I was reminded of the joy of living in a great urban cultural center, the San Francisco Bay Area, when I went in to see the new “Picasso and American Art” show at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art this past week. If I lived in a remote region, I would not see this stunning show. There are 30 Picassos in the show and about 150 paintings by American artists who were influenced by him. The exciting reality of the show is that there is a visual dialogue going on, a kind of visual conversation, as you see these artists inspired by a master among masters. As Jackson Pollock said, “That guy missed nothing.” It’s intriguing to see how Picasso’s painting “Studio,” for example, which is about the creative process, influenced Arshile Gorky’s “Organization.”
I was taken back to my college days, at Notre Dame in the 1960s, when I had two Picasso prints on my walls. One was “The Three Musicians,” which was always an inspiring painting to me about the joy of the creative process. I also had on my walls Picasso’s famous “Guernica,” which was such a powerful statement about chaos in the modern world, and which I had seen in Chicago, which was the cultural capital if you were going to Notre Dame. I describe in Chapter 12, “The Refreshment of Art,” in my recent literary book, how these paintings kindled in me a sense of how art can enrich the human spirit.
The new Picasso show starts out with Max Webber bringing the first Picasso into the U.S. in his suitcase, in 1909. One tends to forget that in those earlier eras, before TV and the Internet and extensive artbook publishing, you had to actually go to a physical place to see a work of art. That is why the 1939 retrospective show about Picasso’s work, in New York, was so influential. Many of the great artists in the show, as young men, saw Picasso’s work for the first time in that show and were deeply influenced by his striking originality of visual language. One interesting innovation of the SFMOMA show if that you can download onto your ipod the compelling verbal commentary explaining the show and listen to it anytime, even if you never see the actual show live.