sculpture, unleashed a creative fervor that resonates to this day. But this is just the beginning for Picasso, and there are so many more rooms to go through.


Pablo Picasso. Figure. 1928

Picasso’s quest to have his sculpture breathe led to another breakthrough, Figure, 1928, a rejected study for the tomb of his friend Apollinaire. Once again, a painter’s perspective creates a new sculptural form, but, this time, using Surrealist imagery. Inspired by the strings in his guitar sculptures, he created a piece made entirely of welded wire. A contemporary art dealer declared it ‘drawing in space.' Sculpture as drawing, freed up the medium, allowing new avenues of creativity by using line and air for expression. Once again, Picasso’s disregard for the status quo showed the way for artists to use unorthodox materials and techniques.



Picasso's 'Bull's Head' Paris, spring 1942 Bronze, cast in 1943

Assembled out of a bicycle seat and handlebars, Bull’s Head evokes a smile. Bold simplicity and a good coupling of two disparate bicycle parts surprise with a depiction of a bull. But then, Picasso takes it a further step, as he casts the assemblage. Now, Picasso comes full circle with another desecration. After embracing the commonplace by incorporating it into his art, he now sanctifies it with bronze. The 19th century must have been rolling in its grave.


Chair Cannes, 1961. Painted sheet metal, Musée National Picasso–Paris.

What Figure 1928 did for the line, Chair Cannes did for shape. This kooky sculpture questioned the fundamental processes of its medium. First cut out of paper, folded, and then flattened out (at this stage Picasso said it looked like a chair run over by a steamroller), craftsmen then bent a single sheet of painted metal, based on the paper template, to create an art object. Made of only one part, he manipulated the material of the work itself, to create a complex piece without soldering or welding. Only gravity holds it together. Bent and turned planes create their own negative space. With a mundane object as subject and a simple shape as a sculptural form, with bending as process and gravity as glue, Guitar Cannes, advanced both the mental and visual gymnastics of Picasso’s art – not bad for an 80-year-old.


To tour this show is to explore the creative mind. How are new ideas formed? How does one find the confidence and courage to embrace them? Picasso shows the way with his unrelenting curiosity, reassessment of assumptions, and rejection of category norms. He asks big questions by challenging the opposing prejudices of painting and sculpture. His nonchalance enabled risk taking, with a take-or-leave-it attitude. What is the secret to Picasso’s prolific creativity? He had fun.


Thomas McManus is a writer, artist and professor at Fashion Institute of Technology in NYC.

Paul Rand, Art in Advertising

“Mail order advertisers, as we have said, have pictures down to a science.”  Claude Hopkins

As you enter the Paul Rand exhibition, you can’t miss a quote of his in a display case filled with his work. It proclaims, “There is no science in advertising.”

Advertising has always wanted to be scientific. Clients want to know where their dollars are going. They want a return on investment. They want ads that are “two-fisted”.  Within this den of Philistines, Paul Rand offers an alternative.  Instead of the huckster aesthetic of cold hard cash he tries to bring culture to the product. Paul Rand believes that art can be just as persuasive as science, if not more so.

Rand is an astute and eclectic salesman who embraces the art movements of the avant guard. If Matisse were a graphic designer, he would be Paul Rand.  A defining style incorporates the Mediterranean color, cut-outs and simplicity of the French master.


A pharmaceutical ad is an homage to Constructivism.


A book cover for “The Captive Mind” presages Op Art by a least a decade.


An ad for Westinghouse makes a deconstructionist statement.

Rand is the last modernist before the full weight of postmodernism eclipsed his generation’s optimism. His work is full of whimsy, not irony. It is a testament of how a lowly advertising art director can become one of the greatest artists of his time.

There is a saying that an ad in this morning’s newspaper is used to wrap fish in the afternoon. Sometimes it is also used to line the bottom of a bird cage. But every once in a while it ends up in an esteemed exhibition, like the one running now until October 13, at the Museum of the City of New York.

Thomas McManus is a writer, artist and professor at Fashion Institute of Technology in NYC.

Jeff Koons: Jeffie Goes to Hollywood

“Life is too important a thing ever to talk seriously about it.” –Vera, or The Nihilists

Frankie Goes to Hollywood(FGTH), is an 80’s British band that had a hit with their single “Relax”. They released a greatest hits album, “Bang! The Greatest Hits Album of Frankie Goes to Hollywood”. It has only one hit on it. It is called “Relax”. Which brings to mind Jeff Koons. He is the Frankie Goes to Hollywood of artists. A one-hit-wonder or at best a three-hit-wonder. He also has a greatest hits album. It’s now playing at the Whitney Museum of Art.

Koons is the ultimate Post Modernist. With sardonic references to art historical styles, appropriation and irony he subverts all that is dear to Modernism. One Ball Total Equilibrium Tank (Spalding DR. J 241 Series) has a basketball floating in a tank of water that is mounted on a steel table. The purity of modernism (Donald Judd) is undermined by pop imagery (Warhol). It makes an elegant simple statement while at the same time celebrating the banal. The ball isn't soldered to another piece of steel. Salt and distilled water hold it in suspension. No wires are used. It floats magically and motionlessly. You can't help but think of the late Frank Caro’s obsession with weightlessness as a sculptural end game. But unlike Caro this work isn't constructivist. Koons uses water as his medium to hold a readymade in place. Like an aquarium this piece has to be routinely cleaned and the water replaced. Damien Hirst couldn't have put a shark in a tank without first being inspired by Koons.


WIth Balloon Dog (1994-2000), Koons fixates on the transformative powers of material by the manipulation of surface. Warhol’s Brillo (1964) boxes are an obvious inspiration. But Koons doesn’t subvert Modernism by reconstructing advertising iconography. Instead he bases his work on a readymade interpretation of reality–the balloon abstraction of a dog. The use of scale creates a surprising disruption. The piece is massive and monumental while being as fragile as a Christmas tree ornament. It appears to be cast but it is actually over 30 pieces of metal that are attached.The yellow color, surface and subject make it feel like it could float away.


Play-Doh (1994-2014) took over 20 years to build. Koons felt he couldn't finish it until technology was sophisticated enough to pull it off. Play-Doh is enormous and just sits there all mashed up into one large piece. So much for composition! Once again color, surface and texture are transformative. This is a sculpture that you feel as well as look at. The work appears to be malleable and you just want to tear off a piece and make something with it. Using constructivism to create a sculpture whose subject is clay is about as ironic as it gets. I just hope Play-Doh doesn’t dry out with time.

The rest of the show is cannon fodder. You get the feeling Koons must maintain a large output to pay for La Cicciolina’s alimony. His paintings are slick knock-offs of Rosenquist. There is so much camp here it feels like you are in Yellowstone National Park.

His “Made in Heaven” series really nails it. Jeffie Goes to Hollywood.



Written by Tom McManus