What does a deep-throating, tongue-heavy interspecies make-out session between famed feminist artist, meat writher, and interior scroll yanker Carolee Schneemann and her cat have to do with Pablo Picasso? Is there some tenuous link between Carolee’s hot and steamy pussy-licking, Infinity Kisses II, and Pablo’s looming animalistic Minotaur draftsman cosplay? Are they both aspiring furries? What about Dara Birnbaum’s Wonder Woman, who is trapped eternally spinning in a superhero tizzy in the video, Technology/Transformation: Wonder Woman? What does that have to do with ole Pablo? Once she stops maniacally twirling, is Wonder Woman going to kick that Cubist ass? And what the hell does Betye Saar’s Liberation of Aunt Jemima: Cocktail, a delightfully volatile Molotov cocktail wrapped with the smiling exaggerated mammy caricature, have to do with, well, any of it?
These were just some of the questions swirling around my baffled brain in the Brooklyn Museum’s jaw-droppingly nonsensical exhibition It’s Pablo-matic: Picasso According to Hannah Gadsby. Of course, these questions are much more articulate than what I was really muttering repetitively while meandering through the museum’s galleries. That boiled down to a singular whisper: What?!
Complete confusion was the only reaction I could muster in response to this head-scratcher of a strangely ambitious yet also weirdly lazy curatorial endeavor by Australian comedian Hannah Gadsby, best known for her quitting-comedy-comedy-special, Nanette, which included a particularly vitriolic tirade about Picasso, along with the Brooklyn Museum’s own Catherine Morris and Lisa Small. The show is a truly bizarre stew of half-baked 20th-century feminist critiques, a peculiarly personal love-hate relationship with Pablo Picasso, and one-liners by Gadsby seemingly scribbled in a procrastinating panic on the plane ride over. In fact, It’s Pablo-matic is so hashed-together that the exhibition has the feel of a last-minute term paper for Art History and Gender Studies mistakenly combined in an Adderall-fueled frenzy. Even the much-mocked title, It’s Pablo-matic, an odd play on the Internet’s favorite descriptor “problematic,” is something that you’d chuckle about after three cocktails, only to wake up, bleary-eyed and cotton-mouthed, to wonder with that seething morning-after dread: We named the show…what, again?
Before I go any further, a preface: I really did not want to write yet another negative review of It’s Pablo-matic. I did not want to add to the pile-on as critics suddenly remembered criticism can be negative, especially when it’s about a show that is primed to be an easy punching bag. (I suspect somewhat purposefully on the museum’s part as they, like publications in general, have realized negative attention is still attention that can draw a crowd.) I wasn’t all that keen on rushing over to the Brooklyn Museum to pen the next takedown for a few reasons: First, I don’t really like Picasso. Sorry. I find his work and the constant reappearance of Picasso shows insurmountably boring. All those dreary brown angular guitars. Yawn! Sure, Guernica is an overwrought masterpiece and Les Demoiselles d’Avignon is fine, I guess. But in general, Picasso leaves me feeling cold, which makes arguing about whether he was a genius or an asshole low on my list of priorities. Secondly, while I’m not the biggest fan of Gadsby either (my taste in standup is much more problematic), I am uncomfortable with how easily they have become a scapegoat for all the fury about the overreach of progressive moralizing. While Gadsby has certainly made it their mission post-Nanette to act as a public scold, it’s not as if they’re alone. And I don’t believe their gender or sexuality is incidental to the sheer amount of ire they receive.
The latter is exactly why I find myself grudgingly participating in the Pablo-matic-review–a-go-go. None of the bile-soaked reviews I’ve read have fully engaged with what the show actually is. Complaints about the show range from moaning about what could have been to flexing their own art historical knowledge about Picasso and other modernists. Mostly, though, critics have used the exhibition to finally speak out against that gratingly puritanical, strident, and, for lack of a better word, “woke” strain that has infected cultural debates in the past couple of years as each and every artist or creator has to be litmus tested for the “right” politics while audiences are presumed to be unable to confront challenging, transgressive, difficult, or morally ambiguous topics without having their psyches shattered. I certainly understand the impulse; I, too, felt a perverse thrill when It’s Pablo-matic was announced since I like to giggle at the most exaggerated excesses of the perpetually offended.
However, unlike the Museum of Fine Arts Boston’s Philip Guston Now, which was the exhibition I chose as the prime example of this phenomenon, It’s Pablo-matic doesn’t exactly fit all the critiques of this moralizing impulse. Sure, from the premise, it seems like it might: a reconsideration of Picasso and his legacy on the 50th anniversary of his death using Gadsby’s deep loathing of the man and his mental illness of misogyny as its guide. An exhibition based entirely on the premise that one cannot separate the art from the artist, that any whiff of bad behavior means being put on the naughty list and kicked out of relevancy. But after seeing the show, that gives the exhibition too much credit. It presumes that the exhibit at least makes a clear morally righteous argument, which it doesn’t. The biggest problem with It’s Pablo-matic is that it’s so goddamn wishy-washy and muddy conceptually that it ends up saying not much whatsoever about Picasso, women artists’ place in the art historical canon, the troubled designation of genius, or really, anything at all.
The curatorial chaos of It’s Pablo-matic starts out deceptively slowly as the first room of the exhibition is actually the strongest, if somewhat obvious. First here is not exactly correct as two works sit immediately outside of the first-floor exhibition space. Cecily Brown’s epic gorgeous and violent firestorm, Triumph of the Vanities II, hangs high towards the ceiling, seemingly selected because it matches the exhibition entry’s blaring orangey-red color scheme. Below, Hannah Gadsby cheekily includes their own ugly, warped copy of Picasso’s Large Bather with a Book, made when they were 17, the same age as Picasso’s lover/muse Marie-Thérèse Walter. But noticing these works came later for me as I blew completely past them in a fury after having to empty my water bottle on a hot July day to even enter the show. I assume they were worried that I, in a fit of climate rage, may decide to spew its contents all over a Picasso. Jesus Christ. Really fixing the world, Just Stop Oil!
After circling and stewing blindly, the first section, pretentiously labeled “Opening Gambit: Picasso and Feminism Since 1973” as if a chess move, presents one Picasso painting, the lumpy studio representation, Le Sculpteur (The Sculptor), surrounded and overshadowed by distinctly feminist work by (mostly) women artists. While not always referencing Picasso specifically, many of these women twist the language of art history for their own interventions. This ranges from Betty Tompkins’s Apologia (Artemesia Gentileschi #4), which adds the words of known monochromatic art world creep, walnut feeder, and former Artforum publisher Knight Landesman onto a reproduction of a classical nude, to Faith Ringgold’s Jo Baker’s Birthday, rendering icon Josephine Baker in a distinctly Matisse-style, to Kaleta Doolin’s near-sacrilegious defacement of the art historical Bible, H.W. Janson’s History of Art, carved with a vaginal opening. Not everything in the room feels as captivating. I could live without seeing Guerrilla Girls posters ever again, a constant presence in any exhibition that has to do with institutional critique or feminism. However, I do understand how they fit within questioning exactly who gets to determine what artists, typically cis men, get canonized. The “Opening Gambit” section text also ticks off the right feminist boxes: Roe v. Wade, #MeToo, Linda Nochlin, who is referenced several times in the gallery, including in a subtly feminist marriage portrait by Philip Pearlstein.
The first indication that not all is right with this show also concerns Nochlin. The Pearlstein portrait sits on top of a wacky red wallpaper printed with two images of a topless woman holding a tray of apples and a loony-looking man with his dick out selling bananas. A wall label tells me this juxtaposition was used by Nochlin in her 1972 “Eroticism and Female Imagery in Nineteenth-Century Art,” with the photos deriving from a 19th-century female nudie pic and a goofy shot Nochlin took herself. Ok….but, what does any of that have to do with Picasso, modernism, or really, anything else in the “Opening Gambit” room other than Nochlin herself, for that matter? Why am I looking at this man’s dick? Whose bright idea was this?!
This singular what-the-fuck moment only grows to a general dumbfounded bewilderment through the entire exhibition, which intersperses Picasso’s works with, what seems to be, any art by women the curators could dredge up on short notice from the permanent collection, as well as two random Greek and Greco-Egyptian sculptures. Unlike “Opening Gambit,” the thematic sections make less and less sense as the exhibition progresses. “Foundational Mythology” on Picasso the Cubist Genius leads into “Dream a Nightmare,” which entirely focuses on Picasso’s lurid hobby of representing men watching women as they sleep, a singular and vexing fixation for Gadsby who seems particularly shaken by this concept. One of the feminist answers to all this slumber gawking is Joan Semmel’s heterosexual couple nekkid in bed, Intimacy-Autonomy. But with their heads cut out of the picture plane, how do we know the man isn’t oogling an unconscious lady? I guess we just assume because Semmel is a woman and therefore, for the purposes of this exhibition, morally sound. Then, there is the mouthful section, “Women (Sorta) Doing Stuff,” which juxtaposes Picasso’s tear-stained verklempt women like La Suppliante (The Supplicant Woman) with Cindy Sherman as a lumberjack pirate, Laurie Simmons’s high-heeled hot dog, and Emma Amos’s portrait of a woman holding a bouquet of flowers. What do any of these have to do with one another? Why are these women artists only (sorta) doing stuff while the artists in the final section are “(Powerful) Women Doing (Powerful) Stuff”? And dear God, what is with all the parentheses?!
Even the works’ placement within the sections appears absolutely random. Nina Chanel Abney’s Forbidden Fruit, a zany cartoonish and chimeric take on Manet’s picnicking Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe, sits in a corner within the section “Foundational Mythology” near some early strikingly masterful Picasso drawings. Yet, Mickalene Thomas’s Marie: Nude Black woman lying on a couch (Marie: Femme noire nue couchée), which similarly replaces the whiteness of reclining female nudes for a Black woman, is within “(Powerful) Women Doing (Powerful) Stuff.” Wouldn’t these two paintings, which both breathe new life into figural traditions through vibrant maximalism, provide a rich conceptual dialogue together rather than setting Thomas near Harmony Hammond’s collection of plushy wrapped ladders? And wouldn’t the “Foundational Mythology” section be more logical if the women artists were entirely those working at the same time as Picasso such as the included Louise Nevelson and Käthe Kollwitz?
And that’s just considering the art itself, which isn’t an easy task in an exhibition entirely dominated by language. So much so that I took significantly more photos of the wall text than the art itself. Why? Because it was a batshit crazy flurry of words: quotes from Hannah Gadsby, quotes from Picasso, quotes from Marie-Thérèse Walter, quotes from Dora Maar, quotes from the women artists included in the show, blown-up quotes on the walls, and commentary from the museum’s curators on the labels. Now, there is certainly something to be said here about this avalanche of context speaking to a wider issue about how we, as a society, are so obsessed with providing cultural criticism—or more accurately, hot takes—about anything and everything that it overpowers culture itself. To absurd ends. To quote comedian Nick Mullen’s recent rant on banning criticism on The Adam Friedland Show Podcast: “It’s this weird combination now. Everything is subject to cultural criticism–you have to read into fucking everything. We also live in a time when media has never been dumber.” Exactly. To really argue that larger point in terms of It’s Pablo-matic would mean that this cacophony of takes on Picasso made any goddamn sense at all, which, again, it doesn’t.
The most notable of this text is, without a doubt, Gadsby’s own. For the most part, Gadsby’s input is restricted to jabs about Picasso’s works on display, which sit in quotes above the more serious analysis from, I assume, the other curators—or at least, an intern. These quips range from goofy to inoffensive and toothless to purely incomprehensible. For instance, on the tiny classically Cubist print, Man with Guitar, Gadsby writes, “One for the gratitude journal.” What does that mean? Beats the hell out of me. To be fair, some of Gadsby’s roasts are amusing. They hit their stride around the horny Vollard Suite: “I’m so virile my chest hair just exploded,” “Alternative title: ‘If I angle the mirror to reflect the sun, I can burn your face off. Look at my penis,’” and “Worst. Hemorrhoid ever.” Gadsby also has a blast pointing out all the hidden buttholes squirreled away in various weeping women works: “Note the anus on her forehead,” “Note the anus on her chin.” While these inclusions are silly, akin to a high school kid drawing in their textbook or Mike Kelley’s delightfully immature Reconstructed History scrawls, most don’t come close to the real hatred that I know Gadsby actually holds for Picasso as seen in Nanette. The closest may be whatever it is they’re trying to imply here about Picasso’s sleeping women monomania: “It is terrifying how benign the subject is considering how unsafe it would be to be an unconscious woman around someone like Picasso.” Huh?! As far as I know, Picasso wasn’t Bill Cosby.
All this taking the piss out of Picasso steamed the buns of some critics upset about the gall of a gutter trash artist like a standup comic daring to mock a high art master like Picasso. The critic whose knickers got in the tightest knot seemed to be The New York Times’ Jason Farago whose negative critique was so palpably elitist that I cannot believe anyone took it seriously. After sneeringly referencing Gadsby’s “moderate art historical bona fides,’ which, I’ll point out, are more than mine, you tool, he explains that Gadsby gave us plebs “permission” to think modern art is full of shit: “Not long ago, it would have been embarrassing for adults to admit that they found avant-garde painting too difficult and preferred the comforts of storytime. What Gadsby did was give the audience permission—moral permission—to turn their backs on what challenged them, and to ennoble a preference for comfort and kitsch.” First off, what’s wrong with kitsch?! Secondly, nobody needed anyone’s permission to feel alienated from modern art and this kind of snobbish criticism isn’t helping. Lastly, when was Picasso challenging in the 21st century?!
Unlike Farago and other boundary-policing art types, I have no problem with a standup comic adding commentary to an art exhibition, encouraging audiences to laugh at a museum, or even, poking holes in an artist as overblown and over-shown as Picasso. Granted, I’m aware this has to do with my own low-class tastes and the fact that standup is more influential to my writing than any art historian. I can still recite Dave Attell bits from Skanks for the Memories, one of my favorite standup albums in college, but I could not quote anything Linda Nochlin wrote, which I read around the same time. And that’s why, instead of excoriating Gadsby for their commentary, I’d argue that the museum didn’t allow them to go far enough! There wasn’t near enough laughter in a show curated by a comedian. Why can Gadsby only comment on Picasso’s art? You’re telling me they have no material about Carolee making out with her cat?! That cat can’t consent!
More seriously, the bigger issue is that the museum didn’t have the confidence to just let Gadsby have their say by giving over the text entirely to them, which would have been a daring move (The show is called Picasso According to Hannah Gadsby). Instead, combining Gadsby’s asides with the conventional jargon-heavy wall label text, at once, undermines their point by consistently centering and reiterating Picasso’s importance and pushes the show farther into a moralizing territory that I’m not even sure Gadsby agrees with. One label goes so far as to suggest we cancel Ovid for Metamorphoses: “For millennia it has provided artists with complex source material, and the exploits and fates of its cast of gods and mortals continue to provoke discussion. This is particularly true of the stories that describe rape (one out of every five), which raise urgent questions about the aestheticization and normalization of misogyny and sexual violence in the European artistic canon.” It’s Ovid-matic!
Add to this the quotes from women artists on the non-Picasso work wall labels, many of whom gush about their admiration for Picasso or at least wrestle with recognizing his influence while admitting he was kind of a dick. Then, add to that the further reading on the Bloomberg Connects app in which viewers can digest MORE ambivalent takes on Picasso such as Harmony Hammond’s thought: “Truth be told, I don’t think about Picasso and his work.” Well, why are you even in this show?! If you thought that was confusing, there are also observations about Hannah Gadsby’s own potentially abusive harangues against Picasso! As Dara Birnbaum says, “However, to generalize and say that ‘the worst kind of people buy his art’ (dodgy guys) may also be somewhat abusive.” And suddenly, with this circular firing squad of cultural abusers, the whole point of the exhibition is so muddled and scattershot that I cannot suss out exactly what a viewer is supposed to take from this show. If anything.
Like the curators’ tittering response to triggering male critics, I assume they would have an answer for me pointing out that It’s Pablo-matic is sorely lacking just one strongly argued rational statement. In fact, I know what it is. Hidden within the social justice-dominated language are a few references to “both/and thinking.” As the curators write in the exhibition description, “Admiration and anger can coexist, and like all love/hate relationships, this one is colored by extremes. ‘Both/and’ thinking contributes to the ongoing power of Picasso’s work.” Now, if you’re like me and are not up on your corporate self-help lingo, then you may have no idea what the hell both/and thinking is. After a quick Google, I discovered Wendy Smith and Marianne Lewis’ book Both/And Thinking: Embracing Creative Tensions to Solve Your Toughest Problems, which offers to “help readers cope with multiple knotted tensions at the same time.” Did the Brooklyn Museum have some sort of staff seminar on this? Why are they so into it?! The reference to both/and thinking is a complete cop-out, a slyly effective avoidance of any position by trying to please everyone.
Ironically, there is another book titled Both/And. This one is by longtime Hillary aide and advisor, Huma Abedin, which is just *chef’s kiss* perfect. Because It’s Pablo-matic and its inability to say anything of worth is not evidence of woke culture gone rogue or moralizing puritans on the left (as opposed to the book banners on the right). At least the woke contingent has a fervent position! Instead, It’s Pablo-matic has much more in common with modern neoliberal corporate Democrats that say whatever tepid thing they think will placate the base—people of color, women, queer people, working class, and yes, maybe those woke scolds too—while doing fuck all for them about systemic issues and continuing to enrich the wealthy. Launching empty cultural platitudes such as pointing out “problematic” statements or people is a favorite pastime of theirs too! Yet, like the Brooklyn Museum, there are no real power structures shaken up here. Just another politician bullshitting and another blockbuster Picasso show hidden under the guise of critique.
Or yet another Sackler name appearing in the footnotes of a show. There’s no ignoring that co-curator Catherine Morris is the Elizabeth A. Sackler Curator for Feminist Art and certain works like Birnbaum’s Technology/Transformation: Wonder Woman are a tax-deductible gift to the museum from Lizzy Sackler, a fact that Gadsby half-heartedly semi-dismissed in Variety. Vetting the Sackler revenue streams like Grimes searching for evidence of union-busting at the Tesla factory, Gadsby says, “Apparently, they’ve separated their earning streams from the problematic one. I mean, take that with a grain of salt. 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.” They’re half right. Elizabeth Sackler did sell her part of Purdue Pharma before the whole Oxycotin mess. However, as seen in Patrick Radden Keefe’s Sackler in-depth Sackler study, Empire of Pain, Elizabeth’s Big Daddy Arthur Sackler created the blueprint of Big Pharma overreach with Valium decades earlier, which is exactly where her money comes from. Whoops!
Even with Sackler money, It’s Pablo-matic would be a better exhibition if the museum had the guts to just stick with the argument: Picasso was an asshole. Fuck him. But, that might royally piss off—and threaten the loans from—the Musée Picasso for Pablo’s 50-year death party. Because of the curatorial cold feet, my suggestion would be to just listen to Gadsby’s Bloomberg Connects audio tour, which is undoubtedly the most successful part of the exhibition. And this pains me to admit since I generally loathe audio guides. Gadsby’s audio tour is noticeably funnier than the wall text, including some commentary about women artists such as Louise Bourgeois’s handsy marble slab, Décontractée (“My first two instincts when I looked at these disembodied hands, was 1. ‘Oh my God! There’s been a terrible accident.’ and 2. ‘Oh, true crime'”). The audio guide is also much more satisfyingly and resolutely seething than the exhibition itself permits. Take, for instance, Gadsby’s commentary on the thrusting Minotaur Caressing a Sleeping Girl (Minotaure caressant du mufle la main d’une dormeuse):
“Here is a tasty bit of context for you: France did not grant women the vote until 1944, so why should PP [Pablo Picasso] as a minotaur wake a girl up to ask for consent? What shits me about PP and his minotaur alter ego is the double standard. Women have been relegated to second-class citizens for most of history because, we are told, women are uncontrollable, fleshy skin sacks of emotional chaos, animals to be tamed. But men are totally rational, and that’s why they should be in charge of designating what and who is civilized. But what do we have here? We have a man as an uncontrollable, fleshy skin sack of emotional chaos. A man as animal is not a problem, though, is it? Because man is a tortured genius. Man is wrestling with the human condition. That man, PP, is a great man, never to be forgotten and always to be valuable. A sensitive artist. Sure, if it’s a man. Those same sensitivities in a woman: proof women should be subservient, controlled. This hypocrisy is at the heart of my rage at PP. It’s not his fault. It’s yours. Just kidding. It’s that lady’s fault. The one standing behind you. The big-skinned sack of fleshy chaos. Don’t look now. Not without consent. Speaking of consent, that lady in the picture is not giving any.”
See, rage. Rage is what It’s Pablo-matic needed. Not ambivalence. Not both/and thinking.
Hilariously, in the audio guide, Gadsby doesn’t seem all that happy with the museum or the exhibition either. In fact, they seem to echo my own thoughts about the show: “…I would call it a half-assed operation. Kind of like the work I am producing here for the Brooklyn Museum. I said yes to this job because I could see the value of it in terms of my public profile. But now the push has come to shove, I won’t lie, creatively, I am not not bored. Picasso is not my muse of choice. I regret this. That’s a little joke.”