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Don’t Go to ‘It’s Pablo-matic’

But we have some links you can really get into.

Installation view, It’s Pablo-matic: Picasso According to Hannah Gadsby. Brooklyn Museum, June 2-September 24, 2023. (Photo: Danny Perez)

"He died 50 years ago, so there are like eight boring Picasso exhibitions going on," a painter friend said on Sunday, and it's true. In New York alone, there are three: You can see "Young Picasso in Paris" now at the Guggenheim, and in October, "Picasso in Fontainebleau" at the Museum of Modern Art. But no retrospective from here to Madrid has drawn murmurs like "It's Pablo-matic: Picasso According to Hannah Gadsby" at the Brooklyn Museum, which opens today, promising a "sharp critique" of the art-historical canon. But despite gathering a towering sense of moral outrage, Gadsby decides they don't have much to say at all about Picasso, nor any of the feminist artists "It's Pablo-matic" drags into his arena.

What's the point? I'm astounded to say that there may not be one at all. Don't get excited—"It's Pablo-matic" teases that it should be easy to deflate Picasso's myth, but ultimately is too scared to even try. This is not some heretical assault on Picasso; rather like its title, it's a half-finished riff.

Pablo Picasso's transformation from revolutionary to unarousing and canonical may have started here in New York—the fashioning of Picasso into modern art's protagonist was aided in no small part by the machinations of New York's politicians. With the MoMA, elites learned to smelt artists into eternal talismans of cultural capital, and laundered their fortunes through the turbulence of the modernist years. Gadsby's public critique of Picasso, which began in their Netflix comedy special "Nanette," is the centerpiece of their broad critique of masculine notions of genius, and one can easily imagine that New York's art museums would be a great place to pitch a messy, necessary battle, given that they helped usher those notions into the 20th century, and wielded them to build an enduring apparatus of political and financial power. 

That is not Gadsby's intention, however. In an interview with Variety, they shrugged off concerns about the Brooklyn Museum's association with the Sackler family. "Apparently, they’ve separated their earning streams from the problematic one. Doesn’t matter what cultural institution you work with in America, you’re going to be working with billionaires and there’s not a billionaire on this planet that is not fucked up."

So, on Wednesday, press gathered in the museum's Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art and fired up the required Bloomberg Connects app to hear Gadsby's curatorial take.

"It's Pablo-matic" annotates a series of Picasso's works with commentary from Gadsby, including narration available on the app; excruciating one-liners on placards (Picasso is, for example, "spoiler alert—dead"); and quotes painted on the walls that, other than the ones from Gadsby, seem entirely unrelated to the exhibit. Case in point: The one you see at the entrance is "not all prodigies get to be geniuses," from Gadsby. By this point, you might be salivating for Gadsby's unraveling of the Picasso myth, their alternative feminist imaginary which should be far more enticing than the stodgy canon. Instead, "It's Pablo-matic" offers some of Picasso's earliest studies (and you gotta hand it to the kid, he's a natural), but then an adjoining wall label invites you to imagine if young girls were given the same encouragement. Oh. Very well, care to help me imagine that? The modernist period was replete with women artists—how about a few of theirs? Their earliest studies?

Nah. In "It's Pablo-matic," modernist women painters, not to mention modernist non-white painters, are all bafflingly, glaringly absent. There's no alternative timeline being imagined: Even the women that a placard for a section called "Muse/Abuse" says were "disempowered, and forever linked to the artist," many of whom were artists themselves? "It's Pablo-matic" notes only that "later in life, some countered Picasso through their recollections and writings." Gadsby has skipped out on a fight they themselves picked. 

So what does "It's Pablo-matic" offer in place of a feminist reimagining of modernism, other than quips like "ouch" from Gadsby next to Picasso's paintings? Well, around the middle of the exhibition, Gadsby and their co-curators reach into the grab bag of the museum's collections and pull out works by artists other than straight white men, and scramble to make a point about how differently they represent the female form to Picasso. Except that these paintings, from across decades, continents, and contexts, are as different from each other in their consideration of women as they are from Picasso's. 

Throughout the show, "It's Pablo-matic" pairs a smattering of Picasso pieces loosely picked (from a famously prolific oeuvre) not with his contemporaries, but with feminist works from after his death. Far from elevating these non-men, non-white, non-straight artists, "It's Pablo-matic" merely shunts them haphazardly into Picasso's shadow without so much as a glance toward justification. A curatorial note sweatily points out that none of the post-Picasso artists are necessarily influenced by him; one artist, Harmony Hammond, is even quoted saying, "I don't think about Picasso." Uh…well, fuck. What else are we left to do with this juxtaposition but marvel at the fact that Picasso and, say, an artist 100 years younger than him did different shit? 

Before you enter "It's Pablo-matic," the first work on display in the Sackler wing is a pastel piece by Gadsby themself, replicating Picasso's "Large Bather with a Book." The accompanying label insists this is a joke, to get the Brooklyn Museum to include what Gadsby calls "my shitty painting." But it's not shitty, it's quite nice. Done at 17, it's evidence that they are actually quite a gifted painter. (I suspect they wouldn't really have included it if they didn't think similarly.) For all their wisecracks, Picasso's work seems to have had a more profound effect on Gadsby's artistic life than on most peoples'. If they only had the confidence to overcome the intimidation that the specters of canonical men like Picasso have wrought on the world, they might even have managed epiphanic artistic success. Instead, they made themself into another of Picasso's casualties, content to wither in his shadow. The true outrage is that through this exhibit, they did the same to other artists.

—Adlan Jackson

Some links that have a point:

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