L.A.'s Look at Picasso: 'Cynical Road Show' or Classroom for Cubism?

It's almost unfair to debate whether a career retrospective of such a 20th-century art icon is good. Almost by definition, significant works from every period of the single most influential artist of this century are worth seeing.

A current exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), "Picasso: Masterworks From the Museum of Modern Art," consists of 115 rarely seen paintings, drawings, sculptures, collages, and prints from MOMA. Because of the enormous boost his works have given the New York museum, it is sometimes called "the house that Picasso built." Space limitations, however, allow only about a dozen of the pieces shown in the Los Angeles exhibit to be on regular display in New York.

That said, the show has distinct strengths and limitations. The Spanish-born artist's styles are explained chronologically, with large pieces showing concerns of each period ("Boy Leading a Horse," 1905; a study for "Guitar," 1912; "Night Fishing at Antibes," 1939; "The Charnel House," 1945). While this helps viewers walk through the century, it is less useful in understanding his relationship to other artists of his day, not to mention his impact on history.

Perhaps most challenging to the average viewer is the absence of many of his most important and influential works. You won't find "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon" or "Guernica." Christopher Knight, art critic for the Los Angeles Times, dubbed the exhibit, which already appeared in Atlanta and Ottawa, a "cynical road show." He recommends a trip to New York to see the pieces this show leaves out.

But MOMA's chief curator of painting and sculpture, Kirk Varnedoe, says such attention to big pieces misses the point. "All these pieces together remind us how much we have to learn," he points out. "Picasso redefined the talent and skill of the playing field. He changed the way we see," he adds, especially with his groundbreaking work in Cubism, in which he began to break space into multiple planes. This era is well-represented here.

LACMA curator Lynn Zelevansky remarks that "despite how well I thought I knew these works, I was surprised by how much there was left to understand." Sometimes it's easy to forget that Picasso was the first to do so many staples of modern art, she adds, such as depicting all the facial elements of a portrait on a single plane or creating sculpture from found objects.

The museum's director, Graham Beal, points out that both audiences and museums have benefited by what blockbuster shows do best - import major work from other collections. Traveling shows fill out missing pieces in a museum's offering, he says, "expanding both what the public can see as well as the expertise developed by the institution."

While Mr. Beal acknowledges that blockbuster shows rely on tried-and-true talents, he also points out that the money and attention generated by these exhibits often allow museums to support lesser-known artists. Beyond that, he adds, as a result of tailoring materials for the range of blockbuster audiences, museums have refined educational tools. "Now we have all the education materials the public craves," he says, pointing to the popular audio-headsets (with narration by actor Dustin Hoffman for the Picasso show), as well as the resources for a broader array of curators.

* The Picasso exhibit remains in Los Angeles through Jan. 4. Tickets can be ordered through Ticketron at (323) 462-ARTS.

Gloria Goodale's e-mail address is: goodaleg@csps.com

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