Picasso's later works burst forth with raw power and startling originality

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Very late works of genius tend to confuse us. They often seem altogether too simple or simplistic -- to say nothing of clumsy or inept. We can't quite understand why such artists are often willing to throw overboard so much of what it took them a lifetime to acquire in order to speak so directly and obviously. We wonder if these late and often apparently awkward words resulted from a weakening of genius, or if it is only our lack of perception that makes them appear so. Among other things, we are embarrassed by this sudden flush of activity coming from individuals who should, by all accounts, be way past their prime.

In this context we think of Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Cezanne, Renoir, and Monet, all artists whose late works not only topped their respective careers, but actually pointed the way to ideas and forms that would not see the full light of day for years to come. And yet, at various times and to varying degrees, these very works were often a source of embarrassment to those who loved and admired these artists' earlier work.

To this list of artists who refused to retire and to rest on their laurels, we must most emphatically add the name of Pablo Picasso, an artist who not only continued to paint practically up to his death, but who sometimes actually produced two or three paintings a day in the process.

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A goodly number of Picasso's last paintings are now on view at the Pace Gallery here. "Picasso: The Avignon Years" is drawn from two exhibitions held in the Palace of the Popes in Avignon in 1970 and 1973. In the first of these exhibitions were 167 paintings and 45 drawings, all executed within one year. And the second exhibition, which opened in May 1973, a month after Picasso's death, consisted of 201 large-scale paintings produced over a period of 20 months.

That would be amazing enough if it were only a matter of productivity, but with Picasso there is always much more than that. For, among the oversize doodlings and the rehashings of earlier forms and themes which occupied his later years, there are a significant number of paintings of startling orginality and power.

In fact, were we to come upon these works with no foreknowledge of Picasso or of his position in art history, we would almost certainly be struck by the raw, inventive power of these paintings and assume that a new painter of genius had erupted upon the scene.And we would welcome this evidence that the genius was still possible -- whether or not we actually liked the work -- for it would set to rest our gnawing doubts (which first appeared roughly 30 years ago) that genius in painting would ever again appear among us.

These paintings are not attractive in any conventional sense of the word, but are bold, blunt, immediate, and often clumsy-looking -- and for the reason that each is a pictorial idea given direct physical form without the slightest concern for neatness, tidiness, or even "beauty." Whenever Picasso had an idea or an impulse, he simply grabbed a brush and some paint, and attacked the canvas directly. For him, at this time, the distance between creative impulse and pictorial realization was minimal. He acted as swiftly as lightning and with the ferocity of a bull trying to fight its way out of a pen.

This exhibition is actually like a huge sketchbook within which the ideas and forms that intrigue and obsess an artist are worked out and brought to life. (Sometimes tentatively, at other times most emphatically.) The main difference between such a sketchbook and this show is one of size -- and the fact that the viewing of it has been made into a public event.

This annoys many people who want their art complete, tucked-in, neat, and exquisitely framed. They feel that art like this -- formative, autographic, and often not perfectly realized -- doesn't belong in a public gallery or museum, that it should only be shown to specialists and other artists who might be interested in another artist's creative processes. Art, for these people, should only be seen when it is "fully dressed, and wearing a hat and tie."

There are some artists, however, who are so inventive and creatively fertile that their sketches and jottings can reveal almost as much of value as their finished and most committed paintings. Picasso is one of these, as his actual sketches, and the impulsive and investigative paintings in this show make very clear.

"Torero," painted in 1970, is a minor masterpiece of innovative from and color, and is delightfully witty to boot. I was also taken by "Tete d'homme" ( 1969) which very much holds its own in this gallery full of large and passionately colored works even though it is actually more of a drawing than a painting. And "Tete" (1971), is a wild explosion of color very difficult to capture in a black-and-white photograph -- something which is true of almost every work on view.

The fact of the matter is that these paintings should be seen in their actuality and not in reproduction. And this is so because they are so immediate and autographic, so physicalm in their presence, that to see them reproduced in any fashion is to lose a good 80 percent of their effectiveness and power.

The Pace Gallery is also showing some of Picasso's late etchings, including selections from two major series: "347 Gravures" of 1968, and "156 Gravures," the last prints made by Picasso before his death in 1973. A predominant theme of both series is the artist and his studio, and many of these prints include the characters of Picasso's own imaginary society. The exhibitions will remain on view at the Pace Gallery through March 14.

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