Picasso's last years, in New York

A genius confronts extinction: Pablo Picasso's final years

‘Head of a 17th-Century Man’ (1967): The freedom of a dying animal.
‘Head of a 17th-Century Man’ (1967): The freedom of a dying animal.

Pablo Picasso spent his ninth decade in seclusion above the Mediterranean, in the company of his last wife and final muse, Jacqueline Roche, and selected friends, some of them from the 17th Century. The latter included Rembrandt, Velazquez and Cervantes. The work he produced was partly retrospective, as one might expect of an artist in the summing-up phase of his career, but also radically innovative, as one would expect of Picasso.

Late Picasso hasn't enjoyed a particularly good press. The grim intensity of his work during the war years gave way to a sunnier view— more postcard-popular but, in the view of many critics, less challenging. The very late work, obsessed as it appeared to be with the painting of the Spanish Baroque, seemed to some a strained if not slightly pathetic effort by an artist of failing powers to position himself among the masters.

The matter was complicated by the publication of Francoise Gilot's tell-all memoirs of her years with Picasso, which portrayed him as a male chauvinist monster. We have (conveniently) forgotten the underlying Puritanism of the 1960s, and the degree to which first-wave feminism represented not an extension of but a reaction to sexual liberation. Picasso, the randy old goat, was a perfect target for female rage.

Exhausted by his genius

The result has been a curiously muted view of the last quarter of Picasso's career. Matisse's late work has been seen as the supreme achievement of his classicizing style, a triumph of vision over age and infirmity. But there's no consensus about Picasso, whose protean art ceaselessly reinvented (and also revisited) itself, offering no handholds to tidy summation. In the end, there were too many Picassos, and perhaps too much of him in general. Genius is a wearying thing, and finally it exhausts us as much as mediocrity does.

Picasso hadn't the tact to silence himself, though; he had too much to do before the void claimed him. A very late self-portrait, from his 91st year, shows a skull-like face, congealed in horror, that seems to look directly at Death itself— and, even more impressively, to register its cold glance staring right back. It's not in the current show of "Picasso: Mosqueteros," curated by John Richardson for Gagosian's Chelsea gallery and devoted to his last decade of work, but it sets the context for the exhibit. These final riches, simultaneously death-haunted and life-affirming, constitute the testament of a man facing personal extinction with an ego still prepared to live for centuries.

The mysterious unsigned paintings

The freedom of the dying animal, Picasso seems to suggest, is that one is liberated to assume any age, persona and role without apology or constraint. That, I think, is the point of his engagement with his great peers of the Baroque. He can really be Rembrandt or Velazquez, a young man or an old one, a painter or a torero, a lover or voyeur; he is all the seven ages of man in any time or place of his choosing. Might it be for this reason that the last paintings (although not the last prints) are unsigned, the familiar "Picasso" at the bottom nowhere to be found?

It's hard to find a point of entry into the show because it's all one rush of abundance and vitality, but one might start with The Kiss, a 1969 painting in which a detached male head grinds itself into a woman's face (hers simultaneously receptive and averted, like all Picasso's women), their union symbolized by the infinity-sign shapes of their stretched nostrils. It's an image as vital and candid as any from the years of Picasso's physical prime, but to the side there's a tripod-like form that holds a staring eye. This is not, as one finally deciphers it, a scene of voyeurism or of fantasy; the lovers are as fully present, as fully real as the witnessing eye, and Picasso is both young and old here, a lifetime's experience simultaneously registered on a two-dimensional picture plane.

Passion as a two-way journey

Also fiercely erotic is Etreinte (Embraced)— Picasso's in his 90s here—in which two bodies so thoroughly fuse that limbs and organs seem to float freely, while a blue wave rises to engulf them. Who's the lover, whom the beloved? In Crouching Nude, which hangs beside it, a woman embraces herself hungrily, "imaginary" lips pressed to her own. The juxtaposition of the two paintings makes the point: All passion is a journey not only toward the other but also toward the self; all union is at the same time an estrangement. The onanist and the voyeur are present in every act of love.

The image of the artist as an empowered voyeur— a lover who withholds himself to gaze at the eternal feminine, a form that fills his eye yet always leaves it hungry for more— was established in Picasso's iconography of the 1930s. Its recurrence in the 1960s is more poignant, because while the archetypal feminine may be eternal, the particular artist is not; there will be other painters, but only one Picasso.

Ardent, tragic, decrepit

Thus Picasso offers us his own image in period dress, sometimes mockingly decrepit, as in Head of a Matador, or tragically so as in Bust (both from November 1970, the latter one of his most stunning late creations), but sometimes still ardent, particularly in the 1967 series of the painter in profile. Painter with Green Profile is a work of astonishing freedom and compression, whose few strokes conjure up an act of rapt aesthetic contemplation, while in Bust of a Painter in Profile the (auto)subject, with its projected, congested head, seems to be trying to gather in as much world as possible, even as the light fails.

In thus representing himself, Picasso honors that world. If he's frank in claiming the rank to which he feels entitled among the great painters of the Western tradition, his vision always turns outward. If it's true that there is no world without the self— the partial truth toward which Abstract Expressionism turned— it's also true that there is no self without the world. Picasso never lost sight of the image, even when he merely painted the gaze. To the last stroke of his art, he turned toward the light.

Picasso is too big for any retrospective; that's a stunt for small talents. You must take him in chunks, by subject or period, genre or style. There hasn't been a show devoted to his late work in these parts since 1984, and it has been long due. It's a triumph in every respect. â—†