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MoMA’s “Picasso Sculpture” Blunder: Mr. Lowry, Put Up Those Labels!

I know that I saw a landmark show of wit and whimsy yesterday, but I’m not entirely clear on exactly what was there:

Installation shot of someone taking installation shot at Museum of Modern Art's "Picasso Sculpture Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Installation shot of someone taking an installation shot at MoMA’s “Picasso Sculpture”
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

To be sure, there were lots of things that I recognized (and many others that I was glad to discover) in the Museum of Modern Art’s sweeping Picasso Sculpture (Sept. 14-Feb. 7). But making sense of it all was something of a chore, because this sprawling display was label-free.

To get rudimentary information about titles, materials and dates, you had to look closely at the object…

Picasso, "Seated Woman," 1902, Musée National PIcasso-Paris Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Picasso, “Seated Woman,” 1902, Musée National Picasso–Paris
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

…and then figure out which crude line drawing in the booklet offered to visitors was intended to represent it. (Picasso the draftsman may be rolling over in his grave at those scrawled depictions of his work.)

I’ve circled the sketch below that is intended to evoke the “Seated Woman” pictured above:

Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

As you can see, figuring out these matches isn’t child’s play. Even when you’ve connected the sculpture to the right drawing (which could have been made easier by numbering the sculptures’ pedestals to correspond to the numbers in the booklet), you get no curatorial commentary about the significance of the objects—something you ordinarily might expect for key works in the show. Only basic identifying information is provided.

The show’s organizers—MoMA curators Ann Temkin and Anne Umland—did a commendable job of gathering from an international roster of lenders (notably, the Musée National Picasso-Paris) some 140 sculptures—in wood, metal, plaster, ceramic and found objects—arranged roughly chronologically from 1902 to 1964. But their failure to impart more interpretive heft to this impressive trove seems to me a dereliction of curatorial duty.

The wall text that introduces each section does delineate nine stages in Picasso’s sculptural evolution (from early Cubist works to late sheet metal sculptures) and sheds some light on certain individual works: We learn, for example, that the diminutive clay “Seated Woman,” above, was “his first sculpture.” But the objects in the spacious installation (all of which can be viewed in the round) are situated at considerable distance from the wall text. Consequently, it’s not easy to make text-to-object connections.

Those of us who experienced MoMA’s great Picasso shows of yore can’t help but miss Bill Rubin, the Museum of Modern Art’s legendary director of painting and sculpture (and Picasso’s friend), who always made sure that we surfaced from his magisterial Picasso explorations with a far deeper understanding of the artist’s methods, meaning and motivations than what we had when we plunged in.

While others at yesterday’s press event asked incisive questions about the artist and artworks, I asked a dumb one:

Why did you decide to go the no-label route, requiring a lot of juggling of the booklet? It’s somewhat difficult, at times, to keep track of things.

To which Temkin replied:

One reason is if you didn’t have booklets, you’d be [going] off to the wall [emphasis added], finding the label for your work and would have to look away [from the work].

Our hope, in fact, was that it made it easier and more accessible for our visitors: You wouldn’t constantly be walking back and forth because the sculptures aren’t against the wall.

But it’s a tryout and if we find it’s annoying for people, those labels can go up in a day [emphasis added].

I jokingly urged them to “call me back when that happens!” MoMA’s director, Glenn Lowry, interjected that any belated label intervention would take more than just one day to accomplish.

Whatever. Just do it!

Putting labels on or adjacent to the pedestals would obviate the need to go “off to the wall,” as Temkin put it. It would also have been easier and cheaper (not to mention more convenient for visitors) to use conventional labels, instead of printing enough booklets to supply the hoards who will descend on this show.

But what about the possibility of getting more information about the individual objects from the audio guide on both MoMA’s free app and its Audio+ device (distributed free to visitors)?

It turns out that the audio guide focuses on only a handful of objects. Among the important ones that are missing is MoMA’s own beloved bronze beast:

PIcasso, "She-Goat, 1950, Museum of Modern Art Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Picasso, “She-Goat, 1950, Museum of Modern Art
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

In an unexpected addendum to the “exasperating glitch” theme of my Wall Street Journal museum-tech piece on Tuesday, I came across two sculptures bearing audio guide numbers that perversely called up other unrelated objects at MoMA, instead of the Picassos.

Here’s one:

Picasso, "Baboon and Young," 1951, Museum of Modern Art Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Picasso, “Baboon and Young,” 1951, Museum of Modern Art
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

The gallery’s wall text tells us that the “head, formed by [Picasso’s son] Claude’s toy cars, reads convincingly as a self-portrait of this proud and exuberant parent.”

But when I entered the number that you can see, above, on its pedestal, using both MoMA’s app on my smartphone and the museum’s own Audio+ device, I was connected to information about a Mondrian painting.

A similar mismatch bedeviled this wacky, welded agglomeration, featuring metal colanders joined together to form a spherical head:

Picasso, "Head of a Woman," Musée National Picasso--Paris, Dation Pablo Picasso Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Picasso, “Head of a Woman,” Musée National Picasso–Paris, Dation Pablo Picasso
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

We learn from the wall text in an adjacent gallery that this metal construction “reflects in form and spirit Picasso’s admiration for the African and Oceanic figures he avidly collected.” But punching in its audio guide numbers unaccountably connected me to information about Mies van der Rohe sketches.

These gaffes (the first of which I pointed out to a MoMA staffer) may have been corrected by the time you read this. (The show doesn’t open to the public until Monday.)

If you’re really lucky, maybe you’ll get to see the whole thing with labels!

an ArtsJournal blog