I would like to get the generalisations over with at the beginning, and have them be brief, but part of me knows that once embarked on they’ll be hard to stop. The Tate’s is the kind of show that sets one generalising. Richard Dorment in the Daily Telegraph, for instance, wrote that it had managed ‘to take a non-subject (Picasso’s impact here was limited to a handful of artists) and turn it into a gripping indictment of British culture in the first half of the 20th century’. If Britain here means England, I fall in reluctantly with the Telegraph’s verdict. Picasso’s was a uniquely difficult achievement to respond to, and many artists, in all parts of the globe, wished he hadn’t been there. There is a famous story of Lee Krasner hearing a book go hurtling across the studio next to hers, smashing against a wall, and Jackson Pollock emerging with the words: ‘Goddamn it! That guy has done everything. There’s nothing left.’ But the further point of the anecdote is that Pollock did find ways, eventually, to turn the ‘everything’ to his advantage. That was partly because he belonged to an embattled, arrogant, entirely serious modern art culture – Arshile Gorky, Willem de Kooning, Krasner, Hans Hofmann, the sculptor David Smith – which had spent a decade submitting to the master. ‘Aha,’ Gorky is supposed to have said coldly to de Kooning on first being shown the younger artist’s Picasso-saturated work, ‘so you have ideas of your own.’ Picasso’s aren’t good enough for you?
LRB 22 March 2012 | PDF Download