Focus: Picasso Sculpture
July 3–November 3, 2008
To create Guitar Picasso made a radical leap from the sculptural tradition of modeling (carving or molding) to a new technique of assemblage. He created a first version of Guitar from cardboard in 1912, then later remade the work in sheet metal; the modern ordinariness of both of these materials is very different from traditional sculptural materials such as bronze, wood, and marble. The planes of the sheet–metal construction engage in a play of substance and void in which volume is suggested, not depicted. In a dramatic demonstration of the flexible way visual forms can be read in context, the guitar's sound hole, which normally recedes from the instrument's smooth surface, here projects outward into space.
Picasso: Guitars 1912–1914, February 13–June 6, 2011
Director, Glenn Lowry: When art critic André Salmon first saw Picasso's sheet metal guitar, he had this to say.
André Salmon (quote read by actor): I saw Picasso's studio, and this studio which, according to some, contained no works of art, in the old sense, was furnished with the newest of objects.
Some witnesses, already shocked by the things that they saw covering the walls said, pointing a haughty finger at the object of Picasso's clever pains: "What is it? Does it rest on a pedestal? Does it hang on a wall? What is it, painting or sculpture?" Picasso, dressed in the blue of Parisian artisans, responded in his finest Andalusian voice: "It’s nothing, it's el guitare!"
Curator, Anne Umland: It is eyewitness accounts like Salmon's that really give us a sense of the impact that this work had upon those who first saw it. It loomed immense in his memory, I gather and because of that simplicity, radicality of this work that is made just from folding, crimping, cutting, sort of cobbling together.
One of the fundamental differences of the cardboard guitar is not only its literal lightness, but its visual lightness. There is a luminosity to the material that it's rendered in. Whereas, with the sheet metal guitar, it's denser, it's darker. It is, the shadowy Doppelganger of the earlier, more ephemeral form. I think they are both revolutionary in their own different ways.
One legacy speaks to combination, to assemblage, to performance, to installation art. To art that is made by putting together things that are found from different sources. And another that looks towards a language of abstraction and toward constructive sculpture—shaping form in a radically new and different way. Two very different traditions that became pivotal in terms of what happened in twentieth-century art.
Early visitors to Picasso's studio were bewildered by this work: "What is that?" they asked, according to the poet André Salmon: "Does that rest on a pedestal? Does that hang on the wall? Is it a painting or sculpture?" Apparently, Picasso responded, "It's nothing, it's 'la guitare!'" For Salmon, one of Picasso's closest friends during the Cubist years, the effect was of radical importance: "We were delivered from painting and sculpture, liberated from the imbecilic tyranny of genres." With its center open to space, Picasso's Guitar was a radical breakthrough.
MoMA Audio: Collection, 2008
Curator, Anne Umland: We're looking at a sheet metal version of a sculpture that existed in its original form as a cardboard model made in 1912. And up until that point, sculpture was very much an art of carving or modeling of solid forms and of noble materials, like bronze, or marble. Because this guitar is an object that's intended to hang on the wall, it relates as much to the world of painting as to that of sculpture.
But then you go further, and you see that rather than being an object composed of solid planes, Picasso has cut into the surface of the guitar. He’s revealing its core, or its interior. Probably nowhere more surprisingly or audaciously than in the way that he's treated the sound hole, which when you look at a guitar is, of course, a void. And by taking away the frontal plane and creating a cylinder that traces the contour of this void Picasso creates a positive out of what has always been a negative.
You actually can see the irregularity in edge caused by the clipping shears that Picasso used when he shaped the different pieces of metal that composed this work. You can see sort of these mundane humble wires. Actually the sound hole could have been used for a stove–pipe. It's just a humdrum every day metal cylinder that Picasso could have found at a hardware store easily anywhere in Paris.
The Museum of Modern Art, MoMA Highlights, New York: The Museum of Modern Art, revised 2004, originally published 1999, p. 68
Before the twentieth century, sculpture often described the human form, and was principally an art of carving and modeling solids. In Guitar Picasso broke with these age-old traditions, examining an everyday object and initiating a new type of sculptural construction: built up from sheet metal, Guitar has no solid center but is open to space. A shallow arrangement of planes to be viewed from the front, it seems pictorial as well as sculptural, and relates to Picasso's Cubist collages of newspaper clippings and the like. This points to another departure from tradition: whereas ambitious sculptors of the period might work in bronze or marble, Picasso used sheet metal and wire—common, everyday materials, like the newspapers of the collages.
Picasso's guitar sculpture is the same size and shape as the real thing, but he shatters its form. If the front of a guitar is a plane concealing a volume, he cuts that plane away, opening up the interior as an empty box. If the sound hole is ordinarily a void, he gives it substance, turning it into a projecting cylinder (a device, Picasso said, inspired by the tubular eyes in an African Grebo mask). Viewed frontally, the cylinder's open rim becomes a line drawing of the sound hole. Here, Picasso has opened up the central core of sculpture, allowing us to see into and through it.