Jackson Pollock famously said, "That guy missed nothing!"
"That guy" was Pablo Picasso.
Michael Fitzgerald, guest curator and Picasso scholar, spent 10 years working on "Picasso and American Art," on view for another week at New York's Whitney Museum. The idea is to show Picasso's influence in this country by displaying his works juxtaposed with some by the likes of Stuart Davis, Willem de Kooning and Jasper Johns. Ironically, Picasso never even set foot in The United States.
"Picasso was for American artists the primary figure of the 20th century," Fitzgerald told Sunday Morning correspondent Rita Braver. "He was the one who defined modern art."
In 1909, Max Weber studied in Paris and became one of the few American artists to ever actually meet the master. Webber was the first to bring a Picasso into this country.
"At the time it was remarkably different from what most artists were painting," Webber said. "This is very subdued, almost black and white, incredibly simple. It's one of the first developments towards cubism."
In 1911, Weber persuaded photographer Alfred Stieglitz to put on the first Picasso show in America at his legendary 291 Gallery in New York.
"So there was a lot of recognition that Picasso was important," Fitzgerald said. "And for certain artists even that first show was tremendously influential."
Soon Americans like Arthur Dove, Stuart Davis and Weber became so adept at echoing Picasso that recognizing who painted what can be a challenge.
"The worry was that the Americans would not look all that strong in relation to him," Fitzgerald said. "But I think in a pairing like this you see that they really stand out very strongly together."
Just as Americans were catching up to Picasso's Cubist style — seen in his monumental "Three Musicians" — he also began painting classical-style portraits. American artists took note of that as well. One of Picasso's greatest disciples in this country was Arshile Gorky.
Gorky understood the great variety of Picasso's styles and could imitate them and transform them more diversely than any of the other artists.
But plenty of artists were moved to expand on Picasso's themes, especially after seeing his 1927 painting "The Studio." Works by Willem de Kooning, Lee Krasner and David Smith — all on display at the Whitney — show how American artists were taking steps forward.
"You see at the bottom of the legs of the table there are those little circles," Fitzgerarld said. "And if you look at the David Smith sculpture, they are the same kind of balls or ball bearings at the bottom."
In 1939, the Museum of Modern Art organized a huge exhibition called "Picasso: Forty Years of His Art." Thousands of people attended. One of them was the artist and sculptor Louise Bourgeois, who painted a Picasso-style self-portrait after seeing a Picasso show.
"It's actually a self-portrait or one might say a series of self-portraits — a very pointed, pinched one, and this much more rounded, curvilinear one. And multiple profiles. But she's turning them to her own purpose."
Fitzgerald said that American artists were isolated from the rest of the art world and Picasso was their ticket to entry. Confronting him was the only way they could be taken seriously on the world stage.
If any American artist came close to matching Picasso's influence, it was Jackson Pollock.
"He was tremendously interested in Picasso," Fitzgerald said. "He was really the most competitive of all the American artists with him."
Pollock took Picasso head-on. His "Water Bull" was inspired by Picasso's historic "Guernica." "Gothic" was his take on Picasso's edgy "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon." But Pollock went one step further with a drip painting he did in 1950.
"We found films of Pollock painting that were made in the early 1950s, of him laying out in black lines the shapes that are the beginning of the canvas. And they're actually figurative shapes drawn from Picasso's work," Fitzgerald said. "So he moved from relatively representational figures to something that's clearly abstract."
By the 1960s, Picasso had become a kind of pop icon – the perfect subject for Pop Art. Everyone from Andy Warhol and Claes Oldenburg to Jasper Johns and Roy Lichtenstein tried their hand at mimicking his work. Lichtenstein, Fitzgerald said, was somewhat obsessed.
"He had been obsessed with Picasso for so long," Fitzgerald said. "He wanted to demonstrate that he wasn't simply a student — that it was his own art, that if he could transform a Picasso into a Lichtenstein, he could do anything."
If Lichtenstein was obsessed, Jasper Johns was inspired. For more than 20 years, he created dozens of variations on Picasso's work, from his minotaurs and nudes to his portraits of women.
"He's actually started a new series," Fitzgerald said. "They're both called 'Pyre,' as in funeral pyre. So it is an image of death but also an image of rebirth because, of course, what Johns is doing is creating a whole new series of his own work built on Picasso's."
Fitzgerald said Picasso realized that he was important to other artists and wanted that role in art. He said it would be fascinating to see how Picasso would react to the exhibit.
"I think he would have been combative," he said. "I think he wanted to make sure that he won out — and I'm not so sure he did!"
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