``Je Suis le Cahier'' (``I Am the Sketchbook'') is the name of a major exhibition beginning its national tour here at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Written by Picasso's own hand, the words are on the cover of his sketchbook No. 40, one of 175 extant, dating to around 1905. His bold assertion of identity with his drawings and the exhibition now surrounding them are considered crucial to deciphering the process of Picasso's unparalleled creativity as one of the greatest artists of this century - as well as his move from perceptual art into conceptual Cubism.
The opening here inaugurates a North American tour that includes San Francisco; Minneapolis; Chicago; Phoenix, Ariz.; Fort Worth, Texas; Fort Lauderdale, Fla.; Boston; Toronto; and Montreal. The exhibition had been mounted briefly at New York's Pace Gallery and then enjoyed a highly successful showing at London's Royal Academy.
``Here you are standing [at] the shoulder of genius, seeing how he thought,'' said Marc Glimcher, who worked with his father and the artist's son, Claude, for five years to organize the exhibit.
``The drawings distinguish themselves by their organization and sequence. You can see the early drawings influenced by [French artist Toulouse] Lautrec. These move sequentially before your eyes into the strangely mannered elongations of his so-called `blue' period, and then the distorted drawings which became more and more simplified by African primitivism until Cubism is born before you,'' Mr. Glimcher said.
Reviews in New York and London have called the exhibition one of the best chances ever to watch the inner workings of genius, ``to follow the step-by-step progression of ideas that change our ways of seeing or thinking, or to observe the evolution of a masterpiece from rough sketch to finished study.''
As Mr. Glimcher's father, Arnold, points out in the catalog text, ``Although most of Picasso's solutions appear to be immediately worked out on the canvas, this was far from the fact. Many paintings sprang fully formed as the fulfillment of preconscious models, but very often others were the product of the process of trial solution and discovery through drawing.''
Marc Glimcher maintains that the sketchbooks - 45 are represented here - are unique in the art world for their number and that they were not just trial drawings but literally visual diaries.
``All his artistic decisions and questions are worked out, but so are his daily endeavors - all his lovers are documented, the places he went, the summers he spent, his engagement ...''
As evidence of the latter, Marc says that days after Picasso became engaged to Russian dancer Olga Koklova in 1919, a drawing of a ring appears.
At a press preview Glimcher also told the story of Picasso's near mystical identification with the notebooks. Some were small enough to be carried to caf'es, bullfights, and other outings. Larger ones were used in his studio. Overall, 7,000 drawings exist, representing 80 years of drawing - more than any other artist.
``Because he had no thought of the books ever having an audience, he was very secretive and compulsive about them,'' says Glimcher, who spent years in preparation of its catalog. ``He deposited them in bank vaults, and even in the back closets of apartments that he rented for the sole purpose of their storage.'' Glimcher says that Picasso would never show them to anyone, except ``on a very, very good day if you asked him just the right way. Then he might tear out just one page, and light a candle and look at it, whispering comments in the third person: `Isn't he a genius? How did he ever think of that?''' Some of the drawings are the best ever made, claims Glimcher, citing the ``Woman and Child'' (1921) and the preliminary sketches for ``Les Demoiselles d'Avignon.''
The works in this collection cover every period and style of Picasso's career and include the preliminary drawings for many of his most famous works, including ``Family of Saltimbanques,'' ``War and Peace,'' and ``Rape of the Sabines.'' Picasso kept most of his 175 sketchbooks intact until 1965, when he sold complete sketchbooks of drawings to his dealer at the Gal'erie Louise Leiris.
The unsold sketchbooks and pages were ordered with meticulous care, says Glimcher, and stored judiciously in cataloged boxes. When Picasso's estate was broken up seven years ago by the French government - an estate then worth about $1 billion - the French government kept 45 of the sketchbooks in lieu of death duty. They opened the Mus'ee Picasso on Sept. 23, 1985, with only a few of the sketchbooks and many other works.
The other sketchbooks went to Picasso's heirs. As a close friend of the Glimcher family, which runs the Pace Gallery, it was Claude Picasso who helped make the exhibit a reality. Paloma and Bernard Picasso also aided in the project. ``Picasso considered all of his works to be entries in his diary; he excluded nothing,'' writes Arnold Glimcher. ``The sketchbooks are generic chapters inextricable from his oeuvre.''
The exhibition will be seen at Los Angeles County Museum of Art through Jan. 25 and then move to San Francisco.