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Why is art?


Jasan Farago’s piece on the new exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum is as great as many people are saying, and like all substantive, well-turned hatchet-jobs-in-the-non-pejorative-sense it’s not just about what it’s reviewing. Yes, one problem with PABLOMATIC is the utter banality of the premise:

So far as it has an argument — a problematic — it goes like this: Pablo Picasso was an important artist. He was also something of a jerk around women. And women are more than “goddesses or doormats,” as Picasso brutally had it; women, too, have stories to tell. I wish there was more to inform you of, but that’s really about the size of it. All the feminist scholarship of the last 50 years — about repressed desire, about phallic instability, or even just about the lives of the women Picasso loved — is put to one side, in favor of what really matters: your feelings. “Admiration and anger can coexist,” a text at the show’s entrance reassures us.


That Picasso, probably the most written about painter in history, was both a great artist and a not-so-great guy is so far from being news as to qualify as climate.

But that’s not necessarily fatal to an exhibition — a well-selected collection of art speaks for and justifies itself, and doesn’t require any great or original insight on the part of the curator. The bigger problem is that the laziness of the premise carries through to the selection of art itself: some minor Picasso shown alongside some art by women with no particular connection (critical or otherwise) to Picaso taken mostly at random from the BAM collection:

At the Brooklyn Museum you will find a few (very few) paintings by Picasso, plus two little sculptures and a selection of works on paper, suffixed with tame quips by Gadsby on adjacent labels. Around and nearby are works of art made by women, almost all made after Picasso’s death in 1973; finally, in a vestibule, clips from “Nanette” play on a loop. That’s the whole exhibition, and anyone who was expecting this to be a Netflix declension of the Degenerate Art Show, with poor patriarchal Picasso as ritualized scapegoat, can rest easy. There’s little to see. There’s no catalog to read. The ambitions here are at GIF level, though perhaps that is the point.


What matters is what you do with that friction, and “It’s Pablo-matic” does not do much. For a start, it doesn’t assemble many things to look at. The actual number of paintings by Picasso here is just eight. Seven were borrowed from the Musée Picasso in Paris, which has been supporting shows worldwide for this anniversary; one belongs to the Brooklyn Museum; none is first-rate. There are no other institutional loans besides a few prints brought over the river from MoMA. What you will see here by Picasso are mostly modest etchings, and even these barely display his stylistic breadth; more than two dozen sheets come from a single portfolio, the neoclassical Vollard Suite of the 1930s.

Unsigned texts in each gallery provide basic invocations of gender discrimination in art museums, or the colonial legacy of European modern art, while next to individual works Gadsby offers signed banter. These labels function a bit like bathroom graffiti, or maybe Instagram captions. Beside one classicizing print of Picasso and his lover Marie-Thérèse Walter: “I’m so virile my chest hair just exploded.” Beside a reclining nude: “Is she actually reclining? Or has she just been dropped from a great height?”


A more serious look at reputation and male genius might have introduced a work by at least one female Cubist: perhaps Alice Bailly, or Marie Vassilieff, or Alice Halicka, or Marie Laurencin, or Jeanne Rij-Rousseau, or María Blanchard, ​ or even Australia’s own Anne Dangar.

Instead, “It’s Pablo-matic” contents itself to stir in works by women from the Brooklyn Museum collection. These seem to have been selected more or less at random, and include a lithograph by Käthe Kollwitz, a photograph by Ana Mendieta, an assemblage by Betye Saar, and Dara Birnbaum’s “Technology/Transformation: Wonder Woman,” a video art classic of 1978/79 whose connection to Picasso is beyond me. (At least two paintings here, by Nina Chanel Abney and Mickalene Thomas, draw on the example of Manet, not Picasso.) The artists who made them have been reduced here, in what may be this show’s only true insult, into mere raconteurs of women’s lives. “I want my story to be heard,” reads a quotation from Gadsby in the last gallery; the same label lauds the “entirely new stories” of a new generation.

Beautifully put. There are many interesting ways an exploration of influential art done by a total shitbag can go. “Women also paint stuff and here are some examples” is not one of them.

And speaking of problematic, I can’t resist noting this detail:

It’s Pablo-matic: Picasso According to Hannah Gadsby is curated by Hannah Gadsby; Catherine Morris, Sackler Senior Curator, Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art

I guess the “Harvey Weinstein Curator, Cosby Center for Very Feminist Art” was otherwise occupied for this show.

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