In 1912, while in his late cubist phase, and still collaborating with George Braque, Pablo Picasso constructed a guitar out of cardboard, paper and string. Obviously it wasn't a functional guitar. Clearly it wasn't a painting (there was no paint involved). It didn't seem to be a sculpture, because of its frail materials, and because it hung on the wall in relatively low relief. It wasn't really a drawing or a collage either, because it didn't lay flat. Although, it clearly developed as an extension of collage. It obviously grew out of cubist sensibilities, but the materials were so cheap and junky looking, and it was thrown together in such a spontaneous, almost careless way that it doesn't at first look like a serious work of art. It certainly didn't look like it at the time. It takes a minute to get past the materials before you can appreciate how structurally imaginative and graceful it is.
What results over the next two years is a pretty sizable body of paintings, drawings, and collages based on the guitar form. Sometimes the subject is specifically a guitar. Sometimes it's some thing else that's clearly influenced by the structure of the guitar. He would break up, and reconfigure the different parts in the cubist manner he and Braque had invented. The one thing all the work in the show has in common is its fearless disregard for convention. When I say convention I'm not just talking about formal convention. Everyone knows what a rebel Picasso was in that department. I'm talking about materials and classifications of art forms. He would mix a charcoal drawing in with a painting. Sometimes he would combine newsprint, wallpaper and cardboard into a drawing, or mix grit (whatever that is) in with his paint. This makes it very difficult to distinguish one medium from another. The general perception is that this was groundbreaking because he was mixing real world elements in with the illusinistic space of the image. This flattened out the surface and drew attention to the picture plane, and subsequently the artifice of the image. The silhouette of a bottle in a still life or the shadow on a mans face is really a clipping from a newspaper. Another thing real world materials have though, is real world references. Contrasting cardboard with wall paper, or a newspaper article with sheet music turns an image into a dumping ground for cultural detritus. Did I mention that this was 1912, not 1985. Not Pop art, not post modernism, early modernism.
In 1914 Picasso reconstructed his first cardboard guitar with sheet metal to make a more archival version. That is also in the show. Personally I prefer the cardboard one. I also prefer the drawings to the paintings. They're more fragile, more spontaneous. They seem more about thinking through problems than making precious objects. Why is art that's made to last more valued than art that deteriorates with time. You'd think it would be the other way around. There's also something less serious looking about the drawings, which reveal a side of Picasso most people don't think of. The artist as playful intimatist. In one of the wall texts it mentions that André Breton was strongly influenced by these works. It's hard to think of Picasso as a surrealist, although his liberal use of the readymade and his blatant disregard for conventional aesthetics may indicate an influence on the dadaists. The single most pressing question I had leaving the exhibit with was why the guitar? Why not the clarinet?