Friday, May 6, 2011

"It's El Guitare!"

Pablo Picasso, Guitar, 1913





         "What is it? Does it rest on a pedestal? Does it hang on a wall? What is it, painting or sculpture?" 

                  "It's nothing, its el guitare!" And there you are! The watertight compartments are demolished. We are delivered from painting and sculpture, which already have been liberated form the idiotic tyranny of genres. It is neither this nor that. It is nothing. It's el guitare."








The current exhibition Picasso’s Guitar: 1912-1914 at the Museum of Modern Art presents a historically rich and focused group of works on and of paper. Included are drawing, papier collé, collage, and three dimensional paper constructions. The array of media demonstrate a related set of formal concerns explored over a brief but intense period.
The paperboard guitar  with contemporaneous Cubist papier collés installed in Picasso's boulevard Raspail Paris, December 9, 1912
Highlighted is Braque and Picasso’s development of collage and papier collé. This discovery marked a decisive shift in their collective understanding of pictorial and sculptural space. The new language developed would establish the distinction between so-called "Analytic" and "Synthetic" Cubism.

The term "collage" derives from the French verb, coller, the infinitive meaning “to paste.” A collage then, is literally a “pasted thing!" This new construction technique and its mass-produced media led to one of the most significant revisions of the relation between form and space in the history of sculpture. 
Pablo Picasso, Guitar, 1912, charcoal on paper

Toward the end of 1912 Braque and Picasso embarked on a series of two and three dimensional works in which the various forms of a guitar emerged as the hub of their investigations. Braque was apparently the first to come upon the pasted paper techinique. This period of impromtu discovery produced a most unprecedented work, a cardboard guitar, assembled in the manner of papier collé, but projecting of the wall into the third dimension in the manner of sculptural relief.  
 

This work, El Guitar, makes sculptural form paper thin. The bulky volume of traditional sculpture is denied. Here Picasso self consciously juxtaposes conventions of pictorial origin their novel sculptural use. In affect we are looking at a collage that has been built up orthogonally to the support plane. El Guitar is constructed in such a manner that attached paper components are no longer glued parallel to what would be the pictorial field, but instead project off it.

El Guitar does not depict space but occupies it. Pictorial means become sculptural ends. The picture plane as a site for metaphorical space, an imagined window perhaps, is increasingly transformed into a more immanently literal two-dimensional work space for othogonally projecting planes.

As an object, El Guitar presents a new understanding of the relations between form and space which straddles the distinctions between the pictorial, sculptural, and installational. It enfolds the surrounding space into its own identity, its own form. Sculpture as a solid plenum-like enclosure containing volume surrounded by the empty void of space is displaced by the projecting and semi-enclosing planes of El Guitar. 

El Guitar is not simply illustratrative of nominalistic skepticism or a mere negation of the traditional categories. Rather it affirms a type of form which integrates form and space in an unprecedented way altogether. It becomes its own category.

By reducing form to a series of non-enclosing planes, it opens onto its surroundings. The water tight volume of sculpture no drains out into the world. The form of El Guitar disrupts and opens the enclosing skin-like surface plane of sculpture and establishes a mutually dependent interpenetration of plenum and void. In denying such clear cut, and now merely conventional distinctions, once finite boundaries become indeterminate. Is it collage, sculpture, or installation? It is El Guitar.

This  object was inspired by, but does not, simply illustrate a guitar. Guitar forms are largely a pretext to an investigation of form as such. That an actual guitar is a semi-enclosing sculptural skin whose hollow innards are perpetually exposed to view through its sound hole may have been absolutely central to the discovery of an interpenetrating arrangement of form and space.
Guitar as installed in Picasso's studio in 1913
Suggesting it's centrality, the current exhibition is keen to resuscitate the original context of the works on display. Upon entering the exhibition we enter Picasso's studio itself. Photographs of the studio (seen above) are blown up life size on the gallery walls. Presented alongside the actual works they depict, the photographs provide evidence of the mutual dependency of the composition of each work and their overall installed arrangement.

Nor were these arrangements definitive. Just as a single work precedes through a series of fits and starts, possibilities and alternatives, assertions and denials, Picasso reworked the arrangement of the overall hanging. The photographic reconstruction then allows us access to Picasso's itinerant thought process manifest in the fluctuating installation on his studio walls.

Guitar, Sheet Music, & Glass, 1912
Various forms of the guitar, depicted in Cubist shorthand, establish the relation between El Guitar, drawings, and collages. Produced and installed along side these related works, the studio photographs help initiate spectators into the creative evolution of El Guitar. It too was installed multiple ways: amongst related two-dimensional works, as well as with and without various sculptural components including a table top and other elements that suggest an integrated still life composition. The inclusion of exclusion of these elements push El Guitar either in the direction of installation or more toward relief sculpture. In every photographic reconstruction however, this total contexts was always as integral part of its forms.

El Guitar is not merely a guitar. It is a relational work rather than an essentialized autonomous entity. In one photograph from 1913 the forms of a guitar are continuous with  a cafe-like still life motif so often utilized in tow-dimensional works during the period. In effect this image illustrates a three-dimensional version of the papier collé Guitar, Sheet Music, and Wine Glass from November of the prior year.

Ultimately El Guitar is revealed as an installed work in dialogue with its surroundings, and not the free floating autonomous sculpture MoMa has presented its steel cousin as since it's acquisition by then curator William Rubin. For years the cardboard cousin had been displayed, if at all, without any elements beyond the guitar form itself including its cafe table bottom, advertising its as "sculpture" at the expense of its relational aspect to architectural space in general.
Picasso & William Rubin, 1971

The current exhibition was in fact prompted by the "discovery" of this semi-circular piece of cardboard at the behest of art historian Christine Poggi. Intimately amiliar with the photographic record herself, she was lead to ask: What happened to this essential component of the object? The real discovery may be that it had been in the museum's holdings all along but never displayed.

Even though Picasso himself displayed El Guitar with and without this element, and no installation can be considered definitive, evidence suggests its relational aspect was. At the time of its making El Guitar was never displayed without being integrated into a compositional structure beyond the isolated forms of a guitar alone. El Guitar is therefore, not a guitar. To lend further weight to this conclusion evidence can be found in the steel version itself. Permanently affixed to its bottom is a plane of steel signifying "table top" (but perhaps simultaneously "shadow" as well).

Vadimir Tatlin, Counter-Corner Relief, 1915
Related installations and all surviving photographs document the stress both Braque and Picasso placed on the creation of total installational environments for these new constructed confections. Both Guitar, Sheet Music, and Glass, and the photographs of Braque's constructions all emphasize not single objects, but still lifes, objects set into an environment that is always suggested if even in the most abbreviated language. Braque even began to install these paper constructions in the corner of the studio, thereby activating both the third dimension and a more explicit dialogue with architectural space itself. It would be these works during Vladimir Tatlin's 1914 visit to Paris which would inspire his Counter-Corner Reliefs of 1915.
Georges Braque, Still Life Construction, 1914

Construction with Guitar Player and Violin  1913.





















For all the complexities of historical accuracy, the current installation hopes to be more faithful to Picasso's fluctuating original presentation in all its ambiguity. It is historically precise. Such contextualizing curatorial decisions suggest this condition as central, not accidental, to the meaning of the works as Picasso understood them.

Curators Anne Umland and Blair Hartzell, have dusted off the ideological overlay of the Rubin Era MoMa. In particular, his understanding stressed the cardpaper guitar with its ephemeral materials and construction, as a kind of rehersal maquette for the steel version which was to be the definitive performance. Yet here we are increasingly  confronted with the possibility that the steel guitar is something of a slightly stale, if more durable, coda for the more improvisational and tentative original.

While we need not be masters of suspicion, Rubin's neglect merits being brought into the light of day in the manner of the table top piece itself. And, of course, it is with our own present day emphasis on the ephemeral and relational in art that we more easily recognize Picasso's. Many of these constructions were discarded by the artists themselves, so it was a position even they couldn't stand by in resolute fashion.

Revealed is a collective investigation of form, aesthetically and semantically rich. The exhibit recuperates the open-endedness of Braque and Picasso's freewheeling exploration of form, material, and meaning leaving contemporary audiences with a "new" set of imaginative possibilities to discover and contemplate for themselves.

We are led to conclude that the cardpaper guitar was far from "nothing." In tearing down the tyranny of essentializing categories, El Guitar is certainly a most important historical "something" which will continue to have new ramifications and possibilities for future artists and audiences alike.
Guitar in steel after March 1914
Guitar as formerly installled as per Bill Rubin

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