It is difficult to think of any figure within the canon of modern art who looms larger than Pablo Picasso, the provocative Spaniard who shocked the world with his Cubist forms and whose oeuvre contains upwards of 150,000 works that demonstrate his deftness across multiple mediums and expressions.
And while Picasso’s persistent ingenuity and brilliant technical skill is on fine display in KMAC Museum’s current exhibit “Picasso: From Antibes to Louisville,” the towering icon of modernism suddenly feels a bit smaller after seeing the work of Summer Wheat, the contemporary female artist in the museum’s concurrent show, “Summer Wheat: Heavy Lifting,” which opened on the same day.
KMAC’s primary focus is on living artists such as Wheat, but when the chance arose to bring 52 works by Picasso to Louisville, Executive Director Aldy Milliken saw it as a unique opportunity to highlight the museum’s mission of connecting people to art and the creative practice.
“A lot of us don’t even think of Picasso as an artist anymore,” Milliken says. “He’s this icon. But he was always exploring new materials, new ideas, new media. And that could be anything from lithography to ceramics to painting to drawing.” Indeed, works in each of these mediums are included in the show, each piece a masterful expression of technique.
“In everything he did, he reinvented the medium in a way,” says Jean-Louis Andral, Curator of the Musée Picasso in Antibes, who first suggested the collaboration with KMAC. “It was true for painting, for ceramics, the same for sculpture. He was really someone who was transforming everything he was touching, and I think this is clear in the show.”
Perhaps just as apparent is how much Antibes was transforming Picasso as well. The artist, who had been born in Malaga, Spain, on the Mediterranean Sea, had spent decades living and working in Paris, including during the dark period of the Nazi Occupation. Now in 1946, the war was over, he had a new young lover – Françoise Gilot – and Picasso was experiencing a renewed vitality in this seaside town in the south of France.
“When he went back to Antibes there was a kind of revival for Picasso in terms of his own life as a man and in terms of his work as an artist because he could find this light, these beautiful skies of the Mediterranean,” Andral said. “You can see that in the works that he did there which are really colorful and full of a new energy and vitality.”
At the time, the museum in Antibes was dedicated to the archeological remains of the city’s Greek and Roman settlements, which would prove to be a great inspiration for Picasso. The museum’s curator invited him to use the large second floor gallery as a studio space, and at the end of that summer, Picasso left the majority of the work he created there to the museum. In subsequent summers, he would return with Gilot (and later, their two children, Claude and Paloma), and collaborate with artisans in the neighboring town of Vallauris, which had a distinguished ceramics tradition.
Documenting it all was Picasso’s friend, the photographer Michel Sima, who shared studio space with him in the museum. The KMAC show includes nearly two dozen of these photographs, providing an intimate glimpse of the artist as well as his creative process. Though Sima aims his lens at Picasso, Gilot and the friends who gathered with them in Antibes, the artwork is always present, revealing itself to us in its earlier stages of creation.
One of the works that appears in those photographs is La joie de vivre (The joy of life), a reproduction of which is included in the show (the original is too fragile to leave Antibes). In this joyous painting, fauns and other mythological creatures dance and play music in an idyllic seaside setting, gathering around the figure of a beautiful, naked woman with long, flowing hair.
This treatment of women as mere objects of sensual desire is one that Picasso and many others of his time carried throughout their careers — an attitude that has attracted increasing ire in recent years. (Picasso’s notoriously misogynistic personal relationships have made him an object of particular scorn.)
While some museums have avoided or cancelled shows by controversial artists, Milliken and KMAC Curator Joey Yates wanted to tackle the issue head-on. That’s why they decided to pair the Picasso show with one by Summer Wheat, a dynamic female artist from Oklahoma City whose work draws on the same Greek and Roman antiquities but replaces Picasso’s nubile nymphs with women of great strength and power in compositions that pulsate with vibrant color, as if electrified by the energy of a new century.
“The content of Picasso’s work always placed women in objectified roles like muses,” Yates says. “So how does a woman like Summer reclaim the female form as a symbol or archetype for ingenuity and strength? We often see these allegorical narrative paintings like Picasso made with men at the center as the beacon or symbol of human strength. Summer’s reinterpreting those images and placing women at the center.”
In Wheat’s Heavy Lifting, the work that lends the show its title, a group of curvy women in high heels help each other hoist and haul the day’s catch of fish, cell phones, hamburgers and other artifacts of contemporary culture. Rendered in shockingly bright hues, the women fill the entire composition, creating an undeniable presence that feels larger than life. No longer the domesticated subjects of portraiture, women in Wheat’s world are worldly laborers in full possession of their own womanhood and livelihood.
“We’re at a place in time where we’re definitely reevaluating all of art history,” Wheat said. “Who has been included and who is being excluded and why. There are so many people who have been marginalized from history, including women, that make this conversation very relevant and important today. I think what’s happening with Picasso and that conversation is demonstrating exactly the moment we’re in, in terms of how we’re questioning how these stories are told.”
“From our perspective that was the point,” he said. “It’s part of our mission as an art museum to bring in new voices and to show new perspectives on how history is interpreted. History is fluid, and we felt like this was an opportunity for us to right a wrong, in a way.”
That commitment to sharing new voices extends to KMAC’s first floor lobby, where Nina Kersey, a young Louisville-based artist, created an installation inspired by Wheat’s work. Painted on unstretched canvas applied directly to the museum’s walls, Kersey’s giant, fleshy figures engulf the entire space, commanding attention as soon as visitors enter the door.
“I was very familiar with Summer’s work, and I drew inspiration from her on how she places women in spaces,” Kersey says. “So often women aren’t taking up spaces at all. But Summer shows feminine figures working and doing important things, in contrast to Picasso’s women who seem more like accessories. So I made this giant piece that plays with both ideas. It’s like I’m here, I’m sexualized, I’m pink, I’m feminine – but I’m also owning the space.”
That Picasso was remarkably adept at transforming the materials he was working with is clearly evidenced in the KMAC show. Working some 70 years later, Wheat, and to a lesser extent, Kersey, displays that same resourcefulness and ingenuity in her use of materials and processes. But the two women are also transforming something more powerful – the very narrative of art, and their own place within it. Thanks to KMAC, those stories will be heard.
“Picasso: From Antibes to Louisville” is on view December 14, 2019 through March 22, 2020. “Summer Wheat: Heavy Lifting” is on view December 14, 2019 through April 5, 2020. KMAC Museum is located at 715 West Main Street in Louisville.