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Picasso (and Warhol) and Things

Rather than relegating them to storage, the Museum of Modern Art in New York recently packaged together a selection of works from their extensive holdings and sent them traveling, first to the High Museum of Art in Atlanta and then on to the Art Gallery of Western Australia in Perth. Titled Picasso to Warhol, the show was initially accompanied by literature announcing that it would “present the achievements of these pioneers of modern art in depth, … highlighting their role in the most important artistic developments of the twentieth century, including the invention of cubism and the emergence of abstraction.”1 Although the show itself shied away from any step-by-step presentation of those “developments,” and offered no over-arching narrative strongly linking Picasso to Warhol (or vice-versa), the implication of some continuity or connection remained, if only implicitly in the “to” of the title. The present essay is, in some sense, simply my effort to take that title at its word, and so to try to discern the shape of the history connecting Picasso to Warhol.  I will also try to point out along the way (though this is really only the other side of the same coin) what it is, in my view, that ultimately separates or distinguishes the two projects—that sets Picasso’s cubism apart from what I tend to think of as Warhol’s “abstraction.”

Andy Warhol, S&H Green Stamps, 1965

By my reckoning, there are at least two art-historical narratives currently in circulation that have been (or might easily be) used to link Warhol to Picasso. The first, which we might call the Pop-Cultural Account, goes something like this: Having grown tired of stuffy, academic distinctions between fine art and the myriad other elements of visual culture surrounding him, Picasso began incorporating bits of the popular into his own work, thereby irrevocably blurring any sharp contrast between “high” and “low.” Collage arose, so the story goes, precisely out of this impulse to import into the rarified field of painting scraps of the larger, messier, everyday world outside. Warhol’s work—for example, his S&H Green Stamps (fig. 1)—can be seen as simply an extension of that project. Instead of pasting pop-cultural materials down to produce a collage, Warhol silkscreened an image of them onto canvas, foregoing the glue—or, rather, preserving it only in the associations evoked by the imagery itself. (Double entendres concerning the stamps’ “tackiness” seem built into the mixed populist/collage parentage the work claims for itself.) In contrast to the evident pastedness of Picasso’s papiers collés, the surface of Warhol’s Green Stamps is seamless, suggesting that, by the time of its making, in 1962, the assimilation of popular culture to painting was essentially complete.

Pablo Picasso, Bowls and Jug, 1908

The other narrative account one might give of Warhol’s connection to Picasso turns on flatness and unfolds roughly as follows: Struck by the still-life and landscape paintings of Cézanne, and particularly by the way that, in them, the rules of perspective and illusionism were constantly flouted, Picasso resolved to follow suit, even notably upping the ante. In his early cubist paintings, such as the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s Bowls and Jug (fig. 2), we see him emphasizing—à la Cézanne—the visibility of his brushwork, the ambiguities of the given spatial cues, and, through the resulting fusion of forms, the planarity of the pictorial surface. Over the course of the subsequent several years, the depicted objects in his paintings begin to lose whatever solidity they formerly possessed. They also become increasingly geometricized, as if fracturing into any number of planes, each of them as flat as the canvas itself. In the works that followed, we witness both the gradual alignment of those facet planes with the plane of the picture and the draining away of illusionistic, pictorial space; everything begins to take on the rectilinear and two-dimensional character of the canvas. What becomes known as the “cubist grid” brings all of this to the fore: each unit of the grid calls or recalls our attention to the “ineluctable flatness” of the surface, by making that surface or ground over into the painting’s principal “figure” (see fig. 3).2 In most versions of this second account—let’s call it the Flatness Narrative—such developments are presented in a triumphalist tone, as if the demonstration of painting’s essential planarity were cubism’s great achievement. Collage is typically seen as constituting Picasso’s final, overt embrace of the work’s fundamental two-dimensionality, the new medium evoking a depth no thicker than a sheet of paper held absolutely parallel to the picture plane.

Pablo Picasso, The Dressing Table, 1910

The literal and figurative flatness of Warhol’s imagery, and its frequent grid-like arrangement, are easily assimilated to this second narrative. In fact, in those works by Warhol where the grid is used to enframe a repetition of pop-cultural images, most often images of near-identical commodities, the two narratives intersect and come to a head. The combination of flatness, enframing, and the implied interchangeability of consumer goods that we see in Warhol’s Soup Cans (see fig. 4) is both characteristic and telling. In front of such works, I can only think of what the philosopher Martin Heidegger referred to as the “standing reserve.” Insofar as our present sense of reality is shaped by the technological age in which we live, we increasingly treat all entities, Heidegger claimed, as intrinsically meaningless “resources,” a “reserve” standing by merely to be optimized and ordered for maximally flexible use. Part of Heidegger’s contention is that, in the past, people related to things differently.

Andy Warhol, Campbell Soup Cans, 1962

In the pre-modern world, he says—among the ancient Greeks, for example—there was an awareness and acceptance of mankind’s essential finitude, of the fact, as he phrased it, that “much of what is cannot be brought under the rule of humanity.”3 The same fundamental conditions remain in effect today—this is Heidegger’s point—but we moderns are no longer willing or able to acknowledge them. As he says in his essay “The Origin of the Work of Art”:

Only a little becomes known. What is known remains approximate; what is mastered remains unstable. What-is is never something [wholly] man-made or even only a representation, as it can all too easily appear.4

Heidegger’s argument, as I understand it, is that the way things appear to us is never solely determined by us. The way they appear—or, better, the way they show themselves and so “reveal their being”—isn’t a product of, or even fully captured by, our representational capacities, by the conceptual frameworks through which we usually try to make sense of the world. Indeed Heidegger argues that a certain elusiveness—an independence from human intention—is fundamental to what a thing (even a man-made thing) essentially is. To quote again from the “Origin of the Work of Art”:

The inconspicuous thing withdraws itself from thought most stubbornly. Or can it be that this self-refusal of the mere thing, this self-contained refusal to be pushed around, belongs precisely to the essential nature of things?5

The thing is recalcitrant, Heidegger suggests; something about it eludes all of our attempts to capture and express it conceptually. This is the fundamental condition or truth of things, now as in the past. The difference between the ancient Greeks and ourselves, however, is that we tend to think that all there is to know about the world is what can be calculated, measured, maximized. We imagine ourselves as subjects (or agents), standing over against a world comprised only of so many objects, each of them available to our conceptual grasp and manipulation. In his writings from the 1930s Heidegger dubbed this systematic, modern tendency towards conceptualization and objectification of the world “machination.”6 Later, in the aftermath of the Second World War, he came to feel that technology was transforming the world at such a rate that already conditions very different from those of modern machination were becoming evident, conditions in which even human beings had begun to be regarded as only so many more or less interchangeable objects. In this new world, everything—including the human being itself—is seen as belonging to the “standing reserve,” as being, in effect, a replaceable commodity (see fig. 5). Heidegger referred to our technological era as “the age of the world picture” or the world-as-picture, and what he seems to have meant by that phrase is that we have come to believe that everything comprising our world is now able to be represented, without remainder. In an era, such as ours, of circulative replacement, beings show themselves as belonging to the standing reserve—as being fully illuminated but wholly insubstantial.

Andy Warhol, Self-Portrait, 1966

We might recall here Warhol’s evidently non-ironic claim that he was “a deeply superficial person”: “If you want to know all about Andy Warhol,” he said, “just look at the surface of my paintings and films and me, and there I am. There’s nothing behind it.”7 This is, I take it, his riff on the Flatness Narrative I recounted earlier: the drive toward two-dimensionality initiated by cubism can be seen as culminating in the affectless deadpan of Warhol’s self-portrait, a self-portrait comprised of multiple, wholly planar images, none of them giving any indication of greater depths to be plumbed.

Pablo Picasso, Glass of Absinthe, 1911

If, for Heidegger, pictures (as in “the age of the world picture”) were to be understood along much these same lines, paintings were an entirely different matter. What matters about paintings, Heidegger felt—at least the good ones (see fig. 6)—is that they show us something about the truth of things, and they do it by both eliciting and eluding our complete conceptualization.  This is the work done by the work of art: it sets forth, and so brings us into touch with, the shape and structure of the world that they (and we) inhabit; but it also points toward the non-apparent, the unseen and unthought that withdraws from, and yet still conditions, our experience. Paintings show us the constant tension inherent in things—between that which emerges into the light of intelligibility and that which recedes into darkness, into what Heidegger referred to as the self-concealment or withdrawal of “earth.” (“Earth” is the term he gives to that which fundamentally grounds and informs our intelligible world, but which we experience—in those rare moments that we do—as what escapes and defies our impulse to conceptualize and categorize everything.)

It’s tempting to see the things in Picasso’s cubist paintings—in his Glass of Absinthe (fig. 6), for example—as constantly hovering between emergence and withdrawal, and in that sense illustrating or exemplifying Heidegger’s conception of how things make their appearance in the work of art. But I think we should resist that impulse. As an interpretation, it’s too simplistic, doing justice neither to Heidegger’s view of art nor to the complexities of Picasso’s work. What’s more, I tend to think that, for Picasso’s contemporaries—that is, for an audience not yet accustomed to the nuances of abstract painting—it was the insistent flatness and schematic character of the things depicted that must have struck them with the greatest force. To that audience, the glass of absinthe would have seemed less on the verge of withdrawing into the self-concealment of earth than poised on the brink of becoming a mere pictograph or diagram conveying the idea of a glass but little more.

Significantly, the surfaces of Picasso’s cubist paintings—or at least those that conservators haven’t flattened through the now-discredited process of wax lining8-are animated by a dense facture, indeed by an astonishing variety of textures and directional strokes, which show up only relatively poorly in digital reproduction. The insistent particularity of these passages used to puzzle me—and to some extent, of course, it still does. Like the works’ areas of delicate chiaroscuro, these passages seem—but, to my eye, only seem—to be responding to something in the external world. The texturing carries the weight and charge of description and yet—this is the confusing part—it is almost always detached from the painting’s depicted objects. (In fact the textured passages appear mostly around the periphery of the canvas, in the voids between or surrounding the arrayed still-life elements.) I have come to think that what we are witnessing in works such as Picasso’s Glass of Absinthe is the intentional displacement of tangible specificity from the represented things onto the painting itself. For the painting’s surface texture displays the level of particularity—of thisness—that is precisely no longer being registered in the glass or the table or any of the other items presumably laid out on it.

In combination with the modeling’s failure to create an illusion of any real solidity or depth, the displaced specificity of Picasso’s cubist works seems to suggest that we are (or were, even in 1911) on the verge of losing our ability to attend to what we might call the recalcitrant “thingliness” of things. The claim would seem to be that it is only in front of works of art, if anywhere, that we are still able to summon the requisite attentiveness. By the same token, these works suggest that, if anything is ever going to recall us to the “thingliness” of things, it will only be the work of art. Again, as I see it, the displacement of specificity from the depicted objects to the painting’s surface texture draws our attention to the absence of specificity in our present-day experience of things—even as it also aims to alter that experience, to reverse or undo our impulse to conceive of things as simply objects belonging to the “standing reserve.”

Pablo Picasso, Still Life with Chair Caning, 1912

Another, related kind of displacement is also at issue in a number of cubist collages, including what was purportedly the very first: Picasso’s Still Life with Chair-Caning of 1912 (fig. 7). As Rosalind Krauss and others have observed, the work makes itself available to two contradictory readings. On the one hand, we can regard it as a more or less conventional still life, a painting of so many objects (a glass, a newspaper, a pipe, a slice of quiche or tart) arrayed on a table at some distance from us, our line of sight being, then, essentially perpendicular to our upright bodies. But it’s also possible to see things otherwise. That is, we might instead choose to regard the rope-encircled, oval-shaped canvas as referring to the top of the table, perhaps a glass table, with the collaged piece of caning-imprinted fabric suggesting the edge of the chair pushed underneath. In that case, we wouldn’t be looking out at the still-life objects but, rather, downon them, our line of sight now running more or less parallel to our upright bodies. Shifting between these two viewing alternatives, we move from feeling ourselves in some fairly distant or detached relation to the objects on display to a greater sense of actually participating in their world. In the process, I think, we also come to see the things of the still life somewhat differently. We recognize to a greater extent their belonging-together, their constituting what Heidegger referred to as an “involvement whole.”9 Collectively, the pipe and glass and newspaper and tart open up the world of the early twentieth-century Parisian café. (Heidegger would say that the collage shows us the “worlding” of that world.) And the elements of it, in their interdependence, appear precisely not as elements of the “standing reserve,” but as things about which we might—and Picasso certainly did—care about deeply.

Again, the Still Life with Chair-Caning is generally accepted as the first collage ever produced. It seems to me significant that the medium should have originated in the context of still life, and specifically a still life that works to shift our regard from a detached contemplation of objects “out there” to a more immersive engagement with things close at hand. After all, the medium itself crucially involves issues of attachment and detachment—the visible (pasted-on) aspects of the work patently resting on, and being supported by, an invisible or non-appearing ground. Collage opens up a space or rift that in many ways recalls the tension-filled Riss or rift Heidegger saw existing between earth and world. In Still Life with Chair-Caning, the world of the café and the things that constitute it show themselves—they are there, appearing before us—even as we’re also aware that that appearance is supported by a nearly equal measure of self-concealment.

Pablo Picasso, Musical Score and Guitar, 1912

I’d like to conclude this (clearly too brief) discussion of the things in Picasso’s art with one last work, another collage from 1912, Musical Score and Guitar (fig. 8), in which, once again, we experience a certain displacement arising out of spatial ambiguity.  We alternate between seeing the depicted guitar as hung on a wall or somehow propped up at some distance from us, and then, in the next moment, feeling ourselves looking down upon it—and so as essentially sharing its physical space. Here the separation between the different layers of the collage—that infinitely shallow, almost non-existent place between the visible elements and the invisible ground below—is drawn to our attention through the puckering and pull created by Picasso’s evidently liberal use of glue. That simultaneous separation and attachment is given an even more concrete form in the lone straight pin that, just above the center of the work, holds the small, black-edged rectangle to the off-white shape designating the front face of the guitar. Apparently passing beneath both pieces of paper (disappearing then re-emerging only a slight distance away), that metal pin reminds us that even the flattest of surfaces has both a recto and a verso, and so a modicum of depth, however small. In a sense, that pin divides the visible from within. I’m inclined to see its anomalous presence here, in the work of art, as Picasso’s way of registering the depth of things—let’s say, the thickness of existence—and so perhaps also as his means of recalling us from our modern tendency to regard everything as flatly available, as just so many objects comprising our world-picture.

If these claims are right, then collage was born not so much out of a desire to conflate “high” and “low,” and certainly not from any anti-art impulse, but almost the opposite: out of a belief, however belated or quixotic, that art might yet show us something about the truth of things. For Heidegger, as I think for Picasso, that’s simply the work done by the work of art. Admittedly, there’s a sense in which such claims about art and truth sound ludicrous in the present. But the fact that they do so is itself a symptom or product, I would argue, of our increasingly technologized age. The art historian T. J. Clark recently suggested that Picasso was the last great artist of the nineteenth century.10  Somewhat reluctantly, or at least wistfully, I’m inclined to agree. I would like you to hear my acceptance, though, as conferring on Picasso the same high praise implicit in Clark’s initial judgment. Picasso’s work seems to belong to the past insofar as it attests to a very different sort of being-in-the world, a relation to things that is almost impossible for us to imagine now. If we can do so at all, I suspect it will have to be in front of works of art, in the face of the particularity offered to us by such dense and difficult—yet, all too often, seemingly familiar—things.


1. This quotation is excerpted from the promotional literature originally posted on the High Museum’s website in February 2012.
2. The phrase “ineluctable flatness” is taken from Clement Greenberg’s “Modernist Painting,” an essay that, despite Greenberg’s antipathy to Warhol, might be seen as initiating the “Flatness Narrative” being laid out here. See Greenberg, The Collected Essays and Criticism, vol. 4, ed. John O’Brian (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993), 87.
3. Martin Heidegger, “The Origin of the Work of Art,” in Heidegger, Poetry, Language, Thought, ed. Albert Hofstadter (New York: Harper and Row, 1971), 53.
4. Ibid.
5. Ibid., 31-32.
6. My discussion of these matters was prompted by—and is indebted to—the first chapter of Andrew J. Mitchell’s forthcoming book, The Thing: Heidegger’s Fourfold, which the author generously shared at a Modernists’ Seminar held at Emory University in February 2012.
7. Quoted in an interview with Gretchen Berg, “Andy: My True Story,” Los Angeles Free Press, March 17, 1963, 3.
8. On the damage inflicted by wax lining, see Claire Barry and Bart Devolder, “Surface and Format: Observations on the Materials, Process, and Condition of Cubist Paintings, 1910-1912,” in Eik Kahng, ed., Picasso and Braque: The Cubist Experiment 1910-1912 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011), 105-127.
9. For a similar argument, beautifully developed, concerning Vermeer’s figure paintings, see Béatrice Han-Pile, “Describing reality or disclosing worldhood?: Vermeer and Heidegger,” in Jospeh D. Parry, ed., Art and Phenomenology (London and New York: Routledge, 2011), 138-161.
10. More exactly, Clark claimed that Picasso’s cubism was deeply “commemorative,” “bohemia’s last hurrah”: “it laid out before us, lovingly, ironically, the claim that the life of art in Paris had made to the pleasures the middle-class century… above all, the sense of being fully and solely a body in a material world….” The specific context was the second of Clark’s series of Mellon Lectures on Picasso and Truth, delivered at the National Gallery of Art in 2009. A podcast of the lecture (“Room”) is available on the National Gallery’s website: 
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