Every December, Sager Braudis Gallery opens the doors to its Masters Exhibit, rolling out a proverbial red carpet for “the underdogs of 20th-century art history,” gallery director Hannah Reeves said.
In its previous six iterations, the show assumed the shape of a group exhibit. The gallery leaned in to look closer at unsung artists who, in a more just world, would hold the same prominence as their peers.
Brilliant creators lost in cultural noise and narratives. Women artists once diminished because of their gender. Sager Braudis seized the spotlight and redirected its beams, granting these artists their day and due respect.
2020 isn’t a typical year — and the gallery isn’t featuring the same type of artist.
One 20th-century master stands alone this year, and the exhibit exists beneath the banner of his household name: Pablo Picasso.
“He’s the ultimate overdog,” Reeves acknowledged.
Sitting with Picasso’s genius, while furthering the exhibit’s aims, meant taking new routes to the sort of “untold storytelling” the gallery prizes, Reeves said.
The quieter side of Picasso’s legacy lies in his relationship to prints and multiples, Reeves said. Our minds recall certain images when Picasso’s name is invoked; they rarely retrieve his efforts across printmaking disciplines or in his 3-D work.
“The innovations he made in painting are incredibly important and remarkable and it’s why we’re talking about him at all probably,” Reeves said. “... But he also made these little tweaks to how people think about ceramic editions. He made these little moves in printmaking that were breaking rules that people didn’t even realize were rules.”
The art of relationships
This year’s exhibit displays the master turned apprentice, condescending yet never quite humbled. Through his early 80s, Picasso entered the studios of great printmakers and ceramicists, studying the rules of the form so he might quickly break through them.
These authorities quickly recognized what and who they had on their hands, and made literal and figurative space for Picasso, Reeves said. Often they carved out entire corners of their studios for the artist, clearing room for him to discover and experiment.
Reeves sees degrees of true collaboration in Picasso’s subsequent work, not an antagonistic dynamic separating rule-followers from the rebel.
Closeness, in all its forms, spurred the artist’s creativity. When a woman caught his eye, her face appeared a thousand times in his work, Reeves said; pieces displayed at Sager Braudis tell a similar tale — printmaking wouldn’t be the same without Picasso, and his progress couldn’t exist without the shadows of these specialists, she added.
The devil in his details
We fail to talk about Picasso’s journey in printmaking because of the magnitude of his impact on painting — and because printmaking is hard to understand for those unfamiliar with the form, Reeves noted. It is a practice concerned with minutiae, driven by the rhythms of repetition.
But unique evidence of Picasso’s brilliance reveals itself through works in the gallery, Reeves said — namely, his “almost unimaginable compositional foresight.”
Printmakers essentially compose backwards, fixing plates or other instruments that will properly orient the image on paper. Picasso’s prints showcase varied sides of his genius; working backwards from the final product to consider how he made it there — in much the same fashion as he did — provokes awe.
"Tête de Femme / paysage avec baigneurs" (translated "Head of a Woman / Landscape with Bathers") bears two titles and yields two images. Face the work straight on to see one; tilt your head 90 degrees to discover the other. That the artist achieved this complexity — and envisioned the image in reverse — astounds.
Other pieces in the show, from linocuts to ceramics, find the artist reducing natural forms to suggestions, rendered in just a few marks.
“He just gives you the essence, the ability to winnow that down and not lose energy,” Reeves said.
Elsewhere, an early etching — dating back to 1905 — finds Picasso uniting his ballet iconography with the Biblical story of Salome’s dance and the beheading of John the Baptist. Other lithographs bear the countenance of the artist’s wonderfully weird muses, women rendered with geometric flexibility.
Others still show off the subtle shattering of norms, as Picasso breaks the rules of using printmaking tools. Scraping and reshaping his implements, he creates negative space and subtracts from subsequent editions of a print, Reeves said.
Ceramic platters offer new ways to consider a master’s hand, as you witness physical impressions crossing the surface.
This year’s Masters Exhibit represents both a departure and an experiment.
The market for Picasso’s work encompasses the literally priceless as well as items available on eBay, Reeves said. Ahead of the exhibit, the gallery considered how it might carve out a niche somewhere between those poles.
The work it acquired bears a personal touch repeated several times over. Picasso’s granddaughter, Marina, inherited a portion of his estate; in making his work more available, she “handpicked” a swath of artwork, Reeves said. Dealers exercise their own eyes, setting aside a portion of that work which galleries like Sager Braudis then select.
As the exhibit draws to a close, the gallery will form a better understanding of where it fits within the secondary market for Picassos, Reeves said.
Wading into Picasso’s waves, gallery staff asked itself a series of hard questions. Could they uphold their feminist ideals, and interest in underdogs, while dealing with a master who bears unsavory stains? Especially in his relationship to women.
No small portion of the answer comes in foregrounding Marina Picasso’s curatorial voice, Reeves said. Sager Braudis staff wants to hold a slippery line, ignoring no facet of Picasso’s life or legacy — for better or worse, she added.
And there is good to glean, particularly from this show. A gallery staff comprised of artists finds inspiration in Picasso’s pilgrim progress, in his arrival at new art forms during every season of life, proving there’s no such thing as “too late.”
“I find that incredibly encouraging,” Reeves said.
This year’s Masters Exhibit is on display through Dec. 26. Work can be seen by appointment. Visit sagerbraudisgallery.com for more details.
This article originally appeared on Columbia Daily Tribune: Sager Braudis exhibit explores Picasso's untold story
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