Maybe every museum, regardless of focus, should know the box-office thrill of staging a Picasso exhibition. In 2006 the Whitney Museum — of American Art, mind you — pulled it off with “Picasso and American Art,” a somewhat flawed effort that examined his influence on a host of major and minor American artists.
Now the Frick Collection has edged into the field. Its holdings do not extend much beyond the middle of the 19th century, but let’s not quibble. “Picasso’s Drawings, 1890-1921: Reinventing Tradition” is a model of Frick-like reserve, which may be something of a blessing where Picasso is concerned.
Remarkably free of photographs of the artist and his penetrating gaze, or references to his love life, it follows Picasso over three decades from tentative schoolboy to dominant modernist. The greatness of its 61 drawings tends to be exceeded only by a stylistic diversity that may be unparalleled in the history of art and seems implicitly post-Modern. After a small but fascinating cluster of juvenilia the show covers Picasso’s Rose and Blue periods, the monumental climb to Cubism and Cubist collage, and the return to neo-Classical figuration, almost always with freshly unfamiliar works.
This is the first sizable show of Picasso drawings in New York in more than 20 years. It has been organized by Susan Grace Galassi, the Frick’s senior curator, and Marilyn McCully, an independent art historian and Picasso specialist; they collaborated with Andrew Robison, senior curator of prints and drawings at the National Gallery in Washington, where the exhibition will open in late January.
The show starts with what may be the first drawing Picasso signed and dated (in 1890), when he was 8 or 9. With considerable, even surprising awkwardness, this work depicts a small bronze statue of Hercules that was displayed in a hallway in his family’s home in Málaga in southern Spain; the pencil line scuds cautiously along the statue’s silhouette like a small boat hugging the shore, determined to reach home. Over the next few drawings Picasso improves with startling speed, making good on his natural gifts with palpable determination, but also, it would seem, benefiting from the guidance of his less talented father, José Ruiz Blasco, a painter who encouraged his son’s artistry in every way he could.
A small bullfight scene made only two years after the Hercules is alive with caricatural zest and a growing command of bodies in motion. Even more telling, in the Oedipal sense, is that Picasso, turning the page around, filled the top with finely realistic renderings of six pigeons, or rock doves, the favored subject of his father, who was known as El Palomero (the Pigeon Fancier). Next comes an exacting, nearly photographic portrait from 1896 of the tall, fair and aristocratic Ruiz himself. (Picasso resembled him not at all, taking after his short, dark, energetic mother.) This is followed by two large, accomplished figure studies — one from a cast, one from a male model — that mark the end of the artist’s academic training. By the time he was 18 he was working on his own in Barcelona and in a few years would settle in Paris.
Incessant, restless, often contradictory progress is the name of the game here. Exploring materials, the human face and body, and landscapes or still lifes, Picasso establishes one stylistic or formal promontory after another. Then he jumps, landing somewhere that neither he nor drawing has quite been before. He doesn’t seem so much to reinvent tradition, in the words of the show’s title, as to simply explode it, without ever losing track of the constituent pieces, which he combines and recombines in stunning ways. He does odd things with his mediums, for example, applying watercolor and gouache with a dry brush in thin, scratchy lines, as in the early Cubist “Still Life With Chocolate Pot,” creating an odd tactility that infuses his forms with light.
Picasso’s innovations in drawing was not entirely a matter of talent and drive. As Ms. Galassi recounts in her catalog essay, drawings of all kinds were increasingly visible in Paris in the first years of the century. Large survey exhibitions of drawings were in vogue. The Louvre was displaying some 2,500 sheets that stretched from the old masters to the late 19th century. There were also big monographic shows, for example an Ingres retrospective laden with drawings, the fluency and control of which awed both Picasso and Matisse. This is of course in addition to the more familiar Picasso influences, like the art of Paul Cézanne and Paul Gauguin and Iberian and African sculpture, all of which are also at work here.
In other words, Picasso had a lot to look at both in terms of art in general and drawing in particular in early-20th-century Paris. As this show repeatedly indicates, he looked very carefully, with a discriminating voraciousness that many of today’s often overly cerebral artists could learn from. A spare ink study for “La Vie,” his Blue Period painting, portrays the artist and his mistress Fernande Olivier as wan, otherworldly nudes; according to Ms. Galassi, Picasso was responding to the newly visible works of the so-called primitives of the French and Italian Renaissance. The pair might almost be Adam and Eve, especially since the drawing contains a second image — supposedly a painting on an easel — of a naked couple in an anguished huddle, as if just expelled from the Garden of Eden.
The fragility of the figures in this drawing is immediately countered by its neighbor, a pencil rendering of a thick-limbed, dark-haired nude that pays homage to one of Gauguin’s Tahitian odalisques. (It is even signed Paul Picasso.) And this implicitly sculptural figure is but a precursor to the monumental women that emerged in the wake of Picasso’s exposure to the ancient Iberian sculpture of Spain, starting in the summer of 1906. The sturdy yet pensive amazons of “Seated Nude and Standing Nude” from the Philadelphia Museum of Art is especially grand; their blunt forms are softened by shaded charcoal that becomes more refined as it moves from background to body to face.
The influence of African sculpture is felt in the angular, animated figure of “Yellow Nude,” a study for the epochal 1907 masterpiece “Desmoiselles d’Avignon.” The eroticism that flows throughout Picasso’s figure drawings acquires a slouchy, thrust-pelvis immediacy here, even as the figure becomes planar and more abstract. The exhibition gives a good account of the ever finer fracturing that leads to Cubism, culminating in three nearly abstract ink drawings of standing nudes that are notable for their very different structures, figurative hints and flurries of marks and textures.
Shortly thereafter Picasso’s awe for Ingres comes more and more into play, helped along by Cézanne. A stylish, meticulous realism begins to insinuate itself, negotiating various truces with abstraction, often through the drawing process. Awe is tinged with humor in Picasso’s wonderful portrait of the composer Igor Stravinsky, from 1917, in which thin and thinner lines, partly erased, give Stravinsky a supremely aloof, catlike stillness.
The balance shifts in humor’s favor in the elegantly satiric “Two Ballet Dancers,” in which cartoonishly distorted hands and arms, undulating fore and aft, contrive to make the vamping tutu wearers seem more ballerino than ballerina. The swelling, curving digits in this image may remind you that the exhibition begins with a smudged ink drawing of Picasso’s left hand accompanied by a label informing us that “hands feature prominently in Picasso’s early work.” They do, and tracking them is among the smaller, but more telling joys of this enormously inspiring show.