One of the joys of art history is that there are figures such as Pablo Picasso, whose breadth beggars casual comprehension (the only kind much of contemporary culture demands) and whose achievements seem assured of never becoming boring.
"Picasso: A Graphic View," at Jack Rutberg Fine Arts, is a welcome reminder of why such artists bear returning to again and again, however well you think you know them. A considered presentation of two particular bodies of work, the show feels like a long lunch with a beloved (and slightly dirty) old uncle, some of whose stories you've heard but all of which are marvelous in the telling.
The show combines a substantial selection of the artist's ceramic works, from the 1940s through the 1960s, with a series of prints known as the Vollard Suite, after the Parisian dealer Ambroise Vollard, who commissioned it in the early '30s. (A handful of later prints are also thrown in.) This is Picasso's Neoclassical phase, more or less, when he abandoned Cubism for a dreamy figuration, mythological subjects, sensuous forms and slender, whimsical lines.
The prints, all in excellent condition, are especially rich examples of the period.
The themes are basically sex and art. Each composition is a swooning mass of interacting, overlapping, often interlocking bodies, cast in myriad archetypal relationships: man and mistress, mistress and beast, artist and model, artist and sculpture, model and sculpture, and so on.
Prominent throughout is the Minotaur, who stood as a kind of alter ego for the artist. (Picasso's lover at the time, Marie-Thérèse Walter, also figures prominently.) In one of the most exquisite works, "Minotaure Caressant une Dormeuse" (Minotaur Caressing a Sleeping Woman), the creature bends over a reclining female, its ferociously athletic limbs poised and its dark, hairy head hanging low above her tranquil face -- a grotesque mass of furious strokes over a visage composed of just a few elegant, effortless lines.
In an earlier phase of my feminist evolution, I might have pointed with disdain to the series' often brazen objectification of the female. But far more interesting to me now is the intensity of ambivalence in the artist's depictions of the male. The image of the hovering Minotaur, for instance, is as tragic as it is fearsome, as thick with tenderness as it is with violence and power. That dynamic is embodied even in the application of the lines: sharp drypoint strokes that lose their edge in places and seep sensually into the fuzz of the paper.
Picasso's insight into the profound complexity of the various relationships he portrays is what makes the suite both so powerful and so erotic. In other works, we see the figure of the artist struggling pitifully over his creations; the man succumbing like a child to his lover's embrace; and the model contemplating her own image alongside the artist, with a comparable air of intelligence.
In some of the later works, Picasso has more fun: "Dans l'Atelier du Sculpteur" (In the Sculptor's Studio), from 1963, for instance, features three short, fat, naked men, their genitals reduced to capricious little squiggles, ogling a perfectly composed, utterly indifferent model.
Complementing the thematic complexity is a tireless degree of formal experimentation. In the Vollard Suite alone, the range of techniques is remarkable: delicate line drawing, dense thickets of crosshatching, diaphanous washes, harsh chiaroscuro -- sometimes all in the same piece. The ceramics include painted tiles, vessels, plates in bas-relief. They portray figures, animals and abstract motifs of various cultural origins. Some are one of a kind, some editions.
"All I have ever made," Picasso once said, "was made for the present and in the hope that it will always remain in the present." Encountered on a hot August afternoon in 21st century Los Angeles, this show makes that observation seem very much to the point.
Jack Rutberg Fine Arts, 357 N. La Brea Ave., L.A., (323) 938-5222, through Sept. 8. Closed Sundays and Mondays. www .jackrutbergfinearts.com.
A vivid, distinct sense of place
Any lover of photography unfamiliar with the work of Mario Giacomelli (1925-2000) would do well to make time for a jewel of a survey now at the Italian Cultural Institute. With 59 works, the show offers a tantalizing sampling of a rich, influential career.
It spans nearly 50 years, from 1954 until the Italian photographer's death, and encompasses several very different series. (All the works are printed at 30 by 40 inches; the majority are black and white.) The most distinctive through-line is a strong graphic sensibility that results in a constant flirtation with flatness and thus a shifting, uneasy relationship to Realism.